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.