A Very Russian Drama

Winston Churchill memorably described Russia in 1939 as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He was reacting to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which caused a sensation and was the final prelude to World War II. He also could have referred to a few other major episodes from Russian history that happened suddenly—most notably the Bolshevik coup d’etat in November 1917, which brought to power a clique of murderous fanatics whose influence and popular support had been negligible until just a few months earlier. Before long, they would make Robespierre’s Jacobins look like mere amateurs in the art of mass murder.

On Friday and Saturday of last week, many were wondering whether Russia was on the verge of another catastrophic descent into a civil war at home even while it was engaged in a foreign war in its near-abroad. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary units swiftly took control of the major southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and started to march on Moscow, ostensibly to demand the replacement of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Prigozhin had accused the two on many occasions of ineptitude and even treasonous neglect in the conduct of Russia’s “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. He also criticized other members of the Russian elite, primarily the oligarchs, whom he accused of attempting to “steal everything that belongs to the people” during the war. He even said that the “division in society” could create conditions comparable to the 1917 revolutionary foment, warning of potential uprisings by ordinary soldiers who were dying while the corrupt officials enriched themselves.

At first, Prigozhin portrayed the rebellion as a response to an alleged attack on his men by the forces of the Russian Ministry of Defense but later dropped that claim and stated that the goal was to demand changes at the helm of the Russian military. His sudden move inevitably and dramatically threatened the stability of the Russian state itself and the credibility of President Vladimir V. Putin personally.

In the early phase of the rebellion it would appear that Prigozhin’s objections and stated goals resonated with many members of Russia’s regular armed forces, judging by the fact that Wagner’s advance in a column of barely 5,000 men continued almost unopposed to Voronezh, just 120 miles south of Moscow. In Rostov, furthermore, Wagner’s men were greeted warmly by many ordinary civilians. There are unconfirmed reports that Prigozhin also enjoyed behind-the-scenes support from General Sergey Surovikin because Surovikin resented being replaced last January by Gerasimov as commander in chief of the Ukraine invasion; Gerasimov is also said to have a personal financial stake in the Wagner operation.

Suddenly a Bonapartist setting seemed feasible. The Kremlin went into action. In a televised address on Saturday, Putin denounced Wagner’s actions as treason, a “stab in the back,” and pledged to quell the rebellion. Significantly, he did not single out Prigozhin by name, apparently allowing for the possibility of a compromise and end to Wagner’s march, which was fulfilled later that day following negotiations brokered by Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. It has been confirmed that 13 members of the Russian armed forces were killed during the crisis by Wagner’s anti-air weapons, as well as two regular army defectors who were killed fighting on Wagner’s side.

Some Russian analysts have expressed the view that the rebellion was stage-managed by the Kremlin to provide an excuse for a personnel purge at the top of the Russian government of those who are blocking an all-out effort in Ukraine. This would include not only Shoigu and Gerasimov but also many less prominent officials who would prefer negotiations and the return of some degree of normalcy in Russia’s relations with the West.

This would have been a high-risk strategy. The theory that Putin and Prigozhin conspired to stage an attempted coup to “test the loyalty of Russian elites” became popular on social media, but it defies belief. If it were so, Putin would not have needed Lukashenko to persuade Prigozhin to suddenly withdraw his forces. Back in 2018, TV journalist Andrei Kondrashov asked Putin in an interview what exactly he could not forgive. Putin replied, “Betrayal!” He added that he himself had not encountered it in real life. “Maybe I chose people who are not capable of this,” Putin added rather smugly.

It turns out that now he is faced with such a situation. He is personally acquainted with Prigozhin. The head of the Wagner private military company (PMC) received incredible privileges. Few people are allowed to have a de facto private army and make millions on catering contracts to boot. In Putin’s eyes, such privileges should be a guarantee of his loyalty. He protects “his own”—those whom he knows, trusts, and who personally owe their position to him. But Putin has been in power for more than 20 years, and the external context of the functioning of the Russian elite is changing. The relations between the players within it are changing, each of whom may be indebted to Putin for something. Conflicts are inevitable, and usually it was the president who played the role of arbiter and resolved them.

Yevgeny Prigozhin not only led his column almost to Moscow, but publicly announced an intra-elite conflict. He transferred the problem from the corridors of power to the public arena. This was unacceptable to Putin. Another important point is the direct demand to remove Shoigu and Gerasimov. They are Putin’s people and he is not used to firing anyone under pressure. Putin’s habits won’t change now: it is difficult to change a system that is largely built on personal obligations and patronage after so many years. Moreover, Prigozhin was not publicly supported by any of the security officials, ministers, governors, or oligarchs. Faced with a powerful irritant and an unprecedented threat, the Russian system seems to have passed the loyalty test. As the evening of June 24 approached, with the mediation of Lukashenko, the armed rebellion was reclassified into something else: the incident was transferred to the category of an acute intra-elite conflict, which was settled by the Kremlin’s traditional method of distributing gifts to all players.

