Prigozhin’s mutiny has made Putin look weak for now

Cross-border Talks’ take on Wagner’s mutiny in Russia

This is Veronika Sušová-Salminen’s analysis on Wagner’s advance into Russia on 24 June 2023. Where are the roots of the current armed uprising of Evgenii Prigozhin? How did it emerge and how does the Wagner Group fit into the web of power relations in Russia? How did Russian society react to the developments in the first hours? Does the uprising become a pretext for strengthening the regime’s control over society and politics? We spoke with our expert on Russia Veronika Sušová-Salminen. This recording was done at the end of the dramatic day of 24th June.

Welcome to a special edition of Cross-border Talks, where we take on the advance of the Wagner forces within Russia. It’s the 24th of June, the first day since they entered Russian territory. And I’m joined by Veronika Sušová-Salminen, my Czech-Finnish colleague, who is an expert on Russia. Veronika, welcome to the program. And first of all, can we start with an explanation? What should we know about this private army Wagner?

Hello, everybody. We should probably start with the main actor of this military or armed uprising, which is the Wagner Group, because the Wagner group is now in the center of the events. And the Wagner group basically is a typical modern time private military corporation or organization. Many of them exist in many countries. It’s part of the trend of globalization, of so-called new wars, as Mary Kaldor, one of the American scientists calls it.

But the Wagner group has Russian specifics. It has features, its own features. It’s a part of the triangle between the Russian state, between Russian oligarchs and private business. And it is having a lot of, let’s call it neopatrimonial features. It means mixing the official things with unofficial things.

Wagner became quite prominent during the Ukrainian conflict, but its real sources go back to the Syria war since 2015. The first thing to know about it is that it is a business which has no legal base in Russia. They don’t legally exist. This is the first point. There is no law about the private military organization and the Wagner group is not registered. It has no legal name really, and so on. This was very long time popular solution. It is what led us to today’s Wagner and Prigozhin, its owner. As you know, for a long time he was not admitting he’s the owner of Wagner group. He only admitted he is behind Wagner in September 2022 during the Ukrainian conflict.

So this gave to Prigozhin himself and to Wagner Group, a huge gray zone of actions he could basically work outside of the legal system in the gray zone, which was true for Syria, which was true for Ukraine and of course for the African adventures they were doing. It was effective in a way. It was mixing the effectiveness of business with the extra legal existence and giving it to this military group a relatively good space. As we can see now, it is turning away from the position of the Russian state official army. It is turning into a huge issue, which is also typical for the Russian system and for the Putin system in general, that they like to work in this gray zone and eventually it turns into a messy and huge problem. This is the first thing.

The second thing is Prigozhin himself became quite important during the last months of the Ukrainian conflict. We could see it in the last months in Ukraine, specifically around the Bakhmut battle and before Soledar and other fights where this group came to be. I’m not a military expert so take it like my personal opinion. But of course there can be military experts’ voices that differ.

And something else. It seemed to me that they were they were effective in some parts of the fighting and this was causing that Prigozhin started to have more ambitions seems and also it opened more the conflict, which was a long time existing conflict between official army, meaning the state army under the command of Gerasimov and under the leadership of Minister Serghey Shoigu.

But we have to say that this conflict between Shoygu and Prigozhin is much longer. It goes really back to Syria and it is the classic conflict about resources that there is the private group of soldiers who is doing the the job of the army and it is doing it for the interest of business interest is there the important part, while the army is, of course, state army, it is run by the old bureaucracy. And it also has not such maneuver space like Prigozhin and Wagner had.

So this is very important. They were fighting for the same resources. Most likely at some point they both were fighting for the interest and support of the highest commander, meaning Putin.Many say or some voices say that at some point Prigozhin and Wagner became very important for Putin and for the war in Ukraine because of their effectiveness. Again, I’m not a military expert, but what I could read is that the Wagner group, it’s not just the prisoners from the prison, from the Russian prisons. As was said many times in our media, the core of the Wagner groups are special forces, former special forces of the Russian army who were privatized and who went as mercenaries to work for Prigozhin many years ago.

