July 5, 2023

Putin, Prigozhin, and the Degeneration of Russia

Face masks depicting Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, owner of PMC Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed for sale at a souvenir market in St. Petersburg, Russia, 28 June 2023.
Face masks depicting Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, owner of PMC Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed for sale at a souvenir market in St. Petersburg, Russia, 28 June 2023.

An armed attack against a country’s military leadership is an attack upon the state. Inside Russia, the actions that brought Russia to near paralysis on 24 June are being called a mutiny (myatezh), but they were far more serious than that.

Karelians say, We don’t give a damn: Moscow can burn down and we’ll throw on more matches. People talked about the mutiny like a football match and made bets.[1]

Had Yevgeniy Prigozhin, by force majeur, succeeded in removing (and, it would now appear, kidnapping) the military leadership, the system of state authority in Russia would have been ruptured whether or not President Putin and the official structures of power remained in place.

It didn’t happen, and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenko (and, very likely, others) persuaded Prigozhin that it could not. (“Putin will crush you like a bug,” Lukashenko supposedly said). But the system of state power in Russia is shaken, damaged, and still very much threatened. The unopposed “March for Justice,” accompanied by the almost cordial handover of Southern Military District HQ and the treacherous passivity (if not encouragement) of two spetsnaz brigades, brought into the raw systemic infirmities that before 24 June were points of dispute confined to commentators and political scientists. A state whose war-making capacity alarms NATO and which, with cold-blooded efficiency, crushes mass protests in Moscow and Khabarovsk showed itself incapable of acting against armed rebellion until it reached the approaches of the capital itself. A state leadership that wages info war at home and on a global scale found itself the victim of what Pavel Luzin has called “communications entropy” as well as “deliberate information isolation” by its subordinates.[2]

Not least of all, a president associated in the public mind with steely resolution was reduced to comparing himself to Tsar Nicholas II and Russia’s army to the Imperial Army that disintegrated after three years of war against Europe’s greatest military power. Should it be confirmed that Putin also left Moscow at the height of the crisis, comparisons with his pluckish and impertinent foe, Volodymyr Zelensky, will be unavoidable and damning. Those old enough to have lived through the assault on the Russian White House in 1993 will recall that it was Boris Yeltsin (long reviled by Putin for his ‘weakness’) who acted with resounding force. Now, in the words of Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the shuttered Ekho Moskvy, “it turns out you can start a revolt and be forgiven.”

Russia has now arrived at a turning point (perelomniy moment) without a destination.

Power and Decomposition

For many, the critical question is which factions will support, which will oppose, and which will temporise as Putin seeks to rebuild his authority. But the bigger question is the fate of the system of power that Putin made his own. The fact that much of the vertical of power has decomposed into cartilage is no revelation to those who understand the contradictory principles upon which it was built. In essence, it is a system as old as Russia itself, characterised by divide-and-rule and overlapping patronage networks, riven by factionalism. But it also is a system built on a fusion of power and money. In Yeltsin’s time, money bought power, and business networks, shadow structures and security forces, increasingly financed by non-budgetary resources, privatised the state and enfeebled it.

On assuming power, Putin was determined to turn things upside down, and he did. He constructed a system in which power bought money. Today, the state dominates the economy and the networks of patronage that enable it to function. In this elaborate matrix, Putin has acted as arbiter or arbitrator, depending on the importance of the protagonists and the issue at hand. Like a classic mafia don, he has rewarded loyalty with loyalty, not to say privilege. He also established an unspoken contract with society: leave to the state what belongs to the state, and the state will allow you to prosper. For a time, these innovations appeared to overcome the chaos and multi-voicedness (mnogogolosiye) of Yeltsin’s incoherent system. But they have long since reproduced the worst features of the Russian court: passivity, venality, servility, and mendacity — and now, treachery. Moreover, the price of society’s quiescence has been its atomisation.

