Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the loudest pro-war voices in the Russian elite have not been those of President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, but those of a disparate elite group including former president Dmitry Medvedev, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the businessman behind the Wagner mercenary group. These hawks are ubiquitous in Russia’s media sphere, with Medvedev and Kadyrov both running popular Telegram channels. For his part, Prigozhin has an entire media holding producing “patriotic” (i.e. pro-war) material. While much has been said about their growing influence, are they really that significant?
- Medvedev, who as president positioned himself as a liberal, pro-Western figure, has morphed into one of the West’s harshest critics, recently suggesting Russia’s Constitutional Court should lift a moratorium on the death penalty. In a recent article, journalist and analyst Alexandra Prokopenko argued that Medvedev had adopted such an aggressive stance to boost his chances of running in, and winning, the presidential election in 2024 (his name has apparently been floated as a potential consensus candidate for Russia’s moderate elites).
- But it also seems that some of Russia’s hawks are seeking to use their influence on the elite to further their personal interests. Prigozhin, who has been embroiled in a long-running spat with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, is now directly accusing Beglov of sheltering a criminal gang in City Hall and has submitted a formal request to prosecutors.
- Do these supporters of the war enjoy real influence? There are no signs that Putin is listening to them, Prokopenko argued. On the other hand, Alexander Lapin, a Russian military commander in Ukraine was last month relieved of his post following public criticism by Kadyrov following the fall of the city of Lyman.
- And, thanks to Wagner’s success at the front, Prigozhin is currently well regarded in the Kremlin. He is seen as an effective military manager, and the “liberator” of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, a source told Meduza last week. It was Prigozhin who began to recruit convicts from Russia’s jails for the war in Ukraine, a move that would have required permission from the Kremlin. Senators have drafted a bill that will offer pardons to criminals who enlist and Putin signed a law Friday that allows the mobilization of Russians with criminal records. Prigozhin is reportedly the only member of Putin’s inner circle to have criticized Russia’s military leadership to the president’s face (Prigozhin has denied any such conversations took place).
- It is undeniable that Kadyrov and Prigozhin have been granted unusual freedom to speak their minds since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In particular, Kadyrov’s outspokenness has been unusual. No other Russian regional leader would permit himself such stark criticism of the Russian elite, Prokopenko argued in her article. Prigozhin is also unique among Russian top businessmen — no other businessmen would dare criticize the military in such forceful terms. “Right now, the president likes these ‘real people’ from the front line,” said one of Meduza’s sources. “Prigozhin and Kadyrov live up to this image, or try to.”
- Despite all this, it remains difficult to pinpoint any real increase in influence for Medvedev, Prigozhin or Kadyrov since the start of the war. “To be a recognized member of Russia’s elite, you need a significant asset: an influential position, management of an industry or a systemically significant enterprise. Neither Medvedev, nor Kadyrov, nor Prigozhin have any real assets,” Prokopoenko argued.
Why the world should care
Despite the prominent place these pro-war figures in the Russian elite occupy in the media space, there is actually very little real sign that their influence is on the rise. Kadyrov and Prigozhin may both have a de facto army at their disposal, they are unlikely to receive formal positions in national government any time soon.