At the same time, it is likely that Putin will increase vigilance in two respects. First, no one within the elite will be allowed to have autonomous political ambitions. Additional powers and status must be delegated by the president himself. Secondly, no one should be allowed to have the resources for an independent power bid. It is no coincidence that former presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, who rarely speaks, suddenly declared on Monday that the military should “no longer play with PMCs.” Deep changes in Russia’s power structure are unlikely in the near future. However, intra-elite players will become more fearful for their places, realizing how seriously any arbitrary step will now be perceived by the president and by their peers.

With his mediation successfully over, Lukashenko not only improved his status as junior partner within the Russian-Belarusian alliance, but also created a great personal public relations coup on the world stage. The official explanation for the participation of the Belarusian leader in this dramatic story was given by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov:

You will probably ask me why Lukashenko. The fact is that Aleksandar Grigorievich has known Prigozhin personally for a long time, about 20 years. And that was his personal proposal, which was agreed upon with President Putin. We are grateful to the President of Belarus for these efforts.

The Belarusian news agency reported on Saturday that, as Putin faced “the most acute phase of the situation,” he telephoned his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk. Lukashenko and Putin spoke three times during those 24 hours full of uncertainty. Political scientist Vadim Gigin, a confidante of Lukashenko, said that the Belarusian president’s conversation with Prigozhin was difficult, a “true man-to-man,” laced with obscenities “which would make one’s mother cry.” Lukashenko outlined a plan that entailed Prigozhin’s exile in Belarus, amnesty for his men, and the option to follow their boss or join the regular Russian forces.

This is not the first time that Lukashenko finds himself in the role of peacemaker. Although for the European Union he has long been the “last European dictator,” when EU officials needed it, they accepted his mediation in 2014 and 2015 when Moscow supported Donbas in armed resistance to Kiev. In reality, as the former German chancellor Angela Merkel and others have revealed, the Minsk agreements were only meant by the West to buy time for Kiev in order to arm Ukraine.

Despite the fact that he is under Western sanctions and that Russian tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on the territory of Belarus, Lukashenko still seems to be an acceptable mediator for Kiev. The Secretary of the Council for National Security and Defense of Ukraine, Alexey Danilov, wrote on Facebook that he does not rule out the possibility that the President of Belarus will participate in the negotiations on the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.

Prigozhin has claimed that all 25,000 members of his force are loyal to him, but that seems to have changed quickly the moment he accepted Putin’s offer. In online messages analyzed by the BBC, Wagner’s soldiers and their relatives were furious at Prigozhin’s decision to halt the march on Moscow and withdraw from Rostov. “He destroyed Wagner with his own hands, and he betrayed everyone he could,” said one user with a large following on the Telegram social network who claims to be a Wagner fighter.

Telegram is a popular platform used by Wagner’s soldiers and pro-war circles in Russia. It was there that Prigozhin announced the “March of Justice.” The site has now become a place where many former supporters criticize him. “What he did was dishonorable,” and “This is pure betrayal,” are examples of common posts after the deal was announced. It is difficult to estimate how widespread the veterans’ disapproval of Prigozhin’s action is, and in any event, it no longer matters.

A remarkable facet of the situation is that the Wagner group apparently is still recruiting. A notice on its Telegram channel offers new recruits a minimum of 240,000 roubles a month, or US$2,780—a huge sum for most Russians, especially those in poor regions. If Wagner retains an independent command and control structure—likely without Prigozhin at the helm—that would indicate that there may be more than meets the eye in the deal negotiated by Lukashenko. We’ll know Wagner’s fate on July 1, which is the deadline set for its incorporation into the regular Russian forces.

Whatever happens, Putin’s authority will be undermined to some extent even though there will be no palace coup. He avoided bloodshed on June 24 at the cost of making concessions to unnamed “traitors and backstabbers” and enlisting Lukashenko’s help in negotiating the deal with Prigozhin. It is to be feared that Putin’s weakness may prompt risky moves, especially if some of the more aggressive Western powers (e.g. Britain, Poland, the Baltics) escalate their involvement in Ukraine with “volunteer” boots on the ground.

No Russian leader will ever accept an anti-Russian state at the gates of Rostov and Belgorod. Putin is determined to prevent Russia from ending like the USSR, but the crisis of June 24 has shown the domestic political system to be surprisingly fragile. On the other hand, the nuclear arsenal is still strong. If nuclear bombs were a supreme threat with a low probability of use during the Cold War, today the doctrine is shifting to say that they can and should be usable.

Hence the paradox inherent in West’s proxy war: arming the Ukrainians to beat the Russians could induce the Kremlin to call NATO’s bluff and go “all in.” Vladimir Putin—whose authority has suffered several blows over the past week—will be more tempted now to make risky nuclear moves under external pressure than to remain the aloof and cautious leader we have known for so long.

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