Yevgeniy Prigozhin is both an exemplary and horrifying product of this system’s evolution. He was associated with Putin long before the outside world heard of Putin, let alone him. By the time Russia launched its latest assault upon Ukraine in 2022, his web of connections extended right across the military, security, and political establishments. Until last month’s events, he served two systemic functions. First, he provided a mask of deniability for Russia’s hybrid mode of geopolitics, war waging, and asset stripping in the Near East, Africa and Ukraine itself (where his private military company Wagner played an active role in the Donbas war). Second, he drew off much of the venom from Russia’s ultra-nationalists, probably the one force in the country that Putin fears and respects. In this capacity, Prigozhin also served as a lightning rod for grievances in the army that were smouldering like potash and that on 24 June finally ignited.

What Prigozhin also brought to the fore is a cleavage in the armed forces dating from Putin’s reshuffling of the defence leadership before the 2008 Russia-Georgian war. The new Minister of Defence, Anatoliy Serdyukov, instituted a programme of creative destruction. Between 2007 and 2012, he and his CGS, Army General Nikolay Makarov, discharged 80 and 70 percent of colonels and majors respectively, opening pathways for fresh talent in a leaner and tighter army. Army General Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s most able commander in Ukraine (and now reportedly arrested), Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, “butcher of Mariupol,” and Lt General Vladimir Alexeyev, top GRU (military intelligence) commander in Ukraine (and orchestrator of the operation to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal) were all beneficiaries of this process, as was another figure close to Prigozhin, Alexei Dyumin, former Putin bodyguard and senior GRU officer (before being sidelined as governor of Tula Oblast), and it is he who probably negotiated the details of the deal for which Lukashenko is given credit. [3]

In 2012, Shoigu and Gerasimov were appointed to draw a line under the disruption, marking perhaps the final transition between Putin the innovator and Putin the consolidator. Both were innovators in their own ways (recall the misnamed 2014 Gerasimov doctrine), but they long ago lost their edge, and it is thanks to their loyalty rather than competence that they remained in place. Prigozhin not only despises Shoigu, but hates him for his bungling or connivance, which led to the slaughter in February 2018 of over 100 Vagnerovtsy in eastern Syria by US special forces.

Since 2012, if not before, the measure of Putin’s indispensability has been his ability to dominate, direct, and safeguard the mechanism of power that he himself established. We can argue about when he lost this ability but not about whether he lost it. Prigozhin’s grievances were not merely ill-concealed; they were vitriolic, and on the eve of his rebellion, he denounced the mythology that underpinned the war and the “civilisational” mission of the state. How could Putin concede Shoigu’s demand that Wagner’s “volunteers” sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence — effectively reducing Wagner to a nameplate — without foreseeing consequences? Why did his generals, the FSB and its Directorate of Military Counterintelligence not warn him of consequences? What accounts for the failure of other force structures and senior figures to perform their most essential duties? Initiative is punishable (Initsiativa nakazuema)! In the absence of a direct order, do not act. But is that all there is to it?

Future Uncertainties

Now that Prigozhin has been removed as an immediate threat, the main issue is not his long-term prospects, but Putin’s. The equally serious question is whether the system of power will recover its effectiveness. A pantomime is now inevitable: displays of elite support, the side-lining of some and the punishment of others. But that is not how authority is rebuilt. Just how far Putin’s writ extends is now an open question. Nikita Khrushchev was deposed in October 1964, but the blow to his authority came in the Caribbean two years earlier, and he never rebuilt it.

What of the short-to-mid term? Four questions are unavoidable.

