A cook who challenged a chef

Russia has been watching the play “Prigozhin against Shoigu” since last year. Despite multiple media attacks on the Russian Ministry of Defence, public and hidden threats, and direct insults, the head of the Wagner group always stated that he obeyed the orders of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. When Putin called Prigozhin’s march to Moscow “a mutiny” it became clear: the cook has disobeyed.

Roberto Cavalli, an Italian designer, started his successful career with patchwork collections attracting the attention of major global fashion houses, including Hermes and Pierre Cardin. We do not know if Putin was inspired by Cavalli creating his patchwork army. Patchwork is Putin’s style of governance. He always mixes state functions with private desires and money. He thinks it is more effective. Indeed, when he was in the Government of St.Petersburg in the 1990-s, the state was very weak, and it was effective to use private money and force to substitute state functions. And even to deliver them. Although Putin is the state now his patchwork habits expose themselves.

Putin blessed Prigozhin to create his Wagner Group to exert Russian influence where it could not do it openly. The Russian authorities used the Wagner Group when they felt a need for cruel solutions, not being able to use the Russian Army. This is why and how the Wagner Group acted in Africa, Syria, and Donbas. 

After Putin’s “Special Military Operation” turned into a full-scale war he needed more Russians to die in Ukraine. And the idea of private armies seemed to be a solution to avoid a general mobilization. Besides the Wagner Group, which is the most effective private army fighting in Ukraine, Putin now has about 30 more private armed forces. Since the Russian Ministry of Defence exercises the general coordination of the war, it needs to coordinate these private armies too. It also needs to provide them with the necessary military supply. And this is the source of conflict: private armies do not want the regular army officers to command, they just need supply. They generally lack the motivation in reaching military aims on the battlefield. Quite often they lack proper military training as well.

Prigozhin’s conflict is not with the Ministry of Defence but with its head, Minister Sergei Shoigu. After the beginning of the war, the Wagner Group proved its efficiency at the battlefield helping Russians hold the front and get territorial advancements vital for Putin. Direct access to Putin and FSB leadership added to Prigozhin’s political clout in internal Russian politics allowing him to challenge influential Russian politicians, like Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov. And finally, Minister Shoigu.

Prigozhin is a typical warlord with a criminal past. On March 20, 1980, he attacked a woman from behind and strangled her until she lost consciousness. After that, the woman was robbed. For this and other serial crimes, he was sentenced to 13 years of hard time, leaving the prison in 1988 though. From his early days, Prigozhin knows that you can and should take what you can by force. And June 23 he tried it again after Putin publicly supported Shoigu in the conflict saying that Wagner mercenaries should sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence. 

The head of the Wagner Group is not a passionate revolutionary, he is a product of the Russian corruption governance system. He can try to get something with force, but only something valuable for him, not for other people. Do not be allured by his “March of Justice”. The only reason it took place was because Prigozhin did not want to lose his influence, and felt threatened. His plan was good, but the timing was not. His ideal time would be after Ukrainians broke through the Russian defense lines. Then the Wagner leaving the front for their “March of Justice” would bring immediate results, Prigozhin to receive all the necessary personal guarantees and resources. In a way, the slow Ukrainian counterattack let Prigozhin down.

Putin needed Prigozhin in his checks and balances game with his “Kremlin towers” to counterbalance the influence of the Ministry of Defence. Putin needs to constantly shift the power balance of his inner circle as he believes that as soon as someone gets enough internal support he will oust Putin. So, he tries to keep everyone equally weak. 

Weak but loyal. And Prigozhin betrayed Putin. Not because he left the front with an estimate of 25 000 troops. Not because he shot down expansive helicopters and a plane. Not because he captured the Ministry of Defence headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. No, Putin spoke about betrayal and mutiny on Saturday morning because Prigozhin tried to solve his problems making Putin change his decision. This is a clear manifestation of disloyalty for Putin whose arbiter role is key to his power.

