Putin is no longer the most popular person in Russia, internet searches show

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no longer the most popular person in Russia, with citizens seeking information about his ally, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, twice as often in May.

Last month, as the public feud between Prigozhin and Russia’s defense ministry intensified, Russians sought information on the man nicknamed “Putin’s chef” far more than the country’s leader, the independent Russian newspaper Verstka found.

Prigozhin, who earned his nickname thanks to his catering contracts with the Kremlin, has been pouring his Wagner fighters into the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut for months. He was seen by the Kremlin as a key tool in the war, but the businessman’s relations with the government began to sour when he showed appetite in the political sphere, launching attacks on Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of Staff . Valery Gerasimov.

Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school canteen factory outside St. Petersburg September 20, 2010. He was more popular than Putin in recent online searches.ALEXEY DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

On May 5, a furious Prigozhin addressed Putin directly in his plea for more ammunition, hours after he posted a clip full of expletives standing in front of rows of what he claimed were his fighters killed in battle at Bakhmut. He had previously aimed his attacks only at Shoigu and Gerasimov, blaming them and their inability to supply more ammunition for the deaths of his fighters.

Days later, on May 9 Victory Day, Moscow’s annual celebration of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, Prigozhin again complained about a shortage of ammunition, posting videos shortly before and immediately after Putin’s speech in the Square. Moscow Red. Prigozhin suggested that his fighters still lack ammunition and the Wagner group is not allowed to retreat and threatened with state treason for desertion.

He backed down from Bakhmut on May 25, accusing Russia’s military leadership of intentionally depriving its fighters of ammunition and support in the war. Most recently, Prigozhin rejected an order from Shoigu and Putin that his paramilitary group sign contracts with the Russian Federation by July 1.

According to Google Trends research conducted by Verstka, Russians began looking more for Prigozhin in early May, with interest in the Russian tycoon peaking by the end of the month. From May 28 to June 3, the popularity of Chief Wagner was at the level of 100 points (the highest indicator), while Putin’s popularity reached only 28 points.

Data from Yandex Wordstat showed that Russians searched for “Putin’s chef” 744,000 times in May (the previous record was 498,000 in January), while searches for “Vladimir Putin” were 305,000, 2.4 times fewer compared to the search for “Evgeny Prigozhin”, the news outlet found.

Commenting on the findings, Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, tweeted: “Prigozhin’s conflict with Russia’s defense ministry has led to his growing popularity which now surpasses Putin’s popularity.”

“In May, Russians looked online twice as often for information about Prigozhin as they did for Putin.”

Gerashchenko added: “I think at this rate, some accident might happen to Prigozhin.”

Vlad Mykhnenko, an expert on the post-communist transformation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the University of Oxford in the UK, said Newsweek in May he believes Prigozhin has “extended too much” and that his “physical life will end abruptly and involuntarily soon enough”.

“My money is on Prigozhin found dead in a Russian state-organized ‘suicide’, with a gun in his hand and a ridiculous suicide note,” he said. “Moscow could also provide Ukraine with the precise geolocation of Prigozhin within a 70km radius of HIMARS rockets to finish him off and provide a recruitment boost of ‘heroic’ propaganda to the ‘new’ emasculated Wagner.

Mykhnenko added: “The only other realistic option would be to allow Prigozhin to return to Russia, before being blown up with a car bomb like [Daria] Dugina and [Zakhar] Prilepin.”

Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment via email.

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