What the rise of Prigozhin and Kadyrov tell us about Russia

The empowerment of Putin loyalists who command their own forces may not bode well for the stability of the Russian state.

FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 11, 2011 file photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, during dinner at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia. Russian news outlets say thousands of Russians have been deployed in Syria by a shadowy, private military contractor linked to Prigozhin. When President Vladimir Putin announced Monday Dec. 11, 2017 that Russia’s campaign in Syria was drawing to a close, he did not mention this secret force. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, Pool, File)
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin serves food to then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during dinner at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia on November 11, 2011 [File: AP/Misha Japaridze, Pool]

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” goes an old saying. It comes to mind when thinking of the situation the Russian political elite finds itself in amid military failures in the war in Ukraine.

In the early days of the full-scale invasion, President Vladimir Putin held regular meetings with defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, which were readily reported on by state media. There were also regular defence ministry briefings very much in the media spotlight. It was clear that the defence institutions were in charge on the battlefield and were leading the official war narrative.

But as the “special military operation” – as the Kremlin calls it – started suffering setbacks, “the tough” in Russian politics got going. Strongmen like businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have come to the fore. Although neither of them holds a position in the defence or security structures of the state, they have played a significant role on the battlefield and in shaping the war narrative.

Kadyrov, who has been the head of the Chechen Republic since 2007, is the only regional leader in the Russian Federation commanding his own armed forces. His fighters participated in the conflicts in Georgia and Syria and were deployed in the war in Ukraine from the start. Kadyrov has claimed that 12,000 Chechen troops were sent to Ukraine in February and additional battalions were organised in June and September 2022.

While being quite active on social media, Kadyrov became more vocal as Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive in the east and south of the country in August. The Chechen leader was among the few high-profile voices in Russia who confronted the reality of the Russian army’s retreat and the heavy losses suffered. He sharply criticised the military leadership, pointing a finger specifically at the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, who was removed from his post in late October.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov attends a ceremony to declare the annexation of the Russian-controlled territories of four Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, after holding what Russian authorities called referendums in the occupied areas of Ukraine that were condemned by Kyiv and governments worldwide, in the Georgievsky Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, September 30, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov attends a ceremony to declare the annexation of Russian-controlled territories in four Ukrainian regions at the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow on September 30, 2022 [File: Sputnik via Reuters/Mikhail Metzel]

Kadyrov’s criticism echoed public invectives by Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner Group, a private military company that was involved in wars in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali. While Wagner mercenaries have been operating in eastern Ukraine since 2014, Prigozhin “stepped out of the shadows” as their leader only in September this year.

First, a video was leaked of how the former convict turned business mogul personally recruited Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine. He then revealed that he indeed owned the Wagner Group, which in early November opened its official headquarters in Saint Petersburg. Prigozhin also publicly bragged about interfering in the US elections on the eve of the midterms.

These developments are significant in that they reveal the growing tensions in Moscow and signal potential trajectories for a future of intra-elite conflict. It is becoming apparent that to maintain elite consensus, the Kremlin is intensifying pressure on those who are sceptical about Russia’s chances of victory in the war. This is strengthening the position of hardliners, who have the resources and are ready not only to threaten and pressure, but also to act on their threats.

These are actors who also offer alternative solutions amid the perceived failure of the army commanders and the FSB officers to deliver on the initial objectives of the war.

The shift of power and influence away from the official security and defence institutions towards non-state organisations, such as Wagner and Kadyrov’s forces (also known as kadyrovtsy), who feel empowered to openly and sharply criticise state officials and army generals, might have significant consequences.

These new dynamics may be driven by Prigozhin, Kadyrov and others vying for certain state positions. In September, the Chechen leader lamented being the longest-serving head of a republic in Russia and hinted at his intention to leave his post. These remarks fuelled rumours that he is pursuing another state position, possibly at the federal level.

Similarly, there are speculations that Prigozhin is preparing to create a new conservative movement, promoting patriotic values and the Kremlin’s national narrative, as a way to formally enter Russian politics. While Kadyrov’s chances of rising within the Russian state hierarchy might be limited by his ethnic background, Prigozhin does not face such constraints and could even aim for a presidential run.

The increasing influence of these actors in the context of the faltering economy, social pressures and military defeats also signals the destabilisation of the structures of authority that enable continuous governance.

The potential for regime or state collapse is already being discussed by Western observers. Some highlight the possibility of a governance meltdown in the midst of a military defeat; others point to the potential of regional separatism, as Moscow runs out of resources to subsidise the poorest regions. Even if a state meltdown or a separatist uprising are not yet on the horizon, the increasing visibility of Prigozhin and Kadyrov signal state weakness.

General view of the "PMC Wagner Centre", associated with the founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ahead of its opening in Saint Petersburg, Russia October 31, 2022. REUTERS/Igor Russak
General view of the “PMC Wagner Centre”, associated with the founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ahead of its opening in Saint Petersburg on October 31, 2022 [File: Reuters/Igor Russak]

Discussions about internal instability or even collapse undoubtedly bring out deep fears of chaos and violence, and rally support for Putin’s leadership.

These early signs that Prigozhin wants to enter Russian politics more openly and perhaps even launch a presidential bid provide a hint about the potential scenarios the Kremlin might be planning for the 2024 presidential election.

The Kremlin might empower him and other actors as a way to preserve intra-elite cohesion. The appointment of Prigozhin to an official position within the state structures or even grooming him as Putin’s successor might be a way to warn the elites: this is who could come if you fail to support the incumbent.

It is not coincidental that Prigozhin, Kadyrov and hardline nationalist politicians, such as Igor Girkin, or even ultranationalists, such as Aleksandr Dugin, have been attacking the Russian elite and accusing it of pursuing personal profit and comfort. War, they insist, exposes disloyalty and the rot within.

By contrast, the hardliners have expressed readiness for sacrifice and complete loyalty to the Kremlin. Kadyrov, for example, vowed to send his three teenage sons to fight in Ukraine. Such readiness along with the perceived Chechen military contribution allows him to take a moral high ground vis-a-vis the rest of the Russian elite. Prigozhin also contributes personally to the war effort with his Wagner Group and that entitles him to voice his opinion louder and advance his position further in the war context.

The part of the Russian elite representing the peacetime establishment undoubtedly is observing these recent developments and the growing influence of these actors with a sense of worry – if not panic. While at this moment the elite consolidation around Putin does not seem to be threatened, the retreat from Kherson along with earlier military defeats have sown doubts about Russia’s chances of winning this war.

As military defeat becomes more likely, the future of the country and the elite grow more uncertain. Such a scenario might trigger a search for a Putin replacement without destabilising the country. Indeed, this would be the biggest challenge for the Russian elites.

In the end, the fears of collapse without Putin might be so intense that the Russian elite might try to present the defeat as a non-defeat. Given that the majority of Russians are growing weary of the war, such an approach might be seen as the least destabilising.

What is conspicuously absent among these alternatives is the scenario of a democratic Russia. The Russian elite is undemocratic and democracy in Russia at this point may only be imposed from the outside, by force. Since that does not appear likely, the West has to learn how to contain and deal with an undemocratic Russia, even after the war. As another saying goes, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.