The Telegram Mutiny

9 minute read

For nearly a decade, Yevgeny Prigozhin built a mercenary empire in the shadows. For eight years, he steadfastly denied his connection to the Wagner Group, the infamous paramilitary company he founded in May 2014, even going as far as to sue news outlets for correctly linking him to the group. It was only in Sept. 2022, after Prigozhin appeared in a video recruiting convicts to fill Wagner’s ranks, that he finally acknowledged that he was the leader of the sprawling network of private military contractors and shell companies serving the Kremlin’s interests from Ukraine to Syria to sub-Saharan Africa. “The time of revelation has come,” Prigozhin said in a statement posted on social media, bragging that he had turned Wagner into one of the “pillars of our Motherland” and “foundation of Russian patriotism.”

Suddenly, the Russian oligarch and onetime Vladimir Putin confidante was everywhere. Prigozhin opened a Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg, claimed credit for meddling in U.S. elections, and started posting hundreds of messages, videos, and photos on the messaging app Telegram. Over the course of seven months, the formerly secretive leader built a Telegram channel with 1.3 million followers, morphing from an unofficial extension of the Kremlin to a prominent figure with a direct connection to the Russian public.

Prigozhin used Telegram to circumvent the Kremlin’s state media apparatus, meeting Russians on the platform where they sought uncensored news from the war in Ukraine. As Wagner troops became heavily involved in the fighting, especially in the battles around Bakhmut, he became one of the most prominent faces of Russia’s war, issuing a steady steam of often-graphic video messages from the front lines. As the war dragged on, he bristled at the Russian defense department’s moves to subsume his mercenary army, taking on the country’s military leadership and elite in screaming tirades that painted them as indifferent to the deaths of ordinary soldiers. When Prigozhin launched a dramatic insurrection against Russia’s military leaders on June 23, he launched and narrated it in a series of stunning voice messages on his Telegram channel.

Read More: How Telegram Became the Digital Battlefield in the Russia-Ukraine War.

The short-lived mutiny pitted two skilled propagandists and former allies against one another. While Putin has tightly controlled narratives about the war within Russia through state media and television, analysts say, he may have underestimated the influence of Prigozhin’s growing reach online. The following Prigozhin built on Telegram “was very clearly a method for him to be able to raise his political profile,” says Catrina Doxsee, an expert on the Wagner Group and associate director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It became valuable to have all of that credibility as leverage.”

Prigozhin was once known as “Putin’s chef,” thanks to the catering business he operated with links to the Kremlin. Back in 2016, he did Putin’s bidding in a notorious influence operation conducted over social media: he was the person behind the Internet Research Agency, the notorious troll farm accused of attempting to manipulate the 2016 presidential race to boost Donald Trump. Prigozhin “is a creation of Putin,” says Joana de Deus Pereira, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute-Europe think tank. “But this is a typical case where the creation turns against the creator.”

Wagner Group fighters deployed outside the Russian Southern Military District staff headquarters on June 24 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.Arkady Budnitsky—UPI/Shutterstock

The Telegram channel that would become Prigozhin’s megaphone was created on Nov. 5, 2022 as the press arm of his company Concord Management and Consulting. Until then, a cluster of unofficial Wagner and fan accounts on Telegram, with names like “Prigozhin’s Cap,” had distributed news about him and his group on the app, which had become the digital battle space of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin would now be posting updates on this account, the first message said, so he could “guarantee that all statements are published from me personally.”

The channel took off quickly, with dozens of videos showing the Wagner boss on the front lines. In January, one purported to show Prigozhin in a hospital, shaking the hands of Wagner fighters wounded in combat. In others, he stood in full combat gear on a rooftop in Bakhmut, demanding more ammunition. Prigozhin was “building a political persona in a kind of competition with Putin, to prove who was the most patriotic, the best Russian, the flagship of Russian values,” says Pereira. He sought “to be portrayed as a symbol of true patriotism and of the common soldier of Russia, the one that suffers on the field, the one that has blood in his hands,” she says.

