The buzz in the intelligence circles is that whether it is a military-led insurrection or an elite-led palace coup, if Putin is removed from office, the man who would likely replace him is Yevgeny Prigozhin.
His primary source of power is his role as head of Wagner Group, an under the table mercenary para-military group that has intricate ties with the Russian state, including helping them carry out duties that the Russian state can’t be directly linked to, such as support for the insurgencies in Eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, Russian support in Syria, but also contracted to fight for Russian backed forces in Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic. For a long time an open secret, Yevgeny Prigozhin only admitted to founding the organization last month, in September 2022.
The Wagner group appears to operate as a paramilitary group not only abroad, but within Russia as a sort of black operations pro-Putin security service parallel to the official security apparatus that because of its lack of status has the freedom to cross international borders and act within Russia while maintaining regime deniabiliy.
His past is checkered, serving nearly a decade in Soviet prison for theft, fraud, and organizing prostitution, he became a hot dog vendor, and worked his way up to establishing a series of restaurants in post-Soviet Russia. Serving the likes of George W. Bush and eventually, Putin, he formed a relationship with the Russian autocrat, earning him large catering contracts and legal immunity, after which he reestablished his criminal enterprise.
He has a long history as a petty thief and of violent crime, evidenced by his conviction record. Thus, it is likely that he will have no opposition to the use of violence. Still, given Russia’s performance in Ukraine and Prigozhin’s opportunistic streak, it seems unlikely that even as the leader of a junta displacing Putin that he would continue the war, as he appears to lack the historically sensitive visions of grandeur of Putin, and more resembles and old-school Soviet gangster turned kleptocratic ally of the aging former KGB agent who currently leads the state.
While an end to the illegal invasion and symbolic repudiation of aggressive expansionism would mean that the world order may yet survive, Prigozhin would likely not stand as a significant improvement for the people of Russia.