Prigozhin’s mutiny was a result of a conflict that was not properly arbitraged. Putin clearly did not do his job well. It is another sign of the inability of the Russian governance system to respond to acute crises. 

The Kremlin pretends that there is no war in the country and the economy is recovering. Refusing to admit that the country has been going through the toughest crisis for the last 30 years Putin falls for temporary decisions and indirect solutions hoping that it somehow gets better in the future. The ongoing war shows not only financial but also political opportunities. And people who have enough bravery to take them by force may be tempted. 

The dichotomy of reality and the Communist Party depicting destroyed the Soviet Union. The Wagner mutiny exposed the same dichotomy in contemporary Russia, Moreover, regional and national elites do not consider the Bonaparte-style problem solution as marginal and unacceptable. It is quite probable to expect elites to use military force to solve problems that the Kremlin refuses to solve. No mutiny against the state, so they may not even expect punishment. Once absorbed this new conflict resolution technique may spark new conflicts in Russian regions, especially in the southern ones.

The expected aftermath of the Wagner mutiny is the liquidation of all private paramilitary groups. The problem is that it could only be done de jure by making everybody sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence. De facto, battalions and divisions formed based on belonging to social strata, be it regional or criminal (and we have some ex-criminal battalions fighting under the regular army banners) will keep their subjectivity always ready to oppose the seemingly ineffective military command on the battlefield. A successful mutiny attempt, successful in a way that no one was punished for its failure, and forming a stratified military force will contribute to the misbalancing of Russian society.

Another result will be pouring more money and heavy armament on Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) headed by Putin’s ex-head of security Viktor Zolotov. One may wonder why? Rosgvardia did not try hard to stop Prigozhin on his way to Moscow. This is why. They did not join Prigozhin. They remained loyal. Ineffective but loyal. Since Putin does not understand another way to give money and equipment hoping that these will bring professionalism, Rosgvardia will get both. The problem here is that most of the money and heavy armament will go to Ramzan Kadyrov’s Akhmat special forces that are formerly part of the Russian National Guard, obviously under ultimate control by the Head of Chechnya.

On May 13-16, the Russian Field sociological group conducted a telephone poll asking whether people would vote for a strong alternative candidate with views similar to the ones of the respondent or Vladimir Putin. In this scenario 41% would still vote for Putin, 45% choosing an alternative. Even 17% of pro-presidential United Russia party supporters would vote for an alternative.

Putin has successfully cemented evenly the Russian political and electoral fields, with all potential candidates in jail or expelled abroad. Russian politics can not produce such an alternative, but the war can. Russians feel the social injustice that the war exposes more and more, and a charismatic warlord may become such an alternative, in case the power gets weaker.

Putin could not protect Russian sovereignty challenged by Prigozhin, a sign of a failed state. After Prigozhin captured the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don he shot a video talking with Deputy Russian Minster of Defence and another colonel-general who tried to negotiate with him. Russians like to believe that the power that governs them is strong. Seeing Prigozhin talking to power as equals makes him as strong as power.

The official media coverage of the mutiny states that Putin could not get through to Prigozhin but Lukashenko managed to talk to him by one convincing him to stop. So, TWO Presidents wanted personally to talk to a warlord, one fails and the other one succeeded. This is very dangerous for the system. Putin understands this, therefore he will praise loyalty even more, even if it damages efficiency (and it will). This is why it is unlikely that Shoigu will leave the political elites or even the position of the Minister of Defence. The ultimate function of Putin’s Minister of Defence is to keep the army loyal, so it does not throw the tzar off the throne. And unless Putin finds someone he trusts as much as Shoigu, he will keep the latter.

Russia is a country of perpetual war. The war seems to be the only way to solve the existing social problems. At the same time as long as Russians can buy some basic food, they will wait exerting their patience, the only virtue which seems redundant in the modern dynamic world. Before the Russian economy collapses misbalancing of the system will not crash it, although we will see more similar crises and conflicts to come.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.