When news of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s dash to Moscow broke, I went to sleep comfortable in my belief that I had no idea what it would mean for Russia or the world. Unfortunately, America’s foremost Russia experts stayed up live tweeting the event and penning editorials. Actually, I don’t know if they were penning editorials—it’s quite possible they had them canned months in advance.
Prigozhin was born in 1961 to not the worst family in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. After his father’s early death, his mother married a fitness instructor Samuil Zharkoy. Both his father and stepfather were Jewish.
Yevgeny graduated from a sports boarding school, but he got in trouble with the law in his teens, serving nine years for robbery. After release, he opened a hot dog stand with Zharkoy and grew his business in the mobbed up economic climate of the post-Soviet Russia. He was phenomenally successful, climbing his way all the way up to the Kremlin and becoming known as “Putin’s chef.”
The short order cook branched out in other economic sectors, notably founding a private military company called Wagner. Since 2014, Wagner worked on contracts in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine. Last year the group distinguished themselves by taking the Donbas town of Bakhmut almost single-handedly. Prigozhin became a folk hero in Russia where even apolitical teenagers took to playing private military company games.
When Bakhmut was almost taken, Prigozhin started publicly complaining of not being properly armed and threatening to stand down. He finished the job but continued ranting about Russian top brass, insufficient funding, and that his soldiers, many of whom were recruited from prisons, were being treated as cannon fodder. In the days leading up to the mutiny he accused his country of launching the invasion under false pretenses.
On June 24, Wagner forces seized control of the South-Western city of Rostov and marched on Moscow. Prigozhin stopped in the Moscow suburbs and, insisting that he held no grudge against Putin, only against the generals, negotiated a deal that allowed him and the Wagnerites who participated in the mutiny to flee to Belarus.
The narrative initially pushed by the American commentariat was that Russia lost the war to Ukraine and now internal discontent was bubbling up, leading to a civil war and a revolution led by Prigozhin. After which, presumably, a liberal utopia would somehow descend on the largest nation in the world.
There are two major problems with this line of thought. First, Russia didn’t lose the war. It didn’t go all the way to the feet of the Galician mountains in 2022, but it secured a land bridge to Crimea. Russia then dug out in the Donbas region. and so far Ukraine’s spring offensive, lacking adequate air support, failed to penetrate a single line of Russia’s defenses. Prior to the Prigozhin affair, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky admitted that the operation is going slower than desired. It was subsequently reported that the country put the assault on hold, and they now appear to be regrouping in higher concentration in different directions.
And second, it’s unclear how American commentators imagined Russia getting from the mercenary mutiny to a progressive revolution. When the military company took over Rostov, locals were seen fraternizing with the soldiers and when the March on Moscow was called off and the forces left town, they were sent off with the chants “Wagner! Wagner! Wagner!” Descendants of Cossacks don’t treat a son of a Jew this way for being a liberal. Prigozhin is more of a hardliner than Putin. He demonstrated bravery and efficiency in the battlefield where the Russian Ministry of Defense showed itself to be corrupt and cumbersome.
If the mainstream American narrative can be put to rest, deciphering what’s going on is not easy. On the one hand, there is the straight forward interpretation of events. In his address to the nation, Putin explained that in the days leading up to the rebellion Russia refused to extend Wagner’s contract. It follows that the organization’s head attempted to strong-arm the Kremlin into drawing up a new one.
Prigozhin is an adventurer and a hothead. He personally participated in combat and was filmed flying an airplane. But his Saturday adventure was obviously doomed from the get-go, and for a man who went from rags to riches in the post-Soviet lawlessness, he seems to be making too many unforced errors. The Russian-born ex-CIA analyst Rebecca Koeffler, for instance, argued that the March on Moscow was a feint to make Russia appear weak.
Some aspects of Prigozhin’s mutiny seem real enough—his forces shut down several Russian aircraft. On the other hand, it’s doubtful that he could organize a conspiracy that vast without Putin hearing about it. It’s hard to believe that Russian leadership, if it really felt threatened, would not have annihilated the Wagner column as soon as it left Rostov.
What kind of intrigue it might have been is a matter of speculation. One theory is that Putin wanted to flush out disloyal officials and that purges would now commence. Another, that it was a ploy to station the exiled Wagnerites on the Ukraine/Belarus border a short drive away from Kiev.
Certainly the mercenaries are altering power dynamics in the region. Baltic countries already called on NATO to increase security because of the threat posed by their presence. But Prigozhin wouldn’t need a cover story to put his forces in Belarus. Putin certainly didn’t look for an excuse to put his nuclear bombs there.
It’s entirely possible that we are seeing razborki, literally figuring outs, or mafia power struggles, between the hardliners and the moderates. The long-term war of attrition strategy that Russia chose for Ukraine elevated the status of hardliners like Prigozhin and General Sergey Surovikin. The latter owes his on-the-streets popularity to the bombing campaign of Ukrainian infrastructure and military targets he initiated in October 2022. In January 2023, Surovikin was replaced by Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov. The New York Times reported that General Surovikin knew about Prigozhin’s plans. The Moscow Times reported that the general is now under arrest.
Political analyst Velina Tchakarova believes that the razborki are not between moderates and hardliners but between the Moscow and St. Petersburg clans. She explains:
This is not a coup by Prigozhin. This is an inner war between the St Petersburg gang of Putin and the Moscow gang of [the Chief of the General Staff Valery] Gerasimov and [the Minister of Defense Sergei] Shoigu. This is the beginning of Putin‘s election campaign to become reelected on March 17, 2024. His lapdog Prigozhin is masquerading a coup to put the blame on Gerasimov and Shoigu for losing the war against Ukraine. Prigozhin can always be scapegoated if he fails like this has happened in the past. #geopolitics #Velsig
While it seems to us in the West that no Russian actor came out of the affair looking more attractive, Tchakarova notes that Putin’s popularity rose to 90% following the affair. Russian people want stability and they are looking to Putin to assure it. In the process, Shoigu and Gerasimov might be sacked.
Some sort of internal power struggle is the hypothesis that makes most sense to me. As a side note, a few years back Shoigu was considered a likely successor to Putin, but he failed to live up to expectations in Ukraine. Regardless of which faction will come out on top, destabilization of the largest nuclear power on the planet is a precarious proposition.
That said, it’s unlikely that Prigozhin’s dash to Moscow will have any direct affect on the war in Ukraine. It certainly hasn’t so far.DONATE
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