Discover more from Diane Francis
June 26, 2023
The bizarre events in Russia over the weekend provide a glimpse into the reality that the country is not a nation, but an empire with warring factions that is run by a mafia. Vladimir Putin has reigned as the “Boss” for 23 years and remained in place by enriching Russia’s thugs, bridling them, and playing one off against another. Under his rule, they have built palaces, stolen the national wealth, become warlords, amassed staggering portfolios, and lived like Czars. But on February 24, 2022, Putin decided to escalate the grift by invading Ukraine to steal more of its resources. Now this war is failing, as is Russia’s economy and Putin’s grip on power. And on June 23, Putin’s inability to control a wartime feud between warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s military brass turned into a full-blown armed mutiny. Prigozhin pulled his mercenaries from the frontline in Ukraine and led a “march for justice” against Putin’s military inside Russia. Putin labeled Prigozhin a “traitor” on national television, ordered his arrest, then instructed his puppet in Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, to make an offer to Prigozhin that he couldn’t refuse: Stand down, charges would be scrapped, and move to Minsk. The crisis ended quickly, but Putin, the Russian Federation, and the war in Ukraine, will never again be the same.
Prigozhin grew up in St. Petersburg, where Putin did, and went to jail as a young man for fraud and theft. He has since become a billionaire oligarch as a result of his connections to Putin and business smarts. More recently, he has become a household word in Russia because of the success of his personal army, the Wagner Group mercenaries, as well as his diatribes on social media against Russia’s generals. He has accused them of poor strategies, corruption, and of using Russian soldiers as cannon fodder. His gutsy stances have made him a populist hero even though he is also a member of the elite. But Prigozhin is different. He’s gone “native” and dons fatigues, is on the frontlines with his mercenaries in the Ukrainian war zone, and excoriates Putin’s generals for drafting young Russians from poor families and regions then sending them to their deaths by the thousands without training or proper equipment.
“The children of the elite smear themselves with creams, showing it on the internet; ordinary people’s children come in zinc, torn to pieces,” said Prigozhin, a reference to metallic coffins. “Those killed in action had tens of thousands of relatives, and society always demands justice and, if there is no justice, then revolutionary sentiments arise.”
Prigozhin warns of revolution but is not a revolutionary. He became a successful chef, then caterer and started a mercenary army that has operated for years surreptitiously around the world on Putin’s behalf. For instance, Wagner helped Putin occupy Crimea and Donbas in 2014, it fought in Syria and various African countries for Moscow for years, and has been involved in the 2022 invasion, fighting alongside Russian regulars in Ukraine. But last year he began to aggressively criticize Russia’s Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Putin never intervened. This was because he was doing Putin’s dirty work again and blaming the generals for military failures. But Shoigu and Gerasimov struck back by sabotaging the Wagner Group on the battlefield. Prigozhin claimed they withheld ammunition and provided only sub-standard equipment. Then, last month, he alleged that the two actually shelled Wagner troops.
By June, Prigozhin’s success in the battlefield and growing social media presence across Russia and abroad was becoming a threat, so Putin sided with his generals. He ordered Wagner fighters to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense by July 1. This represented a de facto expropriation which is why Prigozhin pulled his troops from the front line in Ukraine on June 23 and marched them into Russia. That night, Putin condemned Prigozhin on state television and ordered Lukashenko to deliver the deal. Putin has not surfaced since June 24, and unconfirmed reports are that he fled Moscow.
A coup or armed conflict was avoided, but damage was done. Putin’s climb-down and capitulation to a man he had just called a “traitor” destroyed his tough-guy image. It’s obvious that he is not the “Boss”, but merely a figurehead who sits atop a rotten system of squabbling and greedy oligarchs. Prigozhin’s stunt also unveiled Russia’s vulnerability. He was able to march two-thirds of the way toward Moscow in a few hours without resistance. His troops also reportedly shot down six Russian helicopters and an IL-22 airborne command-center plane, killing 13 airmen, along the way, without consequences.
Prigozhin backed down and agreed to self-exile, but he’s not going to disappear, except physically. The generals he demanded that Putin fire still remain in power so he will continue to broadcast his criticisms from afar and plot a comeback, either from a dacha somewhere around the world or on a yacht. He will rebuild Wagner and may attract allies inside and outside Russia who want to overthrow Putin and his generals. He may aspire to be President but that is unlikely. He would be thoroughly unsuitable as President, but, unless assassinated, his ongoing crusade will be a catalyst for change inside Russia and serve the interests of Ukraine and the West. Prigozhin has already undermined Russia’s leadership, damaged frontline morale, stirred up the public, and shredded Putin’s concocted narrative that the invasion was necessary because Ukraine and NATO were a threat to Russia’s existence.
There’s little likelihood that a grassroots movement against Moscow will sprout around Prigozhin because it is a reign of terror and because he’s another thug whose forces have killed many Ukrainians and others. But his popularity was rising in polls before his armed mutiny because his rants resonated with civil society, mostly younger people. He also attracted international recognition with his condemnation of the war itself in the days leading up to the confrontation: “The war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” he said. “The war was needed so that a bunch of animals could simply exult in glory.”
The weekend’s events may not have brought about regime change, but Prigozhin has already dealt Putin, and Russia as currently constituted, a fatal blow. As the war continues to backfire, Ukraine and its alliance will push harder and so will separatist movements inside Russia who want autonomy or secession. Putin’s weakness is now apparent, and his tenure uncertain, which will also convince neighboring nations and Russian allies to recalibrate their relationship or forge new ones. Most significantly, Putin’s cave-in and cowardice concerning Prigozhin also means that his many “red lines” in this war are meaningless which is why many have been crossed and more should be ignored in future.
It is ironic that Prigozhin has opened a Pandora’s Box about corruption and injustice in a country run by criminals like himself. His lightning attack also raises fears internationally as to how secure Russia’s nuclear arsenal is from seizure by disgruntled factions such as Wagner or others. Experts say the events haven’t altered the security status of Russia’s nuclear weapons, and the West carefully monitors their movement and storage facilities.
But the country is run by gangsters who have upended the world order. Only “100 beneficiaries and several thousand accomplices” own everything, said Mikhail Kodorovsky, an oligarch jailed by Putin in 2005 on trumped-up charges. “Most of these people began their careers in the criminal underworld of St. Petersburg. Despite having now taken control of the Presidency, the group retains every aspect of the criminal ilk from which they came.”
Putin’s Russia is a criminal organization that must be overthrown. And finally, one of its own has told the world, and Russian people, why it must disappear.