First, a complex of questions now arises about Belarus. So far, according to Ukrainian military intelligence, there is no sign of Wagner’s redeployment to Belarus apart from a construction site. But should the contingent that formed the March for Justice (25,000 according to Prigozhin; 8,000 according to British intelligence) or some residue thereof deploy there, who will exercise authority over them: Prigozhin? Lukashenko (most unlikely in view of his complete dependency on Moscow) or, if Moscow, exactly who? And what will be the implications of their deployment for Lithuania, Latvia and Poland? In January 2023, the US State Department characterised Wagner as a “significant transnational criminal organisation.” Polish assessments are no more charitable. What utility might they have in Russia’s overall matrix of hybrid war — and in circumstances where (in contrast to the Belarus-Poland migrant crisis of 2021) Belarus claims to have Russian nuclear weapons on its territory?

Second, what of Wagner’s holdings and the presence of several thousand Wagnerites in Syria and across at least thirteen African countries? According to the US Treasury, its assortment of gold and diamond mines and other facilities have been bankrolling Putin; according to the latter, Wagner is fully funded by the Russian state. Whatever the truth of the matter, who will now control and manage these assets, and if the answer turns out to be Yuriy Kovalchuk or some other pocket oligarch, how will that control be secured and maintained? According to the Head of US Special Operations Command Africa: “[T]he country [that hosts Wagner] is left poorer, weaker and less secure. Every time.”

Nevertheless, Wagner has allies and accomplices in Africa as well as the Near East, and all of them have placed their confidence in the stability and reliability of Russia. So has Erdogan’s Turkiye. What conclusions will they now draw?

Third, and of greater import, what will be the impact of the Prigozhin affair on the war in Ukraine? To be sure, neither Prigozhin’s march in Russia nor the withdrawal of his forces from Ukraine will diminish the effectiveness of Russia’s echeloned defences north of Tokmak and Melitopol. But they cast such strengths in a very different light. There is a world of difference between a military system in which action is forbidden unless orders are given and one where the absence of orders is no excuse for idleness. This difference is one of several Ukrainian force multipliers that will bear upon the dynamics of this war, counterbalancing others (in artillery and aviation) that the Russians undoubtedly possesses. Such events as we have witnessed in Russia do not occur in armies that believe they are on their way to victory.

Fourth, and no less important, what conclusions will Ukraine’s Western partners draw from these events? When NATO Allies convene in Vilnius, will they be resolved to consolidate the Euro-Atlantic system and Ukraine’s place in it or will they succumb to worries about the perils of a cornered Putin and an unstable Russia? The recent visit by CIA Director William Burns to Kyiv points to a mixture of both.

The Prigozhin drama should be read as a clear and damning sign of political and military failure. To be sure, Prigozhin gambled and lost. But in doing so, he exposed the rottenness of Russia’s system of power and the powerlessness of Putin to arrest it. It is worth reiterating the eve-of-war verdict of General Ivashov in January 2022, to which we drew attention in an earlier paper:

The main threat […] is an internal threat, originating from the model of the state, the quality of power and the state of society […]. In our opinion, the leadership of the country, understanding that guiding the country out of the systemic crisis is beyond its capacity and is likely to lead to a popular uprising and the replacement of power, thus — with the support of the oligarchy, the corrupted class of officials, the suborned media and security/power elites — have decided on a course of action that will end with the final destruction of Russian statehood and the eradication of the country’s indigenous population.[4]

Those who believe that the danger has passed are likely to be surprised, both sooner and later.

The author would like to acknowledge his colleague, Igor Gretskiy, whose insights added substance and reinforcement to the points expressed in this paper.

[1] Alexander Balaban, UKE News Update # 1,849 DAY 496 [AKA: DAY 493], 2 July 2023 (private distribution)

[2] Pavel Luzin, “Communication Entropy in the Kremlin versus Putin’s Information Isolation,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol 20, issue 102 (26 June 2023).

[3] Mikhail Komin, “Who Was Prigozhin Counting On to Back His Failed Mutiny?,” Carnegie Politika, 27 June 2023.

[4] Cited in James Sherr and Igor Gretskiy, “Why Russia Went to War: A Three-Dimensional Perspective,” ICDS, January 2023.

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