Russian news, including state media, began to cover some of Prigozhin’s videos on Telegram, even featuring criticism from his fighters, who complained about shortages of ammunition and armored vehicles. As Prigozhin grew bolder, Russian state-backed media outlets were instructed not to quote him unless it was about positive developments from the battlefield, according to the independent news outlet Verstka. “Wagner’s relative successes tipped the balance of power in Prigozhin’s favor [and] gave him room to openly criticize the Kremlin’s strategy in the conflict,” says Pereira. “It was something unimaginable just months ago.”

As the mercenary leader became more visible, he began to imply that any negative stories about him were being planted by the Russian military because Wagner’s fighters were outperforming Russian forces on the battlefield. “People in uniform could be discrediting me,” he said in a Telegram post. “Chiefly those close to the military. Because many of them can’t achieve the same effectiveness that Wagner has.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin's appeal to the citizens of Russia, personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and law enforcement officers in connection with the situation with PMC Wagner as shown on television in St. Petersburg on June 24.Artem Priakhin—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Open criticism of the war is so rareand often illegal—that it was widely assumed Prigozhin’s comments were tacitly sanctioned by Putin, including his vitriolic barrages against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, analysts tell TIME. On May 4, Prigozhin posted an expletive-riddled video on Telegram directed at Russia’s military leadership, shining a flashlight on rows of bloodied bodies that he said were Wagner fighters killed in Bakhmut.

“You scum sit there in your expensive clubs, your kids are all enjoying life, recording their little YouTube videos,” he spat at the camera, standing in the dark, illuminated by a spotlight. “We’re talking about basic calculations: if you hand over the ammo quota, there’d be five times fewer [dead].”

Then Prigozhin took it a step further, posting a dramatic video in which he directly addressed Putin while dressed in full combat uniform surrounded by fighters. He threatened to withdraw Wagner Group units from Bakhmut: “Without ammunition, they’re doomed to die meaningless deaths.” He made good on that threat in late May, accusing Russia’s leaders of intentionally starving his troops of munitions. “There will be no more meat grinder because there’s nothing left to grind the meat with,” he declared in a Telegram video.

In early June, Shoigu announced plans to require soldiers with private military companies, including Wagner, to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry by July 1. Prigozhin’s screeds escalated as he saw his business empire threatened. He announced that his group would not comply. “None of Wagner’s fighters is ready to go down the path of shame again,” Prigozhin posted in a video on June 14. “That’s why they will not sign the contracts.”

On June 23, Prigozhin accused the Russian military of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, vowing to punish “those who destroyed our lads” by embarking on a “March for Justice.” In a Telegram video, he attacked Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself, challenging his claims point by point. “The war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to de-militarize or de-Nazify Ukraine,” he said. “The war was needed so that a bunch of animals could simply exult in glory.”

This was an extraordinary challenge to Putin’s leadership. “Not only is it a blow to Putin’s narrative about the war, but it is coming from a trusted insider, who has already built up a reputation amongst the people,” says Doxsee. “And that is a huge blow to Putin’s power and credibility.”

Wagner forces occupied the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and moved north without opposition, advancing to within about 120 miles of Moscow before turning back. The Kremlin sought to block information about the putsch on Google News, appeared to cause Telegram outages in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don, and throttled Internet searches for Prigozhin on news sites and social-media networks. But the series of voice notes the mercenary leader posted on Telegram over the course of the revolt were still listened to more than 55 million times, according to TIME’s review.

Prigozhin has reportedly been exiled to Belarus under a deal brokered by the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko on June 25, and his channel briefly fell silent. But on Monday he reappeared in more voice notes on Telegram. “When on June 23-24 we walked past Russian cities, civilians met us with the flags of Russia and with the emblems and flags of the Wagner PMC,” he said. “Many of them still write words of support, and some are disappointed that we stopped.” Prigozhin’s future is uncertain. But as long as he has access to his Telegram channel, he will pose a threat to Putin, wherever he may be.

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