The Russia Program at GW Online Papers, no. 5, July 2023
Spinning Prigozhin: How Russian Television Managed the Wagner Mutiny
Paul Goode
Figure 1: Top stories from First Channel’s 9:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 23, 2023.
Russian state television’s nightly news on June 23, 2023, treated viewers to routine stories about foiled plots against Russia, Russian Army successes in Ukraine, breakthroughs in Russian medical science, backfiring Western sanctions, Russophobia on the march in Ukraine, Russian military academy graduation ceremonies, record-setting performances of Russian soldier-athletes, and highlights of domestic tourist destinations.

On the morning of June 24, the regular cadence of reporting on Russian state television was interrupted by a startling lead story at 6:00 a.m.:

Overnight, a situation has been developing around the claim by Yevgeny Prigozhin that the Russian Armed Forces allegedly attacked the PMC Wagner rear command post. A blurry video was posted along with the statement — allegedly of the consequences of the attack — in which nothing is clear [nichego ne poniatno]. Prigozhin then called for dealing with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense. Our military department has rejected the claim of a strike on PMC Wagner’s location …

This opening was followed by a series of denials and accusations by the Ministry of Defense, National Antiterrorism Committee, FSB (the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence and law enforcement unit), and the General Prosecutor’s Office. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was aware of the situation and in contact with security and defense services. The report concluded by stating that Prigozhin’s video was clearly faked and amounted to an “informational provocation.” The report was repeated verbatim at 8 am, adding only that emergency measures were being introduced in Moscow and the surrounding Moscow oblast.
Figure 2: Statement by Ministry of Defense reported on First Channel’s 6:00 a.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.
At 9:59 a.m., Putin went on national television and appealed to “those who were dragged into a criminal adventure by deceit or by force, [and were] pushed into the serious crime of armed mutiny.” Warning that Russia was currently fighting for its sovereignty and independence (by invading Ukraine), he characterized the mutiny as a “stab in the back” and treason, likening it to 1917 and the onset of the Russian Civil War. Putin’s framing of the affair as a stab in the back would quickly become a dominant framing throughout the day’s reporting.

Though Putin did not mention him by name, the 10:00 a.m. news increased focus on Prigozhin and added the claim that the mutiny was likely premeditated. To this last point, it cited a claim by the popular pro-war Telegram channel “Rybarʹ” that the recordings were made at the same time in advance of Prigozhin’s original statement condemning the Ministry of Defense. Putin’s address and the 10:00 a.m. news were rebroadcast at noon. While it was reported that public events had been canceled in a variety of regions (including Kaliningrad, Lipetsk, Tver, Tula, Komi, Tomsk, and Kaluga) no indication was given that Wagner had moved beyond Rostov towards Moscow.
figure 3: Reference to the Rybarʹ Telegram Channel alleging Prigozhin’s statements were recorded in advance, on First Channel’s 10:00 a.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.
As one might surmise from the increasingly alarmist reporting, the morning of June 24 was filled with uncertainty and confusion for many Russians. For starters, Prigozhin and Wagner were not household names in Russia, nor did they receive much recognition in domestic media prior to the mutiny. In fact, neither Prigozhin nor Wagner were mentioned even once on Russia’s national television news broadcasts in the month preceding the affair, yet suddenly they were everywhere. According to Levada’s research, most Russians found out about the incident only on the morning of June 24 with an average of 44% of Russians learning about the affair from television (though this amount was skewed towards those 40 and older, whereas Russian youth relied more upon Telegram and other social networking platforms). Those who first learned of the affair from state television on the morning of June 24 were in for quite a ride as First Channel rapidly repackaged the affair for viewers in the morning, afternoon, and evening of June 24, and yet again on the evening of June 25.

The following analysis is produced by the Russian Media Observation and Reporting (RuMOR) project at Carleton University, which uses broadcast transcripts of Russia’s national and regional television and radio provided by the research service to examine the evolution of Russia’s war narratives. This report focuses on reporting by the state-run First Channel [Pervyi Kanal] (1TV), which provided the most extensive television coverage of the affair.
Figure 4: Narrative shifts in First Channel reporting (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).
Framing the Mutiny

The mutiny was framed initially on the morning of June 24 as a provocation and — most frequently — as a “stab in the back.” Mutineers from Wagner were painted as deceived or forced to participate in Prigozhin’s treasonous adventure, which was also characterized as an act of terrorism. Two framing dynamics bear particular mention: (1) there was increasing discussion of the mutiny as treason throughout the first day, as well as (2) escalating mentions of public support for Putin.

