The Media Today

Prigozhin and the press

June 27, 2023
Protesters holds a banner reading "Thank you Wagner", the name of the Russian private security firm present in Mali, during a demonstration organised by the pan-Africanst platform Yerewolo to celebrate France's announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on February 19, 2022. - The French president announced on Febraury 16 the withdrawal of troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the nation's ruling military junta. France first intervened in Mali in 2013 to combat a jihadist insurgency that emerged one year prior. The French pull-out after nearly a decade is also set to see the smaller European Takuba group of special forces, created in 2020, leave Mali. (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP) (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sunday—as the world waited to hear from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group that, a day prior, had embarked on then aborted a mutinous march on Moscow—his press service indicated that the world would have to wait some more. Prigozhin “says hi to everyone and will answer questions when he has good reception” on his cellphone, the service said. Yesterday, Prigozhin finally broke his silence in an eleven-minute voice message posted to Telegram, saying that he had received thousands of press questions and wanted to set the record straight. The march on Moscow, he insisted, was not an attempted coup against President Vladimir Putin but merely a protest against Wagner’s mistreatment by Putin’s defense officials. Prigozhin also compared the march favorably to Russian troops’ botched advance on Kyiv last year, bragging that Wagner forces had put on “a master class.”

In recent days, Prigozhin has emerged as a character almost custom-made for the glare of global media interest: a petty crook turned hot-dog vendor turned ritzy caterer who served caviar to George W. Bush, then founded a private military empire, then used it to puncture the authority of an autocrat once seen as untouchable, if only in the realm of media archetype. In the course of his mutiny, as The Intercept’s Alice Speri noted yesterday, Prigozhin deftly spun his preferred narrative to the public, leveraging his decade-plus of experience in the field of information warfare. And yet, for most of that decade, Prigozhin lived in the shadows and aggressively fought journalists who attempted to shine a light into them. If the time between the mutiny and Prigozhin breaking his silence about it felt long, it was a heartbeat compared with the years that he spent on the margins of global attention—fighting a steady drift toward its center before finally seeming to decide, against the fraught backdrop of the war in Ukraine, to embrace it.

Claims of Prigozhin’s involvement in information warfare on Putin’s behalf date back to at least the early 2010s, when, according to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, he backed a documentary casting anti-Putin protesters as paid puppets, including of the US. Novaya Gazeta would also link Prigozhin to the financing of the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm that pumped out fake news of increasingly international import, after a reporter from the paper went undercover to seek a job at the agency and discovered that one of its managers was an employee of Prigozhin’s holding company, whom Prigozhin had allegedly asked to spy on Novaya Gazeta. The IRA, of course, would go on to dominate headlines in the US after it launched an online operation aimed at influencing the 2016 presidential election. Early in 2018, Prigozhin himself was indicted in the US. “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin was quoted as saying in response, denying any involvement in election meddling. “If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

Even by this point, however, Prigozhin was hardly a household name in the US. In Russia, too, he had taken steps to stay out of the limelight. In 2016, Prigozhin seized on a new “right to be forgotten” law in a bid to force Yandex, a Russian search engine, to scrub critical articles about him from its results. According to a 2018 profile in the New York Times, Russian reporters found it hard to link him to his various corporate interests, whose ties to one another were kept murky, and he rarely gave extended interviews. Journalists who investigated his affairs sometimes faced threats. When Novaya Gazeta reported on Prigozhin, also in 2018, a funeral wreath was sent to the journalist who wrote the story. Novaya Gazeta’s newsroom reportedly received a severed animal’s head and a delivery of caged sheep wearing vests with the paper’s name on them. 

By this time, the Wagner group was up and running, and had a footprint everywhere from Ukraine to Syria to various countries in Africa, where it offered governments military services in exchange for rights to precious natural resources, among other benefits. As with Prigozhin himself, Wagner’s operations were shrouded in secrecy. In 2018, three Russian reporters working with an outlet funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian oligarch who has publicly opposed Putin, traveled to investigate Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic. Three days later, they were shot and killed by the side of a road; officials blamed robbers, but nothing of value was taken from the scene, and CNN later reported that the killings appeared to have been orchestrated by a senior police officer with ties to a Wagner operative. (Prigozhin denied any connection to Russian activities in the CAR; he later proposed paying for a memorial to the journalists on the spot where they died.) Meanwhile, Wagner was accused of waging information warfare in both the CAR and Mali. As I wrote last year, both countries clamped down on journalists, especially from French publications, after Wagner forces arrived.

In recent years, Prigozhin increasingly found himself on the radar of international investigative newsrooms. In 2019, CNN reported, citing leaked documents, that a company linked to Prigozhin proposed a coordinated disinformation campaign and public executions in response to protests that eventually dislodged Omar al-Bashir as the president of Sudan. Then, in 2020, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel published a series of stories about Prigozhin, dubbing him “the Renaissance man of deniable Russian black ops,” linking his operations to the Russian state, and accusing him, among other things, of “systemic unlawful surveillance, intimidation and harassment of journalists and bloggers, both in Russia and abroad, conducted by Prigozhin’s security apparatus with the connivance of the Kremlin and/or the direct assistance from Russia’s security services.” (Among the alleged targets: a CNN team in the CAR.)