So the core are the relatively professional professional actors who have experiences who are no any group of prisoners who don’t know how to use guns and military tactics. Of course, these prisoners were taken and so on during the war to make it bigger and to have more, more men on the field. But the core are these professional soldiers. So it is all a network of relations, relations within the system which created Wagner and which created this conflict, which is mostly between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense. And it is a conflict about resources and about how to continue the war in Ukraine. It’s not the conflict between pro-war and anti-war. This is very important to realize.

Okay. We’ve seen that for months this conflict between Prigozhin and Shoygu has been going on. And in fact, the highest authority – Putin, the president, didn’t seem to intervene or take sides. What is the explanation for this situation and how do you read this policy of Putin now in this context when things escalated?

Many analysts recently observed that Putin is not very active in many fields of domestic policy, which is strange. It is probably related to the war that he lets too many things go and he’s too much focused on the military issues, which, by the way, he doesn’t understand so well. This we observed already since the Covid, by the way, since the pandemics and now it continues. So he is less active in moderating the conflicts within elites. And there is a huge question, really, how it’s possible that he let Prigozhin so long to behave in a way which would be, I would say three years ago, absolutely impossible to do – such open criticism of some important figures of the establishment.

Moreover, I have to add here that Prigozhin already some weeks ago also attacked President Putin himself, which was something that was taboo before. It used to not be possible. But taboo was also to show open conflicts between the elites of the Russian system. There were always conflicts, but these conflicts were behind the scenes and very often they were moderated by Putin in such a way that there was some kind of conclusion or compromise. Now, Putin did nothing. And now the question is, did he know about this conflict?

Because we know he doesn’t get direct information. He gets only information through the apparatus. So maybe he didn’t know or the next thing he could believe that the healthy competition between Wagner and the Army will create a more effective system, which, of course, is a next failure, because in the time you are fighting, you are in the situation when you have to concentrate on the military issues. And to create this kind of competition is, in my opinion, at least, very risky. Or he was following some kind of other strategy, which I cannot understand.

But in general, I think this what happened is that Putin lost himself control over the events. At least in his last television speech, which we could see a few hours ago in the morning, he didn’t seem to me that he was calm. Usually Putin is much more calm. He seemed to me nervous. You could see that his voice was breaking a few times. He seems to be personally touched by what happened. Maybe he saw it as a huge disloyalty to himself from Prigozhin. I don’t know.

Of course I’m speculating. It’s just my impression from his speech. But in my opinion, this is a blow for Putin himself and it is weakening him in a way he can win. Still, he can get back. But at the moment, I would say this is weakening Putin. And it’s, in any case, misjudgment, miscalculation on his side or better information of Putin from the people who should inform him. That’s the next possibility.

Everyone asks the question: what follows now and what could follow? But I want us to view this issue through the prism of Russian society. What is the attitude of common Russians towards this situation and what could this division in the armed forces bring to common Russians, to Russian society, not only to the state?

Well, we have to realize that from the perspective of the regime, the regime is all the time super interested in and it is supporting de-politicization. It means they are doing everything possible that people are not politically active. They are not mobilizing people positively or negatively. They play under some kind of patriotic pseudo mobilization, you know, which is very superficial. So at the moment it seems that it works.

You have to realize that this is a conflict between elites. This is conflict between factions or fractions of the Russian elites, between Prigozhin and Shoygu and of course, Putin. By this, Prigozhin is going against Putin clearly. Those who say it’s only against Shoygu, that’s not true because Shoygu and Putin are the same thing. You cannot divide it, say it’s only against one. But Russian society, I think in general, is depoliticized. There is a lot of tension growing in the society, but it’s not politically expressed so far. People are more like waiting for what will happen.

I am not in Russia, so I cannot say directly what people say, what they think. And of course, social media are manipulative in many ways. So on social media, you could see that, okay, some people were going on streets in Rostov and they were somewhere supporting Wagner. Some were criticizing. There were some fights happening and so on. But at large, you don’t see any uprising. You don’t see any huge mobilization within Russian society, at least according to my information. At a given moment.

You know that Moscow is now in a state of anti-terrorist operation which will limit some civil rights and public events and so on, and also probably also connect to the Internet and other in order to stop the unwanted information. So I don’t see any huge reaction from society itself. But it can, of course, change because we really are at the moment of huge uncertainty in this sense. We cannot predict too much about what can happen. But at the moment, I think Russians are quite calm.

