The Russian propaganda machine was thrown into crisis mode as Yevgeny Prigozhin, once a trusted ally of President Vladimir Putin and leader of the Wagner mercenary group, instigated a mutiny on June 23-24 aiming to change the leadership of the Defense Ministry forcibly. The nation stood captivated for two days, anxiously following updates and anticipating the consequences, their eyes fixed on television and phone screens.
The state carefully nurtured Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters, and their presence in different parts of the world was consistently magnified. With his outspoken nature, Prigozhin effortlessly became a media favorite, making it a breeze for journalists to craft attention-grabbing headlines. He is shown as a simple bloke who “tells it like it is.” Yet, the propaganda machine took a sharp turn after the mutiny. The sudden downfall of the Wagner mercenaries, affectionately known on Russian social media as “musicians,” “orchestra,” and “soldiers of fortune,” is a reality that the nation is still grappling to comprehend fully. They were once hailed as unwavering defenders of the fatherland and epitomes of true patriotism, but their fall from grace remains an unfolding story that continues to resonate.
RISE TO GLORY
First identified in 2014, Wagner has gradually emerged as a formidable force, gaining prominence in Russia’s military operations. But it wasn’t until September 2022 when Prigozhin came out of the shadows to finally admit that he played a significant role in forming the private military company (PMC).
He explained why he had previously denied his involvement with Wagner. Prigozhin said he “avoided the blows of many opponents with one main goal – so as not to set up these [Wagner] guys, who are the basis of Russian patriotism.”
He explained that in 2014 during the alleged “genocide of the Russian population in Donbas,” he and several other businessmen attempted to assemble a group to “protect Russians” in the region. However, he soon grew disillusioned, realizing that many of the “militarized comrades” involved were fraudulent individuals willing to send ill-equipped volunteers to their deaths. Prigozhin claimed he personally took on the task of cleaning old weapons, organizing body armor, and recruiting specialists to assist him with the process.
“From that moment, May 1, 2014, the group of patriots was born, which later acquired the name BTG [Battalion Tactical Group] Wagner. It was solely thanks to their courage and bravery that the liberation of Luhansk airport and many other territories became possible, and the fate of the [Luhansk People’s Republic] LPR and [Donetsk People’s Republic] DPR changed fundamentally,” Prigozhin concluded, noting that for eight years journalists had been “rummaging through the sweaty underwear of the Wagner PMC” in an attempt to find negative information about them.
“These [Wagner] guys – the heroes who defended the Syrian people, other peoples of Arab countries, disadvantaged Africans and Latin Americans – became one of the pillars of our homeland,” Prigozhin concluded.
And thus, the image of the noble Wagner fighter became deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of the general public in Russia. It portrayed an unwavering pillar of homeland, a true patriot embodying commitment and valor. For those members of the public who resonated with this idealized image, any reports of human rights abuses committed by Wagner were dismissed as Western fabrications, a part of an alleged plot against Russia.
Perhaps recognizing the tactical advantage of mercenaries, Russian authorities continued to shape and promote the perception of Wagner fighters as patriotic heroes. Influential figures within the government publicly endorsed the group, further bolstering Wagner’s credibility and reinforcing the narrative of their noble mission.
For example, after visiting Wagner camps in Ukraine in December, Russian TV presenter and one of the chief propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, conveyed to his wide audience the critical distinctions of the “musicians” from other units participating in the so-called special military operation.
“They never retreat. Under any circumstances. Never. They do not surrender as prisoners. They know precisely why they need two grenades. They have no ranks. You are only as good as you were in battle,” he stated. “All the guys I spoke with amazed me with their exceptionally high level of intellect. They have a deep understanding of military history. They are not just some cannon fodder. They are thoughtful, serious individuals.”
And in April, news circulated that the eldest son of Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for President Putin, enrolled in Wagner to serve in Ukraine.
“He made this decision, and I respected it. Such a decision, I would say, was certainly unexpected for me, but nevertheless, I am proud of him,” Peskov stated.
