by Orietta Moscatelli
1. To reassure the country, and probably himself, after the armed insubordination of the Wagner Group, Vladimir Putin appeared in Dagestan for a meeting dedicated to domestic tourism. It was an abnormal display of normality in the centre of Derbent, with handshakes and selfies and without the anti-Covid filters and quarantines still imposed on anyone who has to stand beside the Russian leader for more than a few seconds (Heads of State and Government excepted). Welcome to the Russian Federation recovering from the system’s syncope brought about by the Wagner uprising – thirty-six hours that made the Moscow regime fear the worst and the authorities in Kiev hope for the worst. And which oblige Vladimir Putin to show that he is still in control. Or rather, to demonstrate, once the due verifications are carried out, who was in cahoots and who was looking on thinking of how to take advantage.
History reminds us that Russia has recurring suicidal crises, sometimes fatal, sometimes not. And that minor heart attacks – a category into which Yevgeny Prigozhin’s adventure seems to fall – indicate systemic problems, which are also often manageable, though not always. Thus the 1991 attempted coup heralded the incipient end of the Soviet Union, while the bombing of the Russian parliament two years later cemented Boris Yeltsin’s temporary victory and an authoritarian turn in post-communist Russia that was destined to last and to be largely perfected. Today, the Federation’s entire enormous body is in danger of fibrillation. Its head is in deep pain, due to an excess of inputs and the impossibility of synthesis: the war on the West, the limits of the inevitable partnership with Beijing on the East, the always uncertain economic prospects. In Moscow, analysts and supporters of one side or the other are divided between those who think that in one month’s time everyone will have forgotten the incredible Wagner ride on deserted southern highways and those who foresee a further blow to the system, which is at this point fatal. The developments, if not the outcome, of the War in Ukraine will decide which of the two teams had seen it right. In the meantime, the long-running struggle between power groups enters a new phase, which is also inevitably linked to war.
2. The feud between ‘the Kremlin towers’ is a genetic problem that has passed (again) into an acute phase on account of the war in Ukraine. Notwithstanding frequent slips into anecdote, the saga of the Petersburgians against the Muscovites, of the Services in dispute with the Army, is a red thread of the Putin era, which began with a massive emigration of spies, functionaries, and friends of Vladimir Vladimirovich Vladimirov from the banks of the Neva to the Moskva. The level of hostility between the two macrogroups is permanently high and rises at times of crisis, when resources have to be shared or the cake shrinks. And, needless to say, if a change at the top is near. The Prigozhin affair, which combines all these factors, has matured against the backdrop of chronic competition between branches of the Services and strong ministries.
This was already a reality in the USSR days, when the KGB infiltrated agents into the structures of the First Directorate of military intelligence agency (GRU), an emanation of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. During the war in Afghanistan, the two bodies denounced each other in order to make the other take responsibility for mistakes. The result was that the top party echelons were increasingly given disinformation, thus accelerating the path to defeat.
The world of military espionage changed with the arrival of Vladimir Putin, a nostalgic former KGB agent and former Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main heir to the KGB. From the top of the FSB, the current president organised the power base that was then articulated and armoured once he ascended to the Kremlin. One of the consequences was the downsizing of the GRU, the staff of which was partly transferred to the FSB, which, among other things, has long been aiming to take over the GRU’s structures abroad. But the war in Ukraine has turned several plots upside down, not least because Putin, faced with the mistakes of his favourites, has apparently decided to rely on the ‘competitors’ of the military services.
Bad blood also flows between the Services and the Ministry of the Interior, the latter conceived by Brezhnev in the 1970s as a counterweight to the KGB, which obviously does not like it. The Militsioner grew in numbers and political weight, and were idealised by the propaganda of the times. In time, they became a symbol of crudeness and corruption, a reputation maintained to this day. When the police returned to Rostov on 24 June after the retreat of the Wagner fighters, the population indulged in volleys of whistles and insults. The Russians who witnessed the scene on social channels for a moment wished they were there.
The transition to a market economy has intensified the practice of circumventing laws and rules through knowledge (and bribes), to a degree unheard of during the Soviet era, when there was the well-known blat. The FSB’s favoured status has yielded enormous personal enrichment: everyone is free to do their own business alongside that of the State. But above all, it has led to the hypertrophy of the so-called informal powers, that is to say the under-the-table deals with oligarchs and State officials of proven usefulness – a major engine of corruption. The various groups in cahoots or in conflict tend to live in parallel realities, tailored to their own interests, the distorting effect of which is carried to the top. This practice allegedly led FSB Head Alexander Bortnikov to convince himself, and Putin, that Russian troops in Ukraine would be greeted with songs and flowers. For his own reasons and benefit, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych assured the Russians that the South and South-East Ukraine would switch to their side in no time, including Odessa.