The increasingly dire accusations of treason underscored the severity of the situation. Yet this severity begged the question of why someone so trusted by Putin would turn traitor, hence there was a clear effort to attack any public sentiment favoring Prigozhin by portraying him as corrupt and to undermine his personal charisma. By the afternoon, it was reported that police were searching Wagner’s offices in Saint Petersburg and located a “box of cash” in a car parked near the gates. This was updated in the evening broadcasts to indicate a specific amount (4 billion rubles, or approximately US $43.5 million) and the ominous conclusion that “special services will determine where it came from.” The afternoon broadcasts further implied that Wagner might have been responsible for the breach of security in Belgorod in May. The evening broadcasts closed with brief reports of an interview on German television with former Wagner mercenaries who complained about Prigozhin’s condescending and offensive personality.
Figure 5: Report on Raiding of Wagner’s Offices in Saint Petersburg on First Channel’s 3:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.
Equally important were the escalating mentions of public support for Putin, which reached a crescendo by the evening of June 24 and persisted the next day as the dominant framing of the event. The perception of Putin as universally popular remains a vital tool for regime maintenance. Over the course of the Prigozhin affair, this perception was repeatedly flagged on state television — by anchors, by man-in-the-street interviews, and by elite statements. The likely intent of these claims was to dissuade fence-sitters from siding with the mutineers and to deter additional challenges to Putin’s rule. Part and parcel of claiming Putin’s popularity was demonstrating public opposition to the mutiny, though this proved more difficult to document. For example, First Channel showed just a brief video clip of an army veteran in Rostov shaming the mercenaries to evidence that Wagner did not have the public’s support. Another clip of just a couple seconds was later added to the rotation in which a man can be heard shouting expletives at Wagnerites and asking, “didn’t you hear what Putin said?!”
Figure 6: A pro-Putin army veteran confronts Wagner mercenaries, as shown on First Channel’s 12:00 noon news broadcast on June 24, 2023.
Aside from treason and public support for Putin, two narratives drew upon previous state television repertoires for dealing with war-related crises. First, the framing of the mutiny as a terrorist act echoed coverage of the attack on Russia’s Belgorod region by Russian partisans supported by Ukrainian artillery in May and the blowing up of the Kakhovka Dam in central Ukraine in June. In both cases, Ukraine was claimed to be the source of terrorist attacks. In state television’s reporting on the attacks on Belgorod as terrorism, there was no mention whatsoever of the role of Russian partisans and there was total denial that any attacks happened on Russian soil. In the Prigozhin affair, likewise, there were similar silences: there was no mention on state television that Wagner had moved beyond Rostov, that its forces had met with little resistance, or that they had destroyed seven military aircraft while en route to Moscow. As Wagner advanced toward the Kremlin, however, the televised claims of terrorism diminished and were superseded by cries of treason.

The terrorism frame was also used by Russian state television to blame Ukraine for the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June. In both cases, Russian propaganda linked the event with claims about Ukraine’s flailing counteroffensive. In the Kakhovka Dam coverage, the claims of terrorism and desperation to overcome battlefield losses surged through the first two days of the crisis and only receded in favor of a narrative that held the West responsible for destroying the dam, with extensive quoting from former Fox News broadcaster Tucker Carlson’s short video posted on Twitter. As we will see shortly, a similar evolution occurred in coverage of the Prigozhin affair in which blaming the West emerged in the latter stages of coverage by state television.
Figure 7: Threats to Russia Portrayed in First Channel Reporting (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).
Threats to Russia, Past and Present

From the outset, the stakes of the mutiny — whether as a stab in the back, a terrorist act, or treason — were portrayed as working to Ukraine’s advantage in the war and as potentially leading to civil war in Russia. While the first claim was obvious to any outside observer, in practice it was difficult to document on state television without disclosing Wagner’s successes and the speed of its advance (or, for that matter, how poorly the regular Russian Army had performed on the battlefield without Wagner’s support). Starting from the noon broadcast on June 24, First Channel repeatedly ran a story that the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, openly supported Prigozhin, while also attributing to Budanov the erroneous statement that Ukraine’s government sought to kill all Russians.  In elaborating the scale of the threat posed by the mutiny, First Channel’s broadcasts made frequent resort to historical analogy. Foremost among these references was Putin’s association of the mutiny with the memory of 1917 and the Russian Civil War in his morning address, which was rebroadcast at regular intervals throughout the day. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church was further quoted as likening the threat to the Time of Troubles (smuta)—a lawless period in Russian history prior to the Romanov dynasty. Kirill’s comment was particularly interesting because the historical association with violent succession suggested a perception that the mutiny could divide the country’s leadership. Both analogies raised questions about their accuracy and meaning among professional historians, though the point was less to demonstrate knowledge of history than to conjure the audience’s fears of chaos and disorder in much the same way that the Kremlin has used the specter of the 1990s to secure autocratic rule and to caution against political liberalization.
Figure 8: Statement by Patriarch Kirill shown on First Channel’s 3:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.
Two threats that escalated throughout the crisis were that to the very survival of Russia (including Russian statehood and national unity) and fears that the crisis would be used by the West to divide and defeat Russia. State television played down the notion of existential threats and the role of the West until the crisis was under control, at which point they were promoted as after-the-fact justifications for the regime’s response to the crisis — a common way that Russian propaganda resolves its political morality tales. Similar patterns were observed in state television’s coverage of other crises, such as the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam.