State-controlled media outlets consistently portrayed the mercenaries as valiant fighters, showcasing their supposed heroism and highlighting their contributions to safeguarding Russian sovereignty. News articles, TV programs, and documentaries glorified Wagner’s missions, emphasizing their successes. The stories were carefully crafted to evoke a sense of national pride and admiration for the group.
In March, for instance, Russian news agency RIA Novosti published a video clip where it interviewed a Wagner fighter and compared the fight for Bakhmut he participated in with the battle of Stalingrad – one of the deadliest in World War II and one of the most brutal battles of all time.
These meticulously crafted propaganda campaigns yielded notable success, permeating various aspects of Russian society. Even schools nationwide began to bear the names of fallen Wagner mercenaries.
For example, school No. 14 in Vladivostok transformed in October and was renamed in honor of Evgeny Orlov, a Wagner fighter who lost his life in Ukraine in July 2022.
This symbolic gesture of remembrance extended beyond educational institutions, as the houses where fallen mercenaries resided were marked with commemorative plaques.
“Wagner fighters who gave their lives for the Motherland are true heroes. Their families and loved ones are proud of them,” a Telegram channel devoted to Wagner said in a caption to the plaque photos. “To be a warrior is to live forever!”
Further amplifying their revered status, Wagner fighters were granted the distinction of being esteemed guests during patriotic school lessons, aptly named “Important Conversations.”
In a village in Western Siberia, another Wagner mercenary was posthumously honored with a “Hero’s Desk” in a local school. The ceremonial opening of this special desk was attended by members of the ruling United Russia party and representatives of the local administration. The party members emphasized that the privilege of sitting at the “Hero’s Desk” was bestowed upon those who “demonstrated outstanding academic performance and contributed to society through significant deeds.”
FALL FROM GRACE
The era of panegyrics for the Wagner group ended abruptly when news of the mutiny and the PMC’s march toward Moscow shocked the public, including Prigozhin’s staunchest supporters. This unexpected turn of events was seen as a betrayal during a time when attention should have been focused on the front lines.
Russian authorities faced a significant challenge in responding to the crisis as they swiftly shifted away from the patriotic image they had meticulously cultivated around Wagner. Interestingly, while social media users were exposed to Prigozhin’s derogatory statements about the Defense Ministry, Russian TV viewers remained largely unaware of these remarks. Instead, they were primarily familiar with the narratives surrounding Wagner fighters’ heroism in Ukraine. This disparity in information and past panegyrics explain President Putin’s concerted efforts to distinguish between Wagner fighters and Prigozhin during his national addresses, underscoring their dedication to the nation while downplaying any association with the controversy.
“We knew and know that the overwhelming majority of the fighters and commanders of the Wagner Group are also patriots of Russia, devoted to their people and state. They proved it with their bravery on the battlefield, liberating Donbas and Novorossiya. They were deceived and covertly exploited against their fellow brothers in arms, with whom they fought together for the country and its future,” Putin stated in his address on June 26. He never mentioned Prigozhin by name – a trick he has already employed when talking about Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He used vague “instigators of the mutiny” referring to the PMC chief.
While the Kremlin’s attempt to separate Prigozhin from Wagner fighters in its narrative may have yielded some tangible results (Prigozhin’s popularity dropped after the mutiny, but so did Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s), it is not a foolproof method. To numerous social media users, the head of the PMC is synonymous with Wagner and vice versa. Therefore, when the government asserts that Prigozhin has become intoxicated by money and portrays him as a traitor who succumbed to Western psychological operations, believing he could challenge the authorities and the president, readers intuitively extend these characterizations to encompass the fighters.
As Prigozhin’s personal empire began to crumble, marked by the closure of his media outlets and catering business and the temporary suspension of Wagner recruitment centers, the outward display of reverence for the mercenaries also began to decline. It is ironic that the Wagner “cancellation” process is being carried out by the same government machine that never missed a chance to lament about the cancel culture elsewhere in the world.
