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Vladimir Putin had an iron grip on the Russian worldview. Then Yevgeny Prigozhin tore that facade to pieces.
In the aftermath of the Wagner Group boss’s failed uprising, Putin and his propagandists – national broadcasters, high-profile politicians and social media influencers – have struggled to explain how Prigozhin, an archetypal Russian hero, suddenly transformed into the most notorious traitor to the country.
Five Western security officials, nearly all of whom spoke privately to discuss sensitive issues, told POLITICO that Putin was still basically in control even as the mutiny had strained his authority.
But the Russian leader’s inability to dominate public perception of what has transpired over the past week has highlighted a potential fragility within his leadership, according to two of these officials. Putin and his propagandists did not react quickly when Prigozhin launched his dramatic insurrection and in the following days their messages went from deafening silence to claims that it was all a Western conspiracy.
« It is certainly one of the most challenging situations, or even the most challenging, Putin has had to face, » said Jakub Kalenský, deputy director of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a joint NATO-EU organization that monitors threats state-backed influence campaigns. « It will also be a challenge in the information space. Prigozhin himself controlled a pretty significant part of his propaganda machine, » he added. « Now, we have different branches of the propaganda machine controlled by different people. »
As Wagner’s troops headed towards Moscow last weekend, state media – where three-quarters of Russians still get most of their news – initially downplayed the mutiny. One even aired a documentary about Silvio Berlusconi, the now deceased Italian leader, as the uprising unfolded.
At the same time, influential users of Telegram, the favorite social media platform for Russian speakers, were divided on how to portray the events. A vocal minority – some with hundreds of thousands of followers – have sided with Prigozhin’s criticisms of Russia’s military leaders, even as he has made it clear they were not attacking Putin.
And once the crisis passed, with boss Wagner en route to exile in Belarus, Kremlin-backed broadcasters attempted to weave the rebellion into secular narratives that any attack on Russia must be tied to Western aggression.
Prigozhin himself was a key figure in Putin’s propaganda machine. His Telegram followers number nearly 1.4 million. Groups associated with the mercenary leader remain a focus in Russia’s global online influence campaigns, while American authorities have linked him to interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Prigozhin’s status as the archetypal strongman has made it difficult for the Kremlin to accuse him of being a traitor to Russia.
On Telegram, where influencers focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have become national celebrities, once active groups have gone eerily silent as users struggled to decipher who would win, according to Eto Buziashvili, research associate at Digital Forensic Atlantic Council Research Lab, which tracks Russian-speaking social media.
Many of these high-profile Telegram channels were openly critical of Russia’s military leaders during the invasion of Ukraine and regularly endorsed Prigozhin’s criticisms of how the war was conducted.
However, once the mercenary leader’s march on Moscow fizzled out, many of these social media users did not openly attack Prigozhin but instead called for peace among the Russians, while continuing to criticize the Kremlin’s military strategy in Ukraine. Russian-language Telegram accounts have urged Wagner Group forces and the Russian military not to resort to outright civil war. « Basically everyone said ‘just don’t do it,' » Buziashvili added.
In the days following the failed uprising, national media switched gears to call for unity, portraying Putin in daily events, including, Thursday, at a local textile conference – to show that the country had moved on. Even the state’s international broadcasters, which deployed a more aggressive disinformation strategy, quickly tried to link the failed mutiny to NATO.
For Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s intelligence-handling team, the confused response to Prigozhin’s rebellion recalls the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
In February 2022, the Kremlin’s disinformation industry was also caught off guard, especially since Putin had adamantly reneged on military action, even hours before his troops invaded. Operations of Russian influence are often developed over months, if not years, and struggle to transition to new narratives when they need to do so almost overnight.
« Russia does well in propaganda campaigns because it has so many tentacles, » Schafer said. « But she doesn’t respond particularly well in moments of confusion where there’s no clarity about what’s going on. »