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 perceptions of weakness in Putin’s decision to drop insurgency charges in connection with the Wagner rebellion, and to deal with a serious political problem: Prigozhin’s popularity among hard line, pro-war nationalists.
Even as the state-controlled media is trashing Prigozhin as a greedy, treasonous opportunist, the Kremlin has permitted him to return to Russia and recover millions in cash and personal weapons — apparent proof that his businesses and the state’s interest were so intertwined that it is not easy to just make him disappear. But the national gaslighting also seems to be working, by putting Russia’s shocked population back into its usual passive mode, and portraying Putin as stronger than ever.
“As far as the general public is concerned, it seems like clinging to normalcy is still the most common and the most immediate reaction among the majority,” said Maria Lipman, a Russia analyst at George Washington University.
In the aftermath of the Wagner rebellion, which exposed deep fractures caused by Putin’s war in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to have three main goals. First, is to demolish Prigozhin and quash his damaging but true assertion that there was never a Russian security concern to justify the Ukraine invasion. Second, is to increase repressions and shore up the regime. And third is to rebrand Putin’s lately uninspiring image to cast him as 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,” intoned Russian television anchor Irada Zeynalova on pro-Kremlin NTV. “The test of unity was passed.”
Mercenary boss returned to Russia to collect money and guns
State television and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels this week went all out to savage Prigozhin, portraying him as a thuggish, greedy crook, and trying to dent his reputation as the one leading participant in Russia’s war on Ukraine who was willing to tell the truth about casualties and Defense Ministry failures.
They aired images of his luxurious home, showing his guns, piles of cash, gold bars, a personal helicopter, fake passports, and wigs for disguises, all of which were exposed during a raid on his properties in St. Petersburg by Interior Ministry police.
Before his rebellion, Prigozhin — who earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” because he got rich off government catering contracts — had emerged, quite suddenly, as a possible future rival to the president because of his stunning rise in popularity, highly unusual in Russia for someone who is neither a politician nor an official.
The week before the June 24 rebellion, Prigozhin’s approval rating soared to 58 percent, according to independent pollster Levada. The agency reported that 19 percent of Russians said they would have voted for him in presidential elections, an astonishing score for the once-secretive mercenary leader known for his blunt, often obscene language and bloodthirsty humor.
Prigozhin said he staged the rebellion because the Defense Ministry and Kremlin tried to subvert him and Wagner by forcing them to sign contracts with the military. His approval rating fell sharply after the rebellion, but it was still at a relatively impressive 29 percent — far too high for a regime that tolerates no dissent.
Lipman said Russians were attracted to Prigozhin’s media-savvy, anti-elite populism — a stark contrast to the deadening succession of cautious officials pledging allegiance to Putin and repeating hollow propaganda lines.
“Against this background, he looked fresh, he looked genuine and he looked sincere, and people appreciated this about him,” Lipman said. “He was somehow a patriot without the lies.” But Prigozhin was also viciously brutal, threatening his fighters with execution if they disobeyed orders, and sending many recruited from prison to die in waves on the front.
Putin’s approval rating has hovered at more than 80 percent, according to Levada, but independent Latvia-based Russian news agency Meduza reported that confidential polling for the Kremlin found his rating fell by up to 14 percentage points in some regions after the rebellion.
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Kremlin propagandists turned around Russians’ initial horror at the invasion of Ukraine with remarkable speed, and seem likely to enjoy similar success in smearing Prigozhin’s reputation — a task made somewhat easier given that the mercenary boss grew rich off government contracts, operated his businesses mostly in cash and spent nearly a decade in prison for robbery.
“Let’s just watch how a ‘fighter for truth’ has been living, a fighter for truth with two criminal records, a man who told us that everyone is stealing and here we see the hard currency in Prigozhin’s house — quite a sum,” said state television 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 loaded with 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 blunter, comparing Prigozhin to Hitler. “They say, Prigozhin was telling the truth. So what? These are obvious things, about corruption, and so on,” Leontiev said. Eighty percent of what the Nazi leader said after invading the U.S.S.R. was true, “but that doesn’t stop him from being Hitler.”
Dmitry Kiselyov, host of state television’s Sunday night flagship political program “Vesti Nedeli,” accused Wagner and Prigozhin’s Concord company of receiving nearly $20 billion in state funding, after Putin admitted that Wagner, which the Kremlin for years portrayed as a private company, in fact was fully state-funded and presumably operated at the Kremlin’s whim.
Kiselyov’s program diminished Wagner’s main battlefield achievement, the bloody 224-day fight to seize Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, saying the city was not so important.
Since the rebellion, Prigozhin has lost access to lucrative state catering contracts and had closed the media empire and troll farm he used to boost his image.
Meanwhile, a parallel effort is underway to elevate Putin, whose high popularity rating remains his main source of legitimacy. Election results, and even the Russian constitution, are manipulated to keep him in power and any potential rival, such as opposition figure Alexei Navalny or Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is jailed or exiled.
But even amid the flurry of presidential image-building, it can be difficult to conceal Putin’s stiff, regal manner. Last week he looked ecstatic, kissing a girl in a highly-stage-managed video, greeting crowds in Derbent, Dagestan, a direct riposte to the spontaneous cheers by 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 mawkish video released by the Kremlin on Tuesday of Putin meeting 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 picture of Stalin holding a small girl, reproduced by the million and turned into mosaics and a marble statue.
If Putin had been around in 1917 and in 1991, the regimes that fell in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union’s collapse would have survived, declared Vyacheslav Volodin, loyalist speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Amid a secretive Russian security probe of generals and others with links to Prigozhin, further tough repressions are likely, according to analysts, and the main risk to Putin seems 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’m not sure that we will witness this year a major collapse of the Russian front lines.”
The Kremlin’s spin campaign, according to Lipman, has “worked, just like it has worked for 20-plus years of Putin’s leadership.”
Catherine Belton in London contributed to this report.