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In response to this type of scrutiny, Prigozhin set about retaining Western lawyers to sue journalists who reported various claims about him, including the basic fact of his ties to Wagner. (According to a report in the Financial Times, a Russian law firm that coordinated legal action on Prigozhin’s behalf dubbed this work “Project Hamlet.”) In 2021, Prigozhin sued Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, in the UK; by this point, Prigozhin was the subject of financial sanctions in that country, but Britain’s finance ministry granted special dispensation for the case to go ahead. In the end, it took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to derail it; amid a broader debate about whether Russian oligarchs should be allowed to abuse Britain’s libel laws to silence journalists, Prigozhin’s London lawyers got cold feet and dropped him, according to the FT. Prigozhin accused the UK of “Russophobia.” Last May, the case was thrown out by a judge.

Then Prigozhin dropped the facade. In September, a video showed him introducing himself to Russian prisoners as a representative of Wagner; he then publicly admitted to having founded the group in 2014—“I cleaned the old weapons myself,” he bragged—and, for good measure, owned up to having founded the IRA, too. “I’ve never just been the financier of the Internet Research Agency,” he said. “I invented it, I created it, I managed it for a long time.” (A Russian court has since upheld Prigozhin’s defamation claim against a journalist who described him as Wagner’s owner.)

Since stepping officially out of the shadows, Prigozhin has been increasingly outspoken about the Ukraine war, to which his fighters have been central; as Speri put it, in recent months, he “issued dozens of often bombastic statements to journalists…through the PR arm of his catering business, while also increasingly turning to Telegram to launch screeds against his rivals in Russia,” not least officials in the defense establishment whom Prigozhin saw as betraying Wagner’s efforts in the field. This irked the Kremlin, which, according to the independent Russian news site Verstka, ordered state news agencies to stop quoting Prigozhin (unless, for example, he was delivering good news from the battlefield). Last month, a pro-Kremlin journalist ran a candid interview with Prigozhin, and was fired. Then came the mutiny, which Prigozhin launched via a series of messages posted to Telegram. 

It’s not yet clear what might happen to Prigozhin now. As part of a deal with Putin to call off his mutiny, he apparently agreed to go into a form of exile in Belarus in exchange for legal immunity. Yesterday, various state-connected Russian news outlets reported that Prigozhin remained in legal jeopardy, after all—“In a final irony,” Higgins noted, “Prigozhin becomes a victim of Russian disinformation”—but this morning, the security services announced that the case against him has been formally closed. Given Putin’s track record of extrajudicial reprisals, this doesn’t mean that Prigozhin can breathe easy. (The jokes about tea and balconies have written themselves.) And various analysts have cast his mutiny as an act not of strength, but of desperation, in the face of growing government pressure on his control over his fighters.

Still, as Max Seddon, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, noted, Prigozhin is at least setting the agenda in a way that has little immediate precedent in Putin’s Russia; after Prigozhin broke his silence yesterday, Putin appeared to feel compelled to respond in a televised address that was billed as a big deal, but ultimately constituted little more than reheated ranting. As The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen put it, Prigozhin has shown Russians that they now have a choice. As his forces took control of the city of Rostov-on-Don en route to Moscow over the weekend, Prigozhin posted a video of talks that he held with two senior defense officials. “This was the first unscripted top-level political conversation that Russians had seen in years,” Gessen wrote. “It sounded like two thugs haggling over the terms of their protection racket, but it was a negotiation—it was politics—and it was possibility.” The shadows are receding.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, before Donald Trump was indicted on charges that he mishandled sensitive documents, CNN reported on the existence of a tape recording that appeared to capture Trump showing papers that he knew were classified to guests at his club in New Jersey. Now CNN has broadcast the recording itself, first airing it on Anderson Cooper’s show last night. The tape could be a key piece of evidence in the case against Trump. 
  • Yesterday, Fox News announced that Jesse Watters, a host on its popular afternoon show The Five, will succeed Tucker Carlson, who was ousted from the network in April, as the permanent host of its 8pm Eastern hour. As part of a broader shake-up of its prime-time programming, Fox will move Laura Ingraham’s show to 7pm, Greg Gutfeld’s show into Ingraham’s old 10pm slot, and Trace Gallagher’s show to 11pm from midnight.
  • For Slate, Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul reflected on her mission to compile an archive of the work of journalists who have been murdered in Mexico. “Many of the murdered journalists are not the hard-hitting investigative reporters you might have in mind,” she writes, but rather “reporters who founded their own media outlets—blogs, websites, and Facebook pages—in which they posted about daily life in their towns.”
  • Haaretz has the story of Yossi Eli, a journalist with Israel’s Channel 13 who went undercover as a priest in Jerusalem to investigate a rise in hate crimes against Christians in the city. Eli “was spat at just five minutes after setting out,” Haaretz reports. “A bit later a man mocked them in Hebrew, saying, ‘Forgive me father for I have sinned.’ Then an 8-year-old spat at them, as did a soldier when a group of troops passed by later.”
  • And Petula Dvorak, a columnist at the Washington Post, visited the Big Bean, a coffee shop that stands on the site of the former newsroom of the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman killed five staffers five years ago tomorrow. The coffee shop does not contain any formal memorial, Dvorak writes, but “the open, chatty, people-filled, happy nature of this place can be considered a tribute to their lives.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.