After the Prigozhin Rebellion

After the Prigozhin Rebellion

The next months will bring a battle for power and property.


Moscow—The main question that remains unanswered after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion was why he stopped it at the very moment when he had almost reached Moscow. For the day and a half during which the rebellion of Wagner mercenaries led by Prigozhin continued, no one offered any serious resistance to it. Wagner captured two large cities—Rostov and Voronezh—and shot down at least five army helicopters and two planes (causing more damage to Russian aviation than the Ukrainian army had inflicted since the beginning of its counteroffensive on June 4). Prigozhin’s fans were already heading out to meet him on the streets and squares of the capital; much of the government had apparently fled to St. Petersburg; Putin’s whereabouts were unknown, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was hiding somewhere.

In the Serpukhov area, Putin’s forces tried to form something like a defensive line and mined bridges across the Oka. But it is not at all clear that the military would have complied with the order to open fire on “Prigonites.” They were definitely not in the mood to die for Putin.

Nevertheless, Prigozhin, who came within 140 kilometers of Moscow, dismissed his columns. At the same time, he not only did not receive an official response to his demands but also was satisfied with the verbal promises of Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko—who had no authority to make such promises. As a result, not a single demand of the rebels was fulfilled. They sought the resignation of Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, and refused to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense (which would have stripped Wagner of its autonomy and resources). Media sources close to Prigozhin had already reported that we would have a new president in a day or two. After the mercenaries withdrew from Moscow, it was announced that Shoigu and Gerasimov would remain in their places, contracts would be signed, the Wagner private military company was to be disbanded, tanks and heavy weapons had to be handed over, and Prigozhin himself could continue his commercial activities from Belarus—where he seemed to have fled. From a legal point of view, all this looked extremely strange: A criminal case about the rebellion was opened against the leader of the mercenaries on the morning of June 24, then closed on June 26, opened again, but closed once again on June 27. At the same time, no one has published any official act of pardon or amnesty. In a country where you can be imprisoned for several years for distributing leaflets or for merely posting adverse comments on social networks, it turned out to be possible to stage an armed rebellion, shoot down helicopters, kill military personnel, and get off with a “sentence” of deportation abroad. (True, ordinary participants in the rebellion may still be punished, although they were just following orders and they opened fire on army aviation only after the aircraft tried to bomb their columns.)

Prigozhin was not prepared—and did not intend—to take power. He had neither a political movement nor a group on which he could rely, nor a coherent ideology or program. His speeches before and during the riot were likely prepared by professional experts who understand the laws of propaganda, but he had no ideology that he could propagate. The leader of the mercenaries referred to the inefficiency of power, argued that the war was pointless and should not have been started, but promised to bring it to a victorious end by arranging a general mobilization. In general, his speeches were aimed at simultaneously winning the sympathy of the most diverse, even hostile, groups of the population (regardless of their hostility to one another) without thinking about how to deal with the fallout. By retreating, he not only disappointed everyone who supported him but also sacrificed his media structures, which are now completely discredited and partially dismantled, and abandoned his fighters and his allies, who are now under pressure and facing repression.

What was Prigozhin’s logic? Why did he refuse to take power, when it seemed already in his grasp? Is it really credible that he, who was himself one of the pillars of the system, could turn out to be so naive that he believed Lukashenko’s promises—without even receiving an official statement or decision from Putin? Of course, the intellectual level of the Russian elite is very low. But not to that extent.

The well-known opposition writer Anatoly Nesmiyan offered an answer to this question, recalling that the people who rule in Russia are not interested in politics. The country is in the hands of businessmen—more precisely, gangster clans that redistribute and use the country’s resources. Participants in the events—from all sides—looked at what was happening not from a political but a commercial point of view. Prigozhin has very significant business interests in Russia; he and Vladimir Putin’s group have common interests in Africa, where the history of the Wagner PMC actually began. And given the scale of events, we are no longer talking about big or very big money—but an astronomical amount of money.

Nesmiyan connects the conflict with the redistribution of the “African treasures” of the Putin group. If Prigozhin just guarded the common booty before, now he has probably been granted or promised a radical increase of his share. At the same time, operations in Africa require logistical support beyond the capabilities of PMCs. The supply lines of Wagner went through Russian bases in Syria, which are under the control of the Ministry of Defense. It is clear that in such a situation, Prigozhin had every reason to seek to have his man appointed to the post of minister—or maybe he wanted this post for himself. However, when it became clear that it would not be possible to achieve this condition, it was urgent to find a way out of the crisis.

In fact, under the guise of politics, the ruling groups in Russia simply began the redistribution of resources. However, this process is far from over. The situation remains ambiguous. On one hand, Prigozhin, instead of leaving for Belarus, as agreed on the evening of June 24, still calmly walks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, resolving his financial affairs. It is impossible to interfere with him because the criminal case against him has been dismissed. But on the other hand, General Surovikin, who was considered Prigozhin’s closest ally in the army and a candidate from the rebels for the post of minister of defense, ended up in the hands of the state security, which apparently detained or kidnapped him and several other high-ranking military men. Most likely they will not be imprisoned either; after testifying, they may well be sent to some insignificant position in the cold regions of the Russian north.

Heavy equipment has not been taken away from the mercenaries, who remain in their camps. They have also not been sent back to fight in the war, because the authorities do not trust their loyalty. In other military units, under the influence of what happened, there were several smaller rebellions, including a refusal to take part in hostilities in Ukraine.

So the situation is far from being resolved.

Finally, the political consequences of what has happened are just beginning to reveal themselves. Both Prigozhin himself and his opponents in the Kremlin may think and act like Mafia businessmen, but this does not change the fact that a political crisis is developing in the country. Polling organizations loyal to the authorities are reporting an unprecedented rise in the president’s approval rating, reaching 90 percent, but the real mood among the people is completely different. Even those who, until recently, believed in Putin and considered him a strong leader are disappointed in him. Prigozhin’s supporters are no less disappointed in their idol than Putin’s supporters in theirs. There is an emotional vacuum that will inevitably be filled by new political figures.

Kremlin propagandists are trying to remedy the situation by talking about how, thanks to the heroism of the president and the loyalty of the people, they managed to thwart a conspiracy organized with the participation of the West and aimed not simply at seizing powervbut at destroying the Russian state. It doesn’t look very convincing.  To confirm the thesis about mass support for the authorities, it was arranged for Putin to travel to Derbent, where on the streets of this medieval town he kissed girls and hugged people who came out of the crowd However, the president looked so little like himself, as he had been shown on television a few hours earlier, that this only reinforced long-circulating rumors about a double of Putin and the president’s serious illness.

In the next few months, Russia will have to endure a sharp struggle for power and new attempts to redistribute resources among the ruling oligarchy. Perhaps the best symbol of the past rebellion is a tank, stuck since June 24 at the gates of the Rostov circus.

Now everyone is waiting for the continuation of the show. The tank has since left.

The clowns, however, have remained.

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