Simulating Public and Elite Support for Putin

An interesting point raised by observers throughout the mutiny concerns the silence of Russia’s political and military leaders, suggesting that perhaps there was some truth to the notion of potential divisions among the elite. From the morning of June 24, First Channel emphasized a unity of voices among the country’s law enforcement and security agencies. Of these, statements by the Ministry of Defense, National Antiterrorism Committee, FSB, and the General Prosecutor’s Office were highlighted, while others like Russia’s National Guard were mentioned in passing as being in constant contact with Putin. Stylistically, this presented the response to the mutiny as a matter for the country’s legal and security institutions—a fact that is especially significant for the lack of any response given by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of General Staff Valerii Gerasimov to Prigozhin’s personal attacks.
Figure 9: Authoritative voices on Prigozhin’s mutiny (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).
After the crisis was resolved late on June 24 with the extralegal solution of exile for Prigozhin to Belarus and amnesty for Wagner members, television coverage switched to emphasizing Putin’s personal role in avoiding bloodshed (again, no mention was made of the loss of Russian pilots). Even the role of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko was minimized by suggesting that he was acting on Putin’s behalf. In other words, state television initially presented the crisis as national and legal in scope, even going so far as to specify the criminal codes and penalties that would apply to the mutineers. However, the resolution of the crisis was presented as solely attributable to Putin’s leadership and flexibility.

Aside from these institutional voices, individual members of Russia’s national or regional political elite were mostly absent from state television throughout the morning and afternoon, the only exceptions being Putin’s long-standing allies Valentina Matvienko (the Federation Council Chair), Viacheslav Volodin (the State Duma Speaker), and Patriarch Kirill. By 6:00 p.m., the list expanded slightly to include two high-ranking members of United Russia (Putin’s political party), the leaders of the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in eastern Ukraine, Kursk oblast Governor Roman Starovoit, and Chechnya’s Governor Ramzan Kadyrov. It was not until 9:00 p.m., when the crisis was nearing resolution, that the list finally included members of the systemic opposition like the Communist Party’s Gennadii Ziuganov and Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov. Finally, there were no broadcasts including elite voices of support for Putin throughout June 25 until the 9:00 p.m. news, which added just two more individuals: another systemic opposition leader in Leonid Slutskii (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia: LDPR), and a member of United Russia’s Supreme Council, Vasilii Piskarev.
Table 1: Chronology of Elite Expressions of Support for Putin on First Channel.
While state television presented these elite statements as confirmation that national and regional leaders had united in support of Putin, it is striking that the list initially was drawn from a relatively narrow circle (including those most beholden to Putin in Ukraine’s occupied territories) and only grew once the outcome of the crisis started to come into focus. This anemic display of loyalty by mostly second-tier elites is perhaps the most intriguing sign of possible divisions among Russia’s elite over the Prigozhin affair — an interpretation perhaps bolstered (indirectly) by the dropping of Patriarch Kirill’s mention of the Time of Troubles from the June 25 broadcast. While this might suggest that the country’s most powerful actors were unwilling to publicly express support for Putin during a challenge to his rule, it seems more likely that state television implemented a “spin dictator” strategy of ensuring that Putin was portrayed as the lone competent leader in the country.
Figure 10: Categories of Elite Expressions of Support for Putin (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).
One also finds lukewarm evidence of international support for Putin in the crisis. Starting from the 3:00 p.m. broadcast, it was regularly reported that Putin was communicating with world leaders, including Lukashenko, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirzieev, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Notably, the contents of these discussions were not revealed — including Tokaev’s apparent rebuff of Putin’s call for support — and only Erdoğan was reported as “fully supporting” Russia’s government. It was also reported in passing that Putin received verbal support from Abkhazia (recognized as independent and supported by Russia), Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba.

