Posted on / by Saikiran Kannan / in Short

Villain to Vanguard: How Western Media Amplified the Image of Yevgeny Prigozhin As A New Challenger to Putin’s Rule

Life has come full circle for Yevgeny Prigozhin. From avoiding the media limelight to sending a severed head to a journalist to suing journalists who reported various claims against him to now using the same media to get Vladimir Putin to get up from his chair and address the nation is somewhat of an antithesis of what he has been known for.

The Western media loves to create heroes. Especially if it is against Russia.  Once upon a time, Osama Bin Laden too was a hero. And now, it looks like Prigozhin satiated a long-time thirst of the Western media in pitting someone against Vladimir Putin, albeit for a brief period. 

Yes, Prigozhin started as a hot dog seller and started from scratch. Even Putin worked at a BATA shoe store in Wellington, New Zealand, as an undercover. But that is immaterial now as both have done much more since their early days. The fact remains that this newfound glare of the mainstream Global media on Prigozhin is purely owing to him challenging the status quo of the Kremlin. 

Prigozhin has more than a decade of experience in information warfare. Not to forget his role in founding the Wagner Group in 2014. He is by no means a relatively unknown person. But he briefly became the new poster boy, something that Volodymyr Zelenskyy was always propped up to have been.

Yevgeny Prigozhin: Shaping Narratives, Challenging Putin, and Unleashing Real Political Conflict in Russia

Max Seddon, the Moscow bureau chief of Financial Times, commented that Prigozhin was setting the agenda here. He even compared Prigozhin to the jailed opposition leader Navalny and the Chechen rebels. That was a bold call. 

“I’m not sure why Putin bothered to put this out, except for the fact that Prigozhin made a big statement today that dominated headlines. Amazing how Prigozhin is setting the agenda. Over Putin’s entire rule, I can only recall Navalny doing that, or Chechen rebels if you go way back”

It’s a fair statement. Prigozhin is not new to manipulating his opposite side with information. Since the early 2010s, he has been known to be involved in using text and visual media to set the narratives. Be it via documentaries, paid news, or using the state machinery to disseminate information, he has had a hand in all of it. He is also said to have close links with Glavset or popularly known as the Internet Research Agency, which is a Russian online that influences the chatter online. They house some of the largest online troll factories and were also reported to have played a part in influencing the 2016 US Presidential elections. Eventually, in 2018, Prigozhin was directly indicted in the US for his interference in the Presidential elections. He was already one of the richest men in Russia. He was part of a charmed circle whose members often share one particular attribute: their proximity to President Vladimir Putin. 

Soon after the indictment, Prigozhin reacted to the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti. 
“The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

So it is unsurprising that Prigozhin managed to embolden himself with the backing of information warfare. When Prigozhin raised the stakes, not just the Russians who consume independent media but all Russians who watch TV or read or watch anything online saw something extraordinary. They saw real political conflict. 

Russians saw someone other than Putin act politically and, even more importantly, wield force. Can all the propagandists and censors make them unsee it?

Prigozhin’s Information Warfare: Unleashing Doubts and Manipulating Narratives

Western news agencies could not get enough of Prigozhin and the Wager group’s march toward Moscow. Prigozhin played along by providing timely updates to the media via many channels—Telegram, Twitter, news bytes, and so on. That is the way he sets narratives. He knew he had to do this to fight against “Russian disinformation”.

Prigozhin has been vocal and has stepped out of the shadows for quite some time now. He has been vocally speaking out against how the Russian defense officials have mistreated the Wagner group during the Ukraine war. The Wagner groups’ Telegram channels stated, “Russia will have a new President.” 

In a video released on June 23, 2023, Prigozhin alleged that the war in Ukraine had been unleashed under false pretenses. Because, he said, the Ministry of Defense had lied to Putin, making him think that Ukraine and  NATO were about to attack Russia. Prigozhin was allegedly marching to the capital not to depose Putin but to enlighten him.

But all that changed soon, and tempers subsided, at least for the immediacy. 

The Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, interfered and gave a press notice announcing that he had negotiated an end to the crisis and Prigozhin’s forces would reverse course. Prigozhin would be exiled to Belarus, and all criminal cases against Prigozhin would be closed. 

All this happened within a few days, but not without giving a sneak peek into what could happen in Russia in the near future and how Prigozhin used information warfare to his advantage. 

Information warfare is all about influencing opinions. And if there are doubts or suspicions on a topic, it is important to stamp on it to squeeze out every single drop of suspicion to plant seeds of mutiny or opinions in the minds of the targeted groups. This is what Prigozhin did. 

Prigozhin released a statement that the war in Ukraine was started under false pretenses. He tapped into a reservoir of bitter suspicion: Russians have little to source out neutral reporting in mainstream Russian media and, more often than not, have suspected that they are being lied to, yet they have no choice but to support those who lie to them. Prigozhin gave them a choice by driving tanks through the streets of Rostov.

So one could say that Prigozhin may not really have attempted a genuine coup but could have orchestrated all this to catalyze the seeds of doubts that may be growing in the minds of the Russians. On the other hand, he may have sowed the seeds of doubts in Putin’s mind regarding how his Defense personnel have led the war against Ukraine.

Reporting by Western media

Once seen as an evil spawn, the news in June 2023 saw Yevgeny Prigozhin as a poster boy. All major headlines and news reporting sentiments saw Prigozhin as a rising force who could challenge Putin. Everyone wanted a piece of him on their top headlines and primetime. 

The narratives were so powerful that even within Russia, they made quite a small, but significant impact. Neil MacFarquhar captures some of them in his piece for the New York Times. 

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a scrappy tabloid, featured the headline:
“Prigozhin Leaves, Problems Remain Deep Political Consequences of a Failed Coup.” This created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty and trampled down the reputation of the authorities,” wrote Mikhail Rostovsky, a columnist, adding that the mutiny showed to the world that Russia was vulnerable.

Outside Russia, there was a more pronounced way in which Prigozhin’s actions and the resulting impact were perceived. Prigozhin’s past deeds and expertise were now being reported as his strengths and part of his repertoire if he were to use them to bring down Putin. 

Prigozhin was the face of the revolt against Putin. There was an element of certainty that one could go all in to wage a bet on Prigozhin rather than Zelenskyy to do this. The fact that the Wagner group was also helping Russia in Ukraine is a different topic. 

The movement of the Wagner forces through the heart of Russia was reported as if we were viewing the old and notorious “blitzkrieg” tactics used by Germany in World War II. With Social media and microsecond media sharing, news agencies could provide a running commentary on a game that they felt could be long-lasting. 

Now, with Prigozhin taking a sabbatical or as some experts opine, it could even be a retirement, the Western media will look out for a new poster boy or talking point when it comes to Russia and Putin. It is also expected that the Russian media will erase all traces of the mutinous warlord. 

Russia has already blocked websites that published news in support of Prigozhin. Some of them are Politics Today, Economy Today, Neva News, and RIA FAN which is part of the Patriot Media group belonging to Prigozhin’s media constellation. Simultaneously, Yevgeny Zubarev, the head of Prigozhin’s RIA FAN news site, announced on July 1 that the company was closing down, without giving a reason for the decision. Similarly, other newsgroups part of Prigozhin’s media empire also released similar announcements.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are those of the author and not necessarily of WeThePress.


  • Saikiran Kannan

    Saikiran Kannan is a Data Analytics, Data Privacy, & AI/ML SME, and an Independent Journalist covering conflicts, global affairs, counter terrorism and data stories. He has a Masters in Data Analytics from the Singapore Management University and is a Harvard Business Advisory Council member.


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