Four hooded figures, guns in their hands, protective vests on their backs. "Greetings to you from the artillery department of the Wagner mercenary unit," one of the men says to the camera. "Every day we carry out difficult tasks and cover our assault troops. At this moment we are completely cut off from the supply of ammunition."
"We are turning to our friends and colleagues in the Defense Ministry. We are sure that this ammunition is available somewhere. We urgently need it," appealed the man in camouflage. "We will be deeply grateful if you help us and deliver this ammunition. Many people will then survive, they will continue to successfully participate in combat operations. This will affect the entire course of the war." The message: help, there is a lack of ammunition for howitzers, for tanks, for anti-tank machines, for grenade launchers.
The Wagner mercenaries hoped in vain for a reaction. Because the cut ammunition supply is not due to an unfortunate coincidence. All signs point to it: The musicians, as the men of the Wagner troupe have been called, are supposed to bleed to death. It is the Russian Ministry of Defense itself that is targeting a specific man in this way: Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The notorious boss of the Wagner troupe knows about the guns aimed at him. He tries to fend them off with a tactic that worked for him last summer. The appearance of the four hooded figures is one of a whole series of new productions penned by the mercenary boss. The motive is always the same: its fighters complain about the Ministry of Defense and level allegations against the commanders of the Russian armed forces. Prigozhin himself outright blamed Sergei Shoigu's ministry for the ongoing disaster at Bakhmut.
"We're not moving as fast as we'd like," Prigozhin complained against the backdrop of a SU-24 aircraft that was shot down in the summer. "If it weren't for our monstrous war bureaucracy, we would have taken Bachmut before the New Year," the Wagner boss claimed.
But it is his own failure that Prigozhin tries to cover up with the inability of others. For months he has been wearing down his troops in front of Bachmut. Wave after wave, he lets the inmates he recruited from Russian prisons die in futile assaults. They serve as human shields for regular army forces—or human decoys, designed to trick Ukrainian soldiers into betraying their position.
For a few months, thanks to these methods, Prigozhin rose to become one of the most dazzling stars of the war in the Russian propaganda landscape. Indeed, for a brief time, it looked as if the man who for years was known simply as Putin's chef was being handed almost divine power. He could decide who is pardoned, who lives and who dies. He had executions carried out in front of the camera. The most powerful weapon in his arsenal: the recruited prisoners.
But now that weapon has been taken from him. Earlier this month, Prigozhin admitted: "The decision has been made that the prisoners will soon be integrated into military units. I can't say which ones. It's beyond my competence," he announced in an uncharacteristically meek manner.
So Prigozhin loses its most crucial capital. And there is only one person who could make this decision: Vladimir Putin. In the system he built, prisoners are a resource—they not only provide human supplies to the front lines, but also political clout to their commander. Now Putin is redistributing this resource.
"Putin gave Prigozhin access to the human resources that had accumulated in Russia over the past 20 years," says political scientist Mikhail Komin. "Now that decision has been reversed." Other forces, especially the Ministry of Defense, have managed to break its monopoly on this resource, the expert explained in an interview with the independent broadcaster Dozhd.
In the summer, when the regular armed forces of Russia hit a catastrophic deadlock in Ukraine, Prigozhin's detainees turned out to be a veritable gold mine. He was able to provide Putin with what he needed most: flesh-and-blood supplies.
"Prigozhin didn't rise because Putin bet on him to undermine generals who allegedly gained too much weight," wrote Kremlin specialist Tatyana Stanovaya in a contribution to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Because no one gained weight. "It was simply necessary to use all available means to correct the catastrophic situation at the front. In Putin's worldview, forces such as mercenary troops should help strengthen the state, not undermine it."
But now Putin has found another solution to his staff shortage: mobilization. The Kremlin boss is now back to proven system members, to generals of the Russian armed forces. And they are at loggerheads with Prigozhin.