3. The Wagner mutiny – an event on a smaller scale – seems to have been a repeat of similar dynamics. On the evening of June 23, the presidential administration informed Putin of a manageable situation: negotiations were taking place and agreement was a matter of hours. Those who saw the Kremlin chief the next day, as he recorded his first message to the nation, tell of an agitated leader, infuriated by the idea of not having foreseen the events. Again, the administrative machine had hugely underestimated the situation, as it had done with regard to Ukraine at the beginning of 2022.
Putin underestimated Prigozhin. That this angers him is beyond doubt. Similarly, Petersburg biznesmen have over the years cultivated acquaintances, friends and enemies in the upper and lower echelons of the Putin system. Private wars between branches of power facilitated his rise and then hastened his fall. However, little is still known about the incredible insubordination that took place at the end of June. When faced with the mysteries of Moscow, one seeks refuge in history, which abounds with extraordinary events. Playing with moments from the past is certainly suggestive, but does not necessarily clarify much.
These days, comparisons with the failed coup of 1991, a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo and halt the agony of the Soviet Union, are frequent and out of range. In his first appeal, when he denounced ‘betrayal’, Putin evoked 1917, the fateful year that led to the ‘destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, and the loss of vast territories, ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war’. It was a list of absolute evils meant to magnify the urgency of the moment, even at the cost of impersonating the Tsar who lost everything, empire and life. Some saw in the crosshairs of the invective the Bolsheviks, others General Lavr Kornilov, the mastermind behind two attempted coups in 1917. In the end, it matters little: the Kremlin chief arms himself with history as needed, interprets episodes to pass a specific message or remains vague – after all, a little ambiguity is always handy.
In November 2022, speaking to historians and religious representatives, Putin cited the October Revolution to argue that a civil war was underway in Ukraine as a confrontation ‘within the same people, just like after the 1917 upheavals’. Putin denounced the Bolsheviks as corrupters of the Russian Empire. He shot at the finger (Lenin’s) while ignoring the moon of the socio-economic context that made the revolution possible: the crisis exacerbated by Russia’s participation in the First World War, the tensions between the working masses and the aristocratic and industrial elites, the terrible social inequality between those two worlds. But these are just details. The Russian leader, who took over the Kremlin in 2000 by promising stability, also evoked the Smuta, the Time of Troubles, the period between the 1598 accession to the throne of the boyar Boris Godunov (on account of the incapacity then death of Ivan the Terrible’s son) and the wars of 1601-13 – times of dynastic disruption and anarchy. Three obscure characters came forward as sons of Ivan the Terrible who had survived an assassination attempt, among them the famous ‘false Dmitry’ who was allegedly supported by the Poles. But in addition to the dynastic crisis, the Smutnoye Vremia saw mass unrest following the amendment of the slavery laws, the tightening of taxes, and famines. The current Kremlin leader is interested in reiterating that if legitimate power is challenged, chaos will follow in one way or another. The common denominator between the June speech and the one last November, is twofold: the defence of the established order and revulsion for drastic ruptures. But implicitly, there is an alarm for Russia’s territorial integrity: with the turmoil, the Empire could lose access to the Gulf of Finland, parts of Karelia, and Smolensk.
Prigozhin denied attempting to subvert the regime. Probably the order to submit to the Ministry of Defence pushed him over the permissible limit, but it is unlikely that he did so without any support from the cogs of power. Chief Wagner was also declared a ‘traitor’ for disavowing the official motives for the invasion of Ukraine: ‘the oligarchic clan that rules Russia needed the war,’ he said. In February 2022 in the Donbas nothing had changed from previous years as Kiev did not want to attack Russia together with NATO and therefore there was no imminent threat. The conflict rather served to “simply triumph and promote’ a group of inept people affiliated with Sergei Shoigu, a ‘shaking old man’ who continues to lie to the president. It’s enough to suspect an axis with those within the Putin system who think the war was a folly and a failure, from which one can only emerge either with an unlikely real victory or with a negotiation which would turn Putin into ballast.
