One of the most subversive things that Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin did during his brief rebellion last weekend was to tell the truth.
Prigozhin is a pathological liar, a professional disinformation artist who was indicted in the United States in connection with the internet troll farm he ran, which was at the forefront of Russian efforts to intervene in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win.
But as the mercenary boss began his mutiny in late June, he experienced a brief and surprising bout of honesty when he launched into an online tirade against what he said were the lies used by Moscow to justify the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. His comments were so candid and off-message for a Russian leader that it seemed as if someone had mistakenly handed him a speech meant for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The invasion was nothing more than a massive land grab by the Russian oligarchy, Prigozhin charged, designed to enrich the country’s powerful elites while poor Russians served as cannon fodder. Russian claims that a Nazi regime in Ukraine, backed by NATO, was about to attack Russia were lies, Prigozhin said. The war was started by the Russian oligarchy to benefit themselves and gain power. In his rant, Prigozhin did not criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin by name, focusing instead on the broader Russian elite, and specifically on his personal enemy Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO bloc,” Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel on June 23. The truth, he said, was that “there was nothing extraordinary happening on the eve of February 24,” the day last year when Russian invaded. Ukraine was not planning any kind of attack against Russia, he added.
Russia’s invasion “was started for a completely different reason,” Prigozhin said. “What was the war for? The war was needed for Shoigu to receive a hero star. … The oligarchic clan that rules Russia needed the war,” he said. “The mentally ill scumbags decided: ‘It’s OK, we’ll throw in a few thousand more Russian men as cannon fodder. They’ll die under artillery fire, but we’ll get what we want.’”
“Shoigu killed thousands of the most combat-ready Russian soldiers in the first days of the war,” Prigozhin said, adding that the invasion began even as Zelenskyy and Ukraine were eager for peace. The Ukrainian leader “was ready for agreements. All that needed to be done was to get off Mount Olympus and negotiate with him.”
Prigozhin thus punctured the main argument used by Russian propagandists and their Western lackeys: that NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War caused the war in Ukraine. Putin has constantly railed against NATO, and his misleading narrative that the U.S. caused the war in Ukraine by pushing for alliance’s expansion has resonated widely among pro-Putin right-wing extremists in the West.
Prigozhin quickly followed up his criticism of the war by leading his Wagner mercenaries in an armed rebellion. They left Ukraine, seized the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and marched north toward Moscow. By June 24, just as Prigozhin and his troops were closing in on Moscow, he lost his nerve and cut a deal with Putin. The deal was brokered by Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally. Prigozhin is apparently going into exile in Belarus while the status of Wagner forces in Ukraine and elsewhere remains in flux.
But even as Prigozhin exits the scene, his rare bout of honesty could have a delayed impact. If Prigozhin’s comments become widely known in Russia despite the regime’s strict censorship, they could lead to a further erosion of Russian support for the war. Putin’s hold on power, meanwhile, has already been seriously weakened by Prigozhin’s rebellion.
It is still unclear whether Prigozhin’s candor will have any impact on right-wing extremists in the U.S. who support Putin and have defended his invasion of Ukraine. Right-wing pundits like former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson have been cheerleaders for Putin’s war, disseminating pro-Russian conspiracy theories like the false claim that the U.S. funded bio-weapons labs in Ukraine. The right-wing support for Putin and his invasion is strongest among Christian nationalists, a segment of pro-Trump evangelical Christians who have come to hate Western liberalism and yearn for an autocrat like Putin who would wipe away wokeness. They have been joined by members of other fringe groups, like those who claim to be anti-imperialists while supporting Putin’s imperial ambitions.
Prigozhin is a terrible messenger of the truth. He certainly had his own selfish reasons for stating that Russia’s war is built on lies. Yet his truth-telling may ultimately help rip off the façade Putin erected to conceal the reality of his war in Ukraine.