"After Prigozhin gained some autonomy in the war in Ukraine, he immediately came into conflict with the military leadership, with Valery Gerasimov and Sergei Shoigu," noted political scientist Stanovaya. "After several months of humiliating attacks, they managed to convince the President that the independence of the Wagner troupe was handicapping the Russian military."
In response, Putin promoted Gerasimov to the head of the Russian armed forces. "With this step, Putin demonstrated how quickly he can rebalance power. He ignored both the opinion of Prigozhin and those of those military bloggers and their millions of viewers who sang praises to the Wagner boss.
"Prigozhin was never part of Putin's close circle," agrees military expert and political scientist Michael Naki. "He wanted to use high-media means to prove that he could play with the big boys; that he could compete with political figures from Putin's circle." But the Wagner boss lost this game. As soon as he could not show any success, his position deteriorated rapidly.
Prigozhin also made a cardinal mistake: he was striving for more than Putin had given him credit for. "For the president, a mercenary force is a kind of equipment inherent in any government with geopolitical ambitions. But it must act without initiative, solely within the framework of state interests," explains Kremlin expert Stanovaya. No unnecessary publicity, total subordination, no own political agenda - in this form mercenary troops are needed.
But Prigozhin went far beyond the area of responsibility assigned to him. "The businessman has not only become a public figure - he is developing into a full-fledged politician with his own, very revolutionary views."
Prigozhin made many enemies with his behavior. "The defense ministry and the general staff, the FSB and the justice ministry, big business and governors, not to mention the presidential administration and the foreign ministry," Stanovya lists. "For the secret services, Prigozhin poses a growing threat: his armed mercenary force, stuffed with criminals, many of whom have been released against the wishes of the FSB, are a real headache."
And now the man who, in the opinion of the officials, would never have dared to step out of the role of cook, provides the reason for pushing him to the abyss. For a few weeks now, Prigozhin has been failing at the very task that has kept him afloat for so long: recruiting prisoners.
It is a serious problem that the man who once spent nine years in Soviet prisons himself has faced: the inmates of Russian prisons refuse to join his troupe - even if they are offered an amnesty. "Prigozhin suffered a catastrophic defeat in December," said Olga Romanova, head of the law enforcement organization Russia behind bars. "Recruitment has come to a standstill," she explained in an interview with Dozhd.
Romanova sees this development primarily as a result of the methods that Prigozhin used to establish an iron dictatorship within the troops. Especially with executions. With this radical tactic, Prigozhin primarily wanted to prevent escape attempts. "Escape attempts in both directions. On the one hand into Ukrainian captivity, on the other hand back to Russia with weapons in their hands," she told the online portal "Wot Tak", a project of the only independent Belarusian TV channel Belsat, which broadcasts from Warsaw .. "With extrajudicial executions he actually stopped the flight, but he also stopped the recruitment."
"Prigozhin made a lot of mistakes. Now he has fallen out of favor," says Romanova. "Putin's circle is seething with anger, especially the powerful Kovalchuk brothers." From their point of view, it undermines state power.
The Kovalchuk brothers once helped Prigozhin establish relations with the presidential administration. For a long time they were considered the informal curators of the Wagner boss. Thanks to their support, the 61-year-old had the opportunity to convey information about his initiatives to Putin. But now there is a crisis between Prigozchin and the brothers, who are among the president's closest friends.
"Their agendas are gradually diverging. It's becoming increasingly difficult for the brothers to stand up for their ward, who is threatening the political class with a sledgehammer," observes Stanovaya.
So now the Ministry of Defense is taking over the recruitment of prisoners for Putin's war. And Prigozhin is taken to the curb. Last week, the Telegram channel linked to the Wagner squad circulated a document that appears to be a government directive to the press.
Russian state media are advised to stop mentioning Prigozhin or Wagner by name and instead use generic descriptions. "Prigozhin's star is fading. He has taken his criticism of the military and other elites too far," Dmitri Alperovich, head of the US think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, tweeted. "Now his wings will be clipped."