4. The Wagner Group was not always at loggerheads with the army. On the contrary, it was born from a shared project between the GRU and the Defence leadership, activated in 2014 with the Crimea campaign and then in the Donbas. Prigozhin became the point man later, with the Syria campaign, where the first strong tensions came to the fore. The partnership was shattered, according to testimonies from former fighters, when Putin praised the mercenaries for the battle of Palmyra. From then onward, it was red alert at the military top brass and Wagner started experiencing problems with arms supplies. It all became uphill. In an audio clip circulated in 2018, a voice is heard complaining of a massacre among Russian fighters. At least two hundred died under American Special Forces fire in the oil province of Deir ez-Zor. At first it was thought that the Kremlin had spread it to accuse the Pentagon, then it was realised that a mercenary was denouncing betrayal by the army.
Since then, the Wagner leaks have been a weapon in the colourful arsenal used for the feud which the Kremlin chief considers manageable, perhaps even useful for the usual divide-and-conquer exercise. Along the way, Prigozhin has secured good contacts among the oligarchs, who are interested in his businessman’s flair and also in his political manoeuvres. As early as 2018, some of his advisors, far-right figures, urged him to diversify his activities to maintain independence after 2024, which is when Putin was supposed to leave. Then came the reform of the constitution and the cancellation of Putin’s accumulation of mandates, and the concept of post-2024 independence became something else altogether.
To high-ranking military ranks or spies whom he appreciates, the entrepreneur from St Petersburg bestows honorary membership of the Wagner Group: there are at least thirty of them. Among them: General Sergei Surovikin, given personal badge M-3744 5 in year 2017) when he was in the process of earning the nickname ‘General Armageddon’ in Syria. The conferment became radioactive with the attempted coup, or what seemed like an attempted coup. Surovikin, also called ‘the tough guy’, has a record of participating in putsches, which in days of uncertainty returns, if anything, as a clue in his favour. In 1991, as a 24-year-old captain, he received orders on behalf of the self-proclaimed State Committee on the State of Emergency (the coup plotters who hoped to save the USSR by ousting Gorbachov) to move his men towards the centre of Moscow and position them to defend government buildings. As the putsch failed, Surovikin was arrested and immediately released on Boris Yeltsin’s personal orders. The then president had taken advantage of the defections in the army but valued those who put the military oath and the obligation of obedience above everything else. At least that’s what a retired general said a decade ago, and that’s what Vladimir Putin may have been thinking when last autumn he entrusted ‘Armageddon’ with the defensive tactics in southern Ukraine, after withdrawing from Kherson, a decision described by the general as ‘very difficult’ yet inevitable.
Surovikin’s disappearance from the public scene after the uprising raised a thousand questions. The rumours in the American press about his possible arrest have contributed to this: an attempt to torpedo the best strategist of the Russian army? Or it is a helping hand to Putin, in an attempt to weaken the so-called party of unlimited war, for which Surovikin represents a hope? Of course, if the super-general’s star finally dims, it will be the FSB camp that benefits. The fate of the ‘tough guy’ thus becomes key to interpreting events that are in many ways incomprehensible and to some extent ‘the future of Russia’, says a source in the government sphere, without elaborating. Big shots among the elites, even in the presidential administration, regard the events of June 23-24 as the laying of a mine at the heart of power rather than a coup attempt. Following this logic, the most admired general in the Russian army can aspire to various roles: new Defence Minister or Chief of Staff taking Valery Gerasimov’s place when the dust settles. Gerasimov is a broken link in the chain of military command that could have brought down the regime or a collective scapegoat to save the Putin system, creaking as it is for various other reasons. In any case, the fate of the Shoigu-Gerasimov couple seems sealed. And a re-shaping of the army is inevitable. It has in fact already begun with the law requiring private military companies to sign a contract with the Defence Ministry as of July 1.
In the immediate future, however, the Rosgvardija and its commander appear to be growing stronger, or rather recovering. Valery Zolotov was considered to be declining in presidential favour due to his poor performance in Ukraine. Now the corps he heads will receive heavy weapons, hence new powers. The federal Service of the National Guard of the Russian Federation (official wording) was created by presidential decree in 2016, when coloured revolutions were at the top of the Kremlin’s concerns. It reports directly to the president and its functions include counter-terrorism, public order, the defence of the integrity of the Federation. As well as supervising private security companies, the mini-Wagner companies that assist businesses and high-income individuals. In short, Zolotov is the man of the moment. Leaving nothing to chance, he claims that ‘the rebellion was inspired by the West’. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov also spoke of ‘personal ambitions, benefits and […] arrogance’ to explain the ‘march for justice’ – as Chief Wagner christened his enterprise.
