In a rash of coordinated reports smearing Prigozhin on state television and in pro-Kremlin media, Putin’s spinmasters are once again manipulating public sentiment, this time to overcome the perception of weakness in Putin’s decision to drop sedition charges in connection with the Wagner Rebellion, and to deal with a serious political problem: Prigozhin’s popularity among hard-line, pro-war nationalists.
Although the state-controlled media dismisses Prigozhin as a greedy, treacherous opportunist, the Kremlin has allowed him to return to Russia and recover millions in cash and personal weapons — apparent evidence that his business and state interests were so intertwined that it is not easy just to make him disappear. But the national gaslighting also appears to be working, returning Russia’s shocked populace to its usual passive state and portraying Putin as stronger than ever.
“As far as the general public is concerned, clinging to normalcy still seems to be the most common and the most immediate response among the majority,” said Maria Lipman, a Russia analyst at George Washington University.
In the wake of the Wagner uprising, which exposed deep fractures caused by Putin’s war in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to have three main goals. First, it is to demolish Prigozhin and nullify his damaging but true claim that there was never a Russian security concern to justify the Ukraine invasion. Second is to increase repression and strengthen the regime. And third is to rebrand Putin’s recently uninspiring image to make him a dynamic, unifying figure.
Propagandists have quickly taken up the charge. “The stability that Putin guarantees and symbolizes for everyone has become a conscious choice of an already mature society,” indicated Russian TV anchor Irada Zeynalova on pro-Kremlin NTV. “The unit test was passed.”
Mercenary commander returned to Russia to collect money and weapons
State television and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels this week went out of their way to exclude Prigozhin, portraying him as a thug, greedy scoundrel and trying to destroy his reputation as the one leading participant in Russia’s war against Ukraine who was willing to tell the truth about losses and mistakes in the Ministry of Defence.
They sent pictures of his luxurious home showing his guns, piles of cash, gold bullion, a personal helicopter, fake passports and disguise wigs, all of which were uncovered during a raid on his properties in St. Petersburg by the police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Before his rebellion, Prigozhin – nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because he got rich on government catering contracts – had suddenly emerged as a possible future rival to the president due to his astonishing rise in popularity, highly unusual in Russia for someone who neither is a politician or civil servant.
In the week before the June 24 uprising, Prigozhin’s approval rating rose to 58 percent, according to independent pollster Levada. The agency reported that 19 percent of Russians said they would have voted for him in the presidential election, an astonishing score for the once-secretive mercenary leader known for his blunt, often obscene language and bloodthirsty humor.
Prigozhin said he staged the revolt because the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin were trying to undermine him and Wagner by forcing them to sign contracts with the military. His approval rating fell sharply after the uprising, but it was still at a relatively impressive 29 percent — far too high for a regime that tolerates no dissent.
Lipman said Russians were drawn to Prigozhin’s media-savvy, anti-elite populism — a stark contrast to the deadly array of cautious officials who pledge allegiance to Putin and repeat hollow propaganda lines.
“On this background, he looked fresh, he looked real, and he looked sincere, and people appreciated this about him,” Lipman said. “He was somehow a patriot without lies.” But Prigozhin was also viciously brutal, threatening his fighters with execution if they disobeyed orders and sending many recruits from prison to die in waves at the front.
Putin’s approval rating has hovered at more than 80 percent, according to Levada, but the independent Latvia-based Russian news agency Meduza reported that confidential Kremlin polls showed his approval rating dropped by up to 14 percentage points in some regions after the uprising.
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Kremlin propagandists reversed the Russians’ initial horror at the invasion of Ukraine with remarkable speed and appear to be enjoying similar success in smearing Prigozhin’s reputation – a task made somewhat easier given that the mercenary became rich on government contracts, drove his businesses mainly in cash and spent nearly a decade in prison for robbery.
“Let’s just see how a ‘fighter for the truth’ has lived, a fighter for the truth with two criminal records, a man who told us that everyone steals, and here we see the hard currency in Prigozhin’s house – a whole sum, ” said state TV journalist Eduard Petrov on the Rossiya 1 program “Sixty Minutes” on Wednesday.
“And now let’s look at the palace,” Petrov continued dramatically. “So a palace, a helicopter, cash, cars full of cash, dollars, rubles, a palace, a helicopter, 600 million rubles. A fighter for justice had 600 million rubles!”
A spokesman for Rosneft, Mikhail Leontiev, was more blunt, comparing Prigozhin to Hitler. “They say Prigozhin told the truth. So what? These are obvious things, about corruption and so on,” said Leontiev. Eighty percent of what the Nazi leader said after invading the USSR was true, “but it prevents not him in being Hitler.”
Dmitry Kiselyov, host of state TV’s flagship political program “Vesti Nedeli” on Sunday evening, accused Wagner and Prigozhin’s Concord company of receiving nearly $20 billion in state aid after Putin admitted that Wagner, whom the Kremlin portrayed for years as a private enterprise, was in fact fully state-funded and presumably run at the whim of the Kremlin.
Kiselyov’s program downplayed Wagner’s most important battlefield achievement, the bloody 224-day battle to capture Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, saying the city was not that important.
Since the uprising, Prigozhin has lost access to lucrative state catering contracts and had closed the media empire and troll farm he used to bolster his image.
Meanwhile, a parallel effort is underway to elevate Putin, whose high popularity ratings remain his main source of legitimacy. Election results, and even the Russian constitution, are rigged to keep him in power, and any potential rivals, such as opposition figure Alexei Navalny or Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, are jailed or exiled.
But even amid the storm of presidential image-building, Putin’s stiff, regal manner can be hard to hide. Last week, he looked ecstatic as he kissed a girl in a highly staged video and greeted crowds in Derbent, Dagestan, a direct response to the spontaneous cheers from the crowds for Wagner and Prigozhin as they left the southern city of Rostov- on-Don after the rebellion.
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This week’s hagiographic effort was a mawk video released by the Kremlin on Tuesday in which Putin met an 8-year-old Derbent girl summoned to his office. She ran across the carpet where he hugged her, gave her flowers and invited her to sit in his chair. Both episodes revived memories of an iconic 1936 image of Stalin holding a little girl, reproduced by the millions and turned into mosaics and a marble statue.
If Putin had existed in 1917 and in 1991, the regimes that fell in the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union would have survived, declared Vyacheslav Volodin, loyalist chairman of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Amid a secretive Russian security investigation into generals and others with ties to Prigozhin, further harsh crackdowns are likely, analysts say, and the biggest risk to Putin appears to be further military setbacks in Ukraine.
“I don’t see anything that is politically destabilizing at this point,” said analyst Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The economy is doing fine. I am not sure that this year we will witness a major collapse of the Russian front lines.”
The Kremlin’s spin campaign, according to Lipman, “has worked just as it has for more than 20 years under Putin’s leadership.”
Catherine Belton in London contributed to this report.