In one of their first moves after the mutiny, Kremlin strategists made President Putin meet with an adoring crowd during his visit to Dagestan in the North Caucasus. This photo op was likely supposed to show that he is one with the people and counterbalance earlier images from Rostov, where locals cheered Wagner on, taking pictures with fighters and shaking Prigozhin’s hand.
At the same time, the Kremlin has been actively asserting that Russian law enforcement agencies played a crucial role in preventing a civil war. This narrative does not align logically with other official statements about Wagner, like the one that the mercenaries would’ve been destroyed before reaching Moscow. Still, it is a deliberate attempt to manipulate emotions and instill fear in the general public by suggesting the unsettling possibility of brother turning against brother.
The propaganda machine went further, and a few days later, it attacked the fighters themselves. On July 1, Russian state-controlled TV Channel One aired a segment stating that Wagner’s combat effectiveness was a myth. They talked about the same mercenaries they previously called “the most famous musicians in the world.” The video was just one of many that targeted Prigozhin personally, but it didn’t go unnoticed.
Writer Alexander Pelevin, who won the 2021 Russian National Bestseller Award, wrote in his Telegram channel that the cancellation of Wagner by the state-backed media “looks disgusting.” His message was shared by several channels linked to the mercenary group.
“It’s just a shame,” he said. “I know for a fact that the guys from the PMC are witnessing this disgrace and are f****** gobsmacked. Well, I mean, no one had any illusions about the government, but perhaps they could have behaved a little less like pigs.”
“You can’t cancel a soldier who fought for your country,” he continued. “F****** hell, you just can’t. Otherwise, the country is f*****.”
Meanwhile, TV presenter Solovyov suggested that Wagner fighters may have acted the way they did during the mutiny because they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Wagner is currently undergoing organizational changes. According to sources from the independent news website Meduza, out of the eight thousand mercenaries who allegedly participated in the mutiny, only about a thousand decided to follow Prigozhin into exile in Belarus. The outlet wasn’t able to independently verify this information. If the remaining fighters continue fighting in Ukraine, they must sign contracts with the Defense Ministry.
“Not all [mercenaries] went with Prigozhin: some units remained here, in the Central Military District. Some are hanging around in the self-proclaimed LPR and DPR, and some are currently in the Krasnodar Krai,” a Wagner veteran interviewed by Meduza said.
On June 26, Prigozhin stated that only a “minimal number” of mercenaries, “amounting to a few percent,” had signed contracts with the Defense Ministry.
One of the sources interviewed by Meduza, who is reportedly well acquainted with both the mercenaries and Russian military personnel, admitted that they still couldn’t believe the mutiny had been quelled: “It’s as if they can grab their guns again at any moment.”
Prigozhin’s popularity has dropped in Russia following the mutiny. But despite being a notable figure in the Russian political arena, he is not the physical power behind the Wagner group. Well-trained and equipped mercenaries who are ready to defend their truth with arms, who have families and communities behind them, may not be as easy to cancel as the Russian government had hoped.
Domestically, attempts at Wagner’s cancellation have the potential to erode trust in the government’s messaging and damage its credibility. The stark contrast between the initial portrayal of the Wagner fighters as patriots and the subsequent attempt to erase their contributions creates confusion. Those who bought into the government’s narrative and developed positive attitudes towards Wagner may feel betrayed or disillusioned.
Unsurprisingly, alternative explanations or narratives of what happened in June have appeared on social media. Claims like the one that the mutiny was staged spring up because people are trying to make sense of the sudden shift.
Meanwhile, the individuals subject to cancellation, namely the Wagner fighters, may undergo significant emotional distress, anxiety, and depression. The relentless scrutiny, public humiliation, and loss of support can deeply affect their mental well-being. Coupled with their experiences in the war zones and unresolved matters within the Defense Ministry, this fragile mental state continues to simmer, potentially leading to further confrontations.