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Poison, Putsch, or Prigozhin?
May 15, 2023
Putin’s army flags, soldiers flee, allies pivot, and the Kremlin’s new narrative signals weakness. The end of this regime is nigh, hopefully, but the question is how will this come about? Poisoning, a Palace putsch, or Prigozhin? Putin’s too popular to be bumped off, but Evgeny Prigozhin who owns the Wagner Group mercenary army has been spewing daily diatribes against Putin’s military brass and their failed strategies. He’s undermining the regime by rebranding himself as a patriotic warrior in military camouflage who speaks truth-to-power. He has escaped the infamous “window tax” that has befallen other critics. This may be because he has an army or, possibly, because he is working with Putin to shift all blame for the military debacle onto Russia’s generals. Whatever the reason, Prigozhin has clearly thrown his helmet into the ring should there be regime change. Others wait in the wings, as Prigozhin issues jeremiads: "The flanks are failing. The front is collapsing,” he said. “Moscow must stop lying about the situation in Bakhmut. It will lead to a global tragedy for Russia".
Putin is more isolated than ever, for personal security reasons. On May 9, he officiated over a sparse crowd in Red Square to celebrate Victory Day and the Great Patriotic War against Hitler that ended in 1945. As the trimmed-down parade proceeded, Prigozhin released his most excoriating video of all: “Congratulations on the Victory Day achieved by our grandfathers. But it’s a big question what we’re celebrating. We just need to remember them [our grandfathers] and that’s it. And not f*#k around on Red Square.”
This harangue followed a public threat by Prigozhin that he would withdraw his Wagner mercenaries from the war’s worst chokepoint, Bakhmut, in Ukraine. He claimed that Russia’s military had refused to supply his troops with sufficient ammunition, and then he convinced Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, another pesty and gusty warlord with mercenary soldiers, to back up his troops. Such solidarity and defiance was labeled by the venerable Institute for the Study in War (ISW) as a clear-cut case of “blackmail” and was counter-productive to the war effort.
“The decision to blackmail and subsequently humiliate the Russian military command may have expended a fair amount of Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s political capital to influence operational and strategic-level military decision-making,” the ISW speculated this week. “Prigozhin has already lost favor with Putin in recent months, and [joining forces] demonstrates that he needed Kadyrov’s own capital to successfully blackmail the command into additional ammunition. Putin notably avoids firing members of his inner circle, however, instead [he rotates] them into and out of favor, influence, and resources.”
Putin avoids firing Generals, but has not been averse to bumping off a few. Several have met untimely deaths in recent months, as have outspoken oligarchs and politicians without mercenary armies or a mega-phone. The ISW concluded that all this internal squabbling raises “questions about Russia’s ability to coordinate a coherent theater-wide defensive campaign.” But Prigozhin is unrelenting. Days after issuing his ultimatum to leave, he reversed his decision because, he said, he had been promised ammo. Then, hours later, he tweeted that Russia’s Defense Ministry had reneged and “lied”, and sent him a letter threatening to charge him and his army with treason if they withdrew. So he didn’t.
More significantly, in his Victory Day video, Prigozhin publicly disclosed that Russian army units were fleeing their positions in eastern Ukraine. He blamed this on “stupid” and “criminal” orders handed out by senior military commanders, adding that “soldiers should not die because of the absolute stupidity of their leadership.”
He’s a one-man public relations nightmare: Ignoring commands, agreeing with mutinous behavior, then excoriating the brass. It is downright dangerous and his ongoing existence is a good sign that the top is wobbly and Putin’s days may be numbered. Reports are that dissension in the Russian ranks spreads and last week Russian troops were caught on camera retreating or abandoning their posts in newly occupied regions, often leaving with stolen property.
Ben Hodges, a retired U.S. Army officer who served as commanding general in the United States Army Europe, predicts Russian forces might "collapse" before the end of the year because of poor leadership, retreats, and mass casualties. If the front doesn’t hold, or Crimea is invaded or blockaded, consensus is that a putsch will take place engineered by the Siloviki and oligarchs. Negotiations will then take place behind closed doors to obtain his resignation and to pick a successor involving members of the Siloviki (security forces and the FSB); the military, and the oligarchs. Presumably, Prigozhin, Kadyrov, and others with mercenary armies will have seats at that table or may even put themselves forward as contenders.