State television initially portrayed Western leaders as carefully monitoring the situation throughout June 24. However, by the evening of June 25, it devoted substantial time to blaming the West for the crisis. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić was also quoted as saying that the mutiny could not have occurred without the participation of foreign security services, and that it was only foiled thanks to Putin’s leadership. First Channel even ran a lengthy schadenfreude story about the West’s disappointment at the mutiny’s failure.
Figure 11: Report on Western disappointment at the mutiny’s failure, as shown on First Channel’s 9:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 25, 2023.

The Prigozhin affair presented a qualitatively new challenge for Russia’s domestic propaganda. To provide some perspective on the scale of the challenge, it is worth noting that the RuMOR project has been documenting how Russia’s war narratives shifted over weeks and months since the start of the war. By contrast, state television shifted radically in its coverage of the mutiny several times in the same day. The script was familiar, however, in that it started with a crisis that was defined as national in scope while the resolution was portrayed as Putin’s personal achievement.

Since the brief mutiny, experts have continued to debate its meaning and significance. For some, it appeared to be a coup attempt, and Putin’s claim to rule was briefly in question. Others interpret the mutiny as a consequence of Russia’s personalist autocracy in pitting powerful elite networks against one another. In this interpretation, the Prigozhin affair was an escalation of ongoing elite competition that went too far and left Putin significantly weakened as result. Unlike these elite-focused assessments, state television provides some insight into what the Kremlin does and does not want the general population to know. In turn, these insights reveal where the regime considers itself vulnerable.

One of the core observations of the RuMOR project’s monitoring of Russian television’s coverage of the war in Ukraine has been that Russian television aims minimize the extent to which the war impinges upon Russians’ daily lives. In addition, it is worth noting that state television generally does not distinguish between the different kinds of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, though Russia relies on multiple paramilitary organizations, including Wagner, in addition to the regular army. The sudden and immediate escalation of coverage of the Prigozhin affair ruptured this otherwise prosaic approach to war reporting. This fact, alone, is significant. That state television reported extensively on the mutiny and its stakes—all the while reshuffling narratives as events developed — is evidence that the regime perceived the mutiny as sufficiently threatening to risk interrupting the usual cadence of domestic propaganda.

More subtly, state television was forced to play catch-up with respect to coverage on social networking platforms, especially Telegram, and repeatedly warned viewers not to trust “unofficial information sources.” In this sense, Prigozhin effectively leveraged his presence on Telegram to challenge the dominance of state television. In this regard, the strategic silences observed in television coverage were all the more evident as contradictory information circulated on social media. There was grudging acknowledgement on the evening of June 24 that Wagner had succeeded in blockading the Southern Military District command in Rostov, but no mention that they had captured Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister. While there were reports of highway closures, there was no mention that Wagner was advancing on Moscow — even as several Telegram channels reported on its progress. There was no admission for two days that Wagner shot down several military aircraft, and this was further concealed in the reporting on June 25 that lauded Putin for his flexibility in not insisting upon criminal charges for Prigozhin and in securing a resolution to the crisis without “serious bloodshed.” In covering international responses to the mutiny, there was no mention of Kazakhstan’s dismissal of the mutiny as Russia’s internal affair or the substance of discussions with other putative allies.

Taken as a whole, the shifting portrayal of the mutiny ultimately revolves around key focal points: that Putin is in control, that Putin is supported by the population and the elite, and that Russia is not isolated in world politics. Threats to Russia’s interior are extremely sensitive since they threaten to make the war personal for Russians, hence the silences about Wagner’s advances. External threats, and especially threats posed by the West, are safe to discuss and even useful for propaganda purposes as long as they can be presented as manageable by Putin (and only Putin). For this reason, the claims of Western culpability for the mutiny arose only after it was resolved.

In the murky unwinding of the mutiny, Russians’ heads are spinning as fast as the propaganda machine. Looking ahead, the lasting significance of the affair concerns whether Putin’s propagandists can manage the public’s expectation of repercussions for the mutineers without compromising his image of being in control. Shortly after the mutiny concluded, Putin gave a brief national address that was promoted as deciding the fate of the nation. In fact, what the nation heard was an admission that Prigozhin and Wagner could evade prosecution. Putin further admitted that several military aircraft were lost, and later even admitted that Wagner is entirely funded by the Russian state. Public opinion polling indicates that most Russians approved of Putin’s management of the crisis, though polling under conditions of war censorship and increasing repression tends to produce such results. For those watching closely, the question of accountability may be shifting quietly from Prigozhin to Putin.
  • Paul Goode

    McMillan Chair of Russian Studies Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (EURUS),
    Carleton University
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