5. With the crisis now over, the silence of many dignitaries and the hasty take-offs of at least 30 private jets could have a hefty price. The oligarchs, impatient with the continuation of the war phase and worried about their assets, are the first suspects. It does not look good for the 21 governors (more than one in four) who have not issued statements of support for the Kremlin. Assessments have begun. Putin does not like to cut off heads quickly and in public, preferring to leave it to the Duma President to call for a big purge. Vyacheslav Volodin has proposed punishing civil servants who have flown abroad ‘at a difficult moment for the country’ and has ordered checks on which officials have left or attempted to leave. A separate dossier was to take information on the managers of large companies who had remained in the shadows trying to figure out how it would end. Volodin gained the immediate support of the parties sitting in parliament. In September, important administrative elections will be held and ways will be found to penalise ‘spectators’: those who did not openly condemn Prigozhin.
The autumn ballot call at this point grows in importance. Turnout will translate into support for the President; likewise, votes for the United Russia government. In the end, Mr Wagner’s challenge showed the vulnerability of the Putin system and at the same time may have helped to recompose it. Barring new stumbles, the road to a fifth term in the Kremlin starting in 2024 remains open. The dissent that has been simmering for some time in the presidential entourage, focused on the war and the excessive slide towards China, will be subdued so as not to inspire purge fans. More difficult to control are the discontents of the ultranationalist entourage. But Prigozhin’s gamble has divided the so-called Black Hundred between supporters of the uprising and those who doubt its real motives. One of the voices most critical of the military leadership, former FSB colonel Igor Girkin, calls for an exemplary chastisement, otherwise Putin will show himself to be completely impotent and there will be another rebellion, this time a fatal one. Girkin predicts that it will still lead to new protests and Putin’s defenestration.
6. The war in Ukraine is unprecedented in size and consequences in the history of post-Soviet Russia. But it was preceded by Chechnya, Georgia, the long crisis in the Donbas, Syria. The Caucasian conflict had a huge impact on Russian society and this is also why the use of private military companies (9vk) grew. Wagner, with its 25,000 declared personnel, a federal network and branches in some 30 countries, has become a semi-army that has very little in the way of private enterprise, if it is true that it has received 858 billion roubles (USD 10 billion) from the state, in addition to another 845 billion collected by Prigozhin through his holding company Concord. How to give up so much?
The 9vk problem has several aspects. The contract fighter’s spirit is to be blind to costs and risks in a way that he never stops motivating his existence. And away from the front, once he’s back home, he will continue to act this way and become a warlord at home, suggested Vladislav Surkov when commenting on the mutiny. The hated (and by many regretted) ideologue of Putinism broke his silence to proffer advice against the legalisation of private military groups: ‘They arose only during the Time of Troubles and the Civil War,’ he said in an interview. He described them as Western practices that ‘do not correspond to Russian political and military culture.’ The risk is to turn Russia into ‘some kind of Eurasian tribal zone’.
As for the Russians, the majority stand by, seeing no alternative to Putin, divided by the prospect of a long war but basically united in the idea that Russia must win. The Levada Center recorded at the end of June a drop in the percentage of those who want to continue the war (from 48% to 40%) and an increase in those in favour of peace negotiations (from 45% to 53%). The mutiny of the Wagner Group is likely to have had an influence. On which the propaganda quickly reversed course, re-evaluating the regular army’s input even in the taking of Bakhmut, while websites and the popular press are dealing with Prigozhin’s criminal past. According to a latest Levada survey, 51% approve of Minister Shoigu and 34% of Prigozhin, who is considered sincere and honest by his supporters, while those who criticise him repeat Putin’s words, ‘a rebel, a traitor’.
The Kremlin may temporarily turn the embarrassing events in its favour, but the underlying problems eroding the system remain. Reminder: after the emergency returned, a video arrived from the Ukrainian front in which the mobilised men denounced the absenteeism of their commanders, a criticism nobody could address at Prigozhin. The war in Ukraine is both a cause and an effect of global geopolitical shocks, and this double function applies to the Russian home front. The conflict polarises the population and sows divergences between the power groups. The goal of ‘inevitable victory’ seems to be a universal glue, but lurking in the shadows are those who consider the goal unattainable or fear that the ticket to get there will cost too much. Those who think they can benefit along the way, regardless of the goal, are naturally agitating. Before the uprising, the idea that a pact in principle with America is needed to avert the worst in Ukraine and, not least, to avoid being trapped in the ‘limitless’ alliance with China, was also gaining ground in government circles – an idea that the (small?) heart attack on the system induced by Mr Prigozhin can only have reinforced. Unless it wasn’t the idea itself that caused the heart attack.