A perceived defeat will eliminate a military leader as President which leaves the front-runner Nikolai Patrushev, former FSB and now Secretary of the Security Council of Russia. He is a backroom operative (as is his son Dmitry, Minister of Agriculture) and an experienced hardliner who began his career as a spy with Putin. In 2014, he masterminded the invasion of Ukraine and capture of Donbas and Crimea (which heavily involved Prigozhin’s Wagner Group) and is fiercely anti-American and anti-West. He’s also treacherous. In early November 2021, he met CIA Director William Burns in Moscow who knew about Russia's invasion plans and confronted him, but Patrushev firmly denied such plans even though it was later discovered that he vigorously backed them. He’s also an ally of General Sergei Shoigu -- who’s been thoroughly discredited by Prigozhin along with other military leaders.
But once the war ends, the military will be tainted by defeat and thrown under the bus which means that a “civilian” like Patrushev will be front-runner. On the other hand, he is one of Putin’s closest advisers and is the "most dangerous man in Russia" because of his "paranoid conspiracy-driven mindset," according to Mark Galeotti, an expert in the field of Russian politics and security. Patrushev is no Mikhail Gorbachev.
Neither is Putin’s longtime political sidekick, former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Slick and fabulously wealthy, he has experience as both President and Prime Minsiter and has, like Prigozhin, carved out a new brand as a fierce nationalist by tweeting out vicious, nationalistic, and near-hysterial posts. This newfound ferocity is in stark contrast to his buttoned-down image, Western sensibilities, and avowed liberalism. But he’s a viable replacement and, unlike the rest of Putin’s inner circle, he is not a thug, a spy, nor a warrior. He’s a smooth political operative who ran Putin’s campaigns and has acted as a loyal advisor, and is comfortable in boardrooms and international venues. Medvedev speaks flawless English, likes British rock, and is half Ukrainian.
Another successful technocratic candidate is the current Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, an experienced finance, tax, and technology expert. But none of these will fill the bill if Russia loses the war and the nation descends into economic or social chaos. In that event, the elites would likely swarm around a “strong man” to take the helm, not a proficient or tweeting technocrat. This may provide an opening for the erratic Prigozhin, with or without Kadyrov, or the former Deputy Defense Minister Mikhail Mazintsiv, the “Butcher of Mariupol”, who now serves in Prigozhin’s Wagner Group. However, Galeotti says such men would only be appropriate if there was outright chaos across the country.
Already, signs of instability exist. Russia’s economy degrades, its finances are on life support, and the country is propped up by fossil fuels and commodity exports sold mostly to China and India at ruinously low prices. There has been an uptick in assassinations and sabotage inside Russia, and reports surface that Putin commutes between his three residences by special train via fortified train stations. Most unsettling for him and the public was the recent penetration of Kremlin airspace by drones by unknown perpetrators plus numerous bombing attacks and air crashes inside Russian territory. Russians stream out of Crimea and Putin is now a wanted man, charged with war crimes, who faces arrest in 123 countries.
Prigozhin, whether he survives or thrives, has paved the way for change by contradicting the party line. He’s also taken over a political party and put forth a platform: Russia should quit while it’s ahead. He reasons that Russia has won already by destroying “a large part of the active male population of Ukraine, by intimidating another part of it which has fled to Europe. Russia has cut off the Sea of Azov, seized a fat piece of Ukrainian territory and created a land corridor to the Crimea. Now there is only one thing left: To firmly gain a foothold and to claw in those territories that already exist.”
His pitch may be popular in Wagner barracks or in vodka bars in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but reality is that Russia’s imperialist train has left the station. Ukraine and its allies intend to expel Russia and this will happen because the country is dysfunctional, derailed by incompetent leaders, and is going to be brought to heel Ukraine soon. Whoever steps in to run Russia after Putin must tone down or scrap the nationalist and genocidal rhetoric to match reality because Moscow’s might and empire building has ended. And its next “Czar” will be forced to make peace, and offer amends, for atrocities in Ukraine, and, hopefully for all the Kremlin’s abuses against Russians for generations.