It’s interesting because you have to realize that this is the next blow. Like there are a lot of things happening in Russia in recent weeks, starting with the fact that the war came to Russia, because you have to realize that there were several drone attacks in Moscow, Moscow region, and a lot of happening in Belgorod region, which is directly in the neighborhood with Ukraine. And there were already fights, there were military attacks. There were formal pro-Ukrainian forces coming to the villages and causing already the military, the military actions were happening on the Russian territory. And this is the next thing.

So we can say that at the moment the war is unfortunately also starting very much influencing Russia itself and in the future will be question how far this can go on, how far Russians will in a way still see that this doesn’t concern us because this is the what the Russian wants basically – you don’t need to so much openly support anything on on the surface. The important thing is that you don’t protest, you don’t do anything against. And the Russians are staying in this mode so far. They are maybe nervous.

There is a huge that is periodically growing nervous in the society, the fear this happens. But there is no political expression of it in the sense that they would start to do any actions against Putin. They would protest or whatever. We don’t see the protests as small ones, local ones in some parts, but there is nothing like this happening. So it seems that at the moment Russian society and normal Russians are waiting for what will happen and maybe they even understand that this is the fights there up in the high, high echelons of the regime and which and it’s better to stay out of it.

Okay. And finally, you are in Finland now. I’m in Bulgaria. We are on the eastern flank of NATO, European Union, etcetera. What changes could this division in Russian military elites bring to our region here?

Well, of course, the worst scenario and now it’s just a potential scenario. I don’t say it’s going to happen, but the worst scenario for everybody of us would be civil war in Russia in some kind of that really, the regime would be so weak even it seems to be strong even at invested so much in authoritarian measures, in military measures and so on and so on, that it would really start to crumble and the conflict would turn into some kind of civil war. That’s the worst case scenario, including the fact that Prigozhin would, for example, win it. That’s already science fiction. But he could be the next president, which some already speculated some months ago that he’s interested in, which I think is too wild. But so that would be very destabilizing for us. Very dangerous.

I would like to add here that Prigozhin is not any good guy. He is not an alternative to Putin. He’s definitely not anybody who wants to stop war. He is fighting about how to continue effectively to lead the war against Ukraine. They are not fighting about peace and war. This is not at the table. It’s just the radical version of what we have now. So this is important to realize.

It’s not any fight between liberal Russia and so on. So the chaos destabilization is the worst possible scenario, which at the moment is far away, I think because we are in the very first day of this mutiny. We don’t know how it will develop. We don’t know if they are able to reach Moscow. We don’t know what kind of measures Rosgvardia and the military will take against them and so on and so on.

In the worst case, civil war means, of course, slow dissolution of Russia, which I think is also bad news in the sense for our region, because again, it’s going to be then for a long time destabilizing force and source of the problems. The next option, of course, which we can await, is rather that Putin will still be successful. They will be able to deal with this. I don’t know what it will mean in military terms for Ukraine, front and so on, because we don’t have any information, by the way, about what is going on the front. We know that Ukraine wanted to use this and they probably will. But if we don’t have information that the army would go together with Prigozhin or some military, huge units would start uprising and so on. So in this sense, we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Definitely I am afraid that Putin will understand this as a pretext for next authoritarian steps, including the possibility that he will, for example, abolish elections, you know, for some time, suspend the so-called suspension of the so-called democratic system in Russia. He claims they are a democracy. Of course, we know it’s more complex. It’s rather an electoral authoritarianism. But still, elections are important. So we can soon be neighbors, which is much more authoritarian, much more in a way dangerous regime who will be more against the outside world because of this happening? That’s the question. In military terms, I really don’t know because I don’t have any information how it’s influencing the front, how it’s influencing the position of Russians in Ukraine and so on. So I cannot tell this.

I thank you for this analysis and perspective. On Cross-border Talks we will continue to reflect from a Central and South Eastern European perspective on the world, and I invite you as listeners and readers to follow us on our social media and be in touch. Thank you.

Photo: Wagner forces in positions in a Russian city (source: The Guardian, screenshot)

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