Russia-Ukraine War Updates: Latest News

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary chief, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, last month.Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

When President Vladimir V. Putin said recently that the Wagner mercenary group legally “does not exist,” a collection of social media accounts that have historically been associated with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the group’s founder, quickly endorsed the Russian leader’s statement.

“Prigozhin was respected inside the country,” said a post on a Twitter account under the name Bogdan Goryunov. “But with his single act, he has forfeited all that respect,” he added, referring to the Wagner leader’s aborted mutiny last month. “What remains of Wagner is nothing now, just a memory.”

A group of volunteers who monitor Twitter for trolls identified Mr. Goryunov as a likely one. His account had few followers or original posts, mainly posting replies to more popular accounts, and it sometimes contradicted itself. Days earlier, it had defended the Wagner leader, tweeting in response to reports that he had met with Mr. Putin after the mutiny: “Did Prigozhin finally recognize that it was a big mistake and he wants to be useful to the country again?”

More than a decade ago, Mr. Prigozhin became a pioneer in the dark arts of internet trolling, launching so-called troll farms to shape narratives in Russia and beyond, including by sowing pro-Trump discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But as his conflict with the Russian Defense Ministry over the conduct of the war in Ukraine deepened in recent months, some social media accounts, labeled trolls by activists, also turned against Mr. Prigozhin himself.

The change suggests that many of the tools that Mr. Prigozhin operated don’t specifically serve him — they serve the Kremlin. It also shows that the Russian state, which moved quickly to take down other parts of Mr. Prigozhin’s news media empire, may seek to take advantage of the troll farms, whose posts have often reflected how the Kremlin wishes to steer the public narrative in Russia.

“Prigozhin is Putin’s instrument,” said Antibot4navalny, a leader of a group of anonymous volunteers who monitor trolls, and identified Mr. Goryunov. “Without Putin, and the finances he provides, Prigozhin is nothing.”

Posts coming from troll accounts are both pro- and anti-Prigozhin, but that also may serve the Kremlin’s interests, according to Antibot4navalny, by allowing an outlet for those who support the Wagner leader’s views, including his harsh criticism of the Russian military leadership. What is clear, the group says, is that the trolls devote outsize attention to news related to Mr. Prigozhin’s interests, sometimes steering the discussion in his favor.

Over the past two decades, Mr. Prigozhin has been willing to undertake some of the most sensitive tasks for the Russian state — including by deploying Wagner mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East — in exchange for lucrative state contracts and increased influence.

His aborted mutiny — born out of his ambition to assume a greater role in the Russian power hierarchy — has sidelined Mr. Prigozhin, but the tools he helped develop could still serve the Russian state’s interests, analysts say. Since the uprising, Russian troll farms have been as active as ever, according to Darren Linvill, who studies trolls and social media disinformation at Clemson University in South Carolina.

“I think it would be a priority for the Russian government, especially right now when there are so many threats to Putin’s power,” Mr. Linvill said. “I would argue that the work of troll factories is as important as ever for Putin.”

By contrast, the Russian authorities moved quickly to take down Mr. Prigozhin’s media company, a collection of crudely designed news websites that never matched the reach of the better financed Russian state-run media.

According to Vladimir Yagudayev, who worked for one of Mr. Prigozhin’s websites, Politics Today, police officers searched the company’s offices in St. Petersburg after the mutiny. Days later, Mr. Yagudayev’s manager told him that the whole operation would shut down.

“It was very sad,” Mr. Yagudayev said in an interview, adding that he supported Mr. Prigozhin’s political views and believed his media companies made a valuable contribution.

“It wasn’t about money,” he said. “I was putting my soul into it.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.