Wagner captures and interrogates Russian commander
Once upon a time, Yevgeny Prigozhin seemed untouchable. His private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group, was running riot in Ukraine.
The former businessman had been handed near-exclusive rights to Russia’s interests abroad, Wagner mercenaries spotted all across Africa. They guard lucrative businesses, and oil fields, and even double up as private security for authoritarian leaders.
This year, things began to change. Prigozhin, apparently emboldened by his near-monopoly over Russia’s militias, began calling out the very people lining his pockets.
In May, he brought a private feud with the Kremlin military leadership into public view with a video posted to social media, in which he shouted: “Shoigu! (Russian defence minister) Gerasimov! (Russian Army Chief of General Staff) where is the f*****g ammo?” In blaming Russia’s top defence chiefs for losses suffered by fighters in Ukraine, Prigozhin criticised the very heart of the Kremlin: Putin himself.
For now, Prigozhin remains in place. But in recent weeks competitors for the title of Putin’s favourite militia boss have emerged.
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Alexey Miller speaking at an energy conference in September 2022
The leading name is Alexey Miller, CEO of Russian energy company Gazprom, the largest state-owned company in the country, and the world’s biggest public energy supplier.
He already has a number of awards under his belt issued by the Russian state, including Hero of Labour of the Russian Federation, the Order For Merit to the Fatherland, and the Order of Alexander Nevsky, among other awards dished out by friends of Russia.
Earlier this year, reports emerged about a new militia group in Russia, similar to Wagner.
This one was different, however. It was the first time that a Russian state-affiliated company had formed any kind of military outfit, and Miller was at the centre of it.
In February, Ukrainian intelligence reported that Gazprom had established its own PMC. The rationale at the time was that the energy outfit needed a security force in order to defend its assets, things like gas pipelines, supply routes, and wells.
Yevgeny Prigozhin took direct aim at Kremlin top brass in a rage-filled video in April 2023
At the time, political scientist Dr Ariel Cohen, writing in Forbes, said that this was not the case, however, and neither was it the case that Gazprom was establishing an army to send to Ukraine.
Rather, he said, Miller was consolidating his control over valuable energy resources inside Russia, “but more generally, a scramble for power”.
While that may be true, a recent FT investigation found that Gazprom workers recruited to some of the company’s militia groups have in fact been sent to the frontline in the Ukraine war.
It was found that at least two separate battalions have been formed from the various Gazprom outposts across Russia. One is called ‘Potok’ unit, the other ‘Fakel’. Both were linked to the gas company and both had sent members to Ukraine to fight for Russia.
If successful, Miller’s militia group could well compete with the established Wagner group for an elevated place in Russia’s drive to create wild and often lawless PMCs.
Miller and Putin at the Kremlin in February 2022, just before Russia invaded Ukraine
Miller himself is said to be a direct rival of Prigozhin. According to Dr Cohen, tensions have only deepened between Prigozhin and other elite oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle since the beginning of the Ukraine war.
Prigozhin has even taken direct aim at the Gazprom militias, in April ranting in a 26-minute video in which he named checked both Potok and Fakel.
Claiming they wanted “to dilute Wagner” to prevent the existence of “one big force that can play a role in domestic politics”, he said: “Everyone is saying that there will be a power struggle at some point, and everyone needs their own army.
“People with money think creating a [battalion] is so hot right now. So they have begun to multiply… two of each kind. They need to report to the Kremlin about how f****ng amazing they are for creating their own [units].”
Miller and Putin are regularly pictured together, whether that is Miller being welcomed at the Kremlin, or Putin being shown around Russia’s gas assets by Miller.
The Gazprom chief has been integral to Putin’s energy war with Europe. By starving the continent of gas, Miller is firing an economic weapon that Russia successfully loaded over 50 years of wooing it over with natural resources.
It is important to note that by engaging in such an energy war, Miller is knowingly and willingly throwing away decades of Gazprom investment in and integration with the West, potentially committing the company to failure in the future.
But, as Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it is in Miller’s best interests to serve Putin regardless of the outcome for Gazprom.
He told the Wall Street Journal: “Miller is somebody who has Putin’s trust, somebody with unquestioning loyalty. Putin calls all the shots and Miller delivers on his orders.”