Discover more from The Bulwark
Will Prigozhin Bury Putinism?
The short-lived mutiny didn’t topple the dictator, but the aftermath is exposing the weaknesses and contradictions of the system he built.
NOT EVEN TWO WEEKS have gone by since the aborted mutiny (if it was one) in which disgruntled Wagner Group mercenaries led by caterer-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin seized Rostov-on-Don and marched on Moscow. Yet the fallout keeps getting stranger and the twists more surreal. It could all be a real-life, modern-day version of Game of Thrones, except for one thing: This bizarre drama is a part of Russia’s horrific war in Ukraine. Just what effect the Prigozhin saga will have on the war remains uncertain; the only sure thing is that the war continues to bring very real death, destruction, and suffering.
Has Prigozhin been unpersoned in Russia? Is he out of action in Ukraine? We still don’t know, and the evidence is contradictory. Even the question “Where’s Prigozhin?” still has no real answer. Somewhere in Belarus, presumably, under the wing of the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who ostensibly negotiated a deal for him to stand down? Or maybe not: The Russian news site Fontanka.ru, which retains relative independence, reported that the Wagner chief was in Moscow on July 2 while his driver was in St. Petersburg to collect 10 billion rubles (about $100 million) previously confiscated by the FSB. Then it gets better: According to a later Fontanka.ru report, Prigozhin was spotted on July 4 in St. Petersburg visiting the local FSB office in person, with his bodyguards, to collect the weapons—rifles and handguns—confiscated from his home during the rebellion. (The collection includes a Glock pistol Prigozhin received as an award from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu before the two had, as Fontanka.ru sarcastically puts it, “a misunderstanding” about the “special military operation” in Ukraine.)
Let that sink in. The guy Vladimir Putin denounced as a traitor, who was charged with an armed insurrection, and who caused the deaths of a still-undetermined number of Russian airplane and helicopter pilots when his fighters shot down approaching Russian military aircraft during their march, and who ostensibly had the case against him closed only because he agreed to call off the mutiny and leave Russia, is reportedly waltzing in and out of Moscow and St. Petersburg collecting his money and weapons. Oh, and the authorities in Rostov-on-Don have just said that they don’t intend to take any action to recover money from Prigozhin or Wagner for damage done to the city’s infrastructure by Wagner tanks and other heavy machinery. Even in Putin’s Russia, such things are liable to raise niggling doubts about state authority.
Could it be that Prigozhin is back in favor? Is it possible that, as some have speculated all along, the mutiny or attempted coup was a charade and that “Putin’s chef” was merely doing another job for the boss? If so, Putin and his entourage certainly did an impressive job of enacting panic, with high-level officials fleeing Moscow, highways torn up to block the Wagner column, and apparent preparations to blow up bridges. (The latest news is that Moscow police are going to get new training in urban combat, including grenade-throwing and the use of handheld machine guns.)
Besides, Prigozhin’s surprising repossession of (some of) his assets is only one part of the picture. Another is that both Wagner and Prigozhin are in fact being vigorously canceled by Russian propaganda. Uber-propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, Prigozhin’s buddy in happier days, now lambastes him as a treasonous reprobate who gave aid and comfort to the enemy by showing how ill-defended Moscow is. Another top TV propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, depicts the Wagner chief as an egomaniac driven mad by money and “impunity.” What’s more, Russian television has also taken aim at the mythology of the Wagner Group as a heroic band of superwarriors—often, points out expatriate Russia analyst and longtime Wagner Group detractor Michael Nacke, using bad arguments in its attempt to discredit the mercenary army. (One such shoddy argument: the fact that Wagner spent months on the siege of Bakhmut while the Russian army took Mariupol, a much larger and more fortified city, in 71 days. But the siege of Mariupol happened early in the war when the Ukrainian army was still in a much weaker position and did not have high-tech Western weapons, and the city’s defenders were cut off from reinforcements.)
Another media-related development is that Prigozhin’s own media empire—mainly the “Patriot Media Group”—has winked out of existence. Access to Prigozhin’s websites for Russian internet users was blocked by Russia’s state media censor, Roskomnadzor, during the mutiny, along with their pages on VKontakte, the Russian ersatz Facebook. A 25-second video clip posted on July 1 showed the general director of Prigozhin’s RIA FAN “news” site, Yevgeny Zubarev, announcing that the site was closing down and “leaving the Russian news space”; the statement was followed by a dramatic click and fade to a “snow screen.” The decision to liquidate the media group (whose management said that its sites had a combined 300 million unique visitors daily, though such claims should obviously be taken with a whole shaker of salt) was apparently made by Prigozhin himself, who reportedly directed the sites not only to halt their work but to “destroy the remaining resources with no possibility of restoration.” What’s going to happen to the infamous troll farm based in a St. Petersburg suburb remains unclear.
The same uncertainly surrounds the continued existence of the Wagner Group, at least in Russia—and in Ukraine’s combat zones. On June 28, three days after the failed rebellion, an undercover reporter for Alexei Navalny’s Popular Politics YouTube channel called a still-active Wagner recruitment center and introduced himself as a 35-year old man who had decided to join Wagner after watching news coverage of the mutiny. He was told to contact the center via WhatsApp. When the caller asked if there could be a problem because “Putin has said that Wagner was practically outlawed, that they’re traitors and all,” the recruiter reassured him that everything was fine and that “what they say in the news on television isn’t always true.” (No kidding.) Then, on July 2, Wagner Telegram channels came out with a statement: Due to “the temporary nonparticipation of PMC Wagner in the special military operation and the move to the republic of Belarus,” the group’s regional centers were suspending recruitment—“for the duration of one month.” Make of that what you will.
Prigozhin himself surfaced after a week of uncharacteristic absence from the spotlight with a brief and cryptic audio clip:
Today, we need your support more than ever. Thank you for that. I want you to understand: Our “March for Justice” was aimed at fighting traitors and mobilizing our society. And I think we did accomplish a lot of that. In the very near future, I’m sure that you will see our next victories on the frontlines. Thanks, guys!
One thing that immediately leaped out at many commentators was that Prigozhin did not specify the location of those future victories. “I just yelped,” veteran journalist Yevgenia Albats said on YouTube. “I really wanted to ask someone, where is that frontline going to be?” (Albats suggested, only semi-facetiously, the Kremlin gates or the Frunze Embankment where the Ministry of Defense has its headquarters.) It’s equally unclear what “mobilizing our society” means, what the ”march” accomplished, or what “traitors” Prigozhin was talking about (if it’s Shoigu, he’s still in his post).
It would be tempting, particularly for those fed up with talking about Putin’s ex-chef, to dismiss Prigozhin’s further statements as the irrelevant ramblings of a has-been war criminal. But given that Wagner military camps really do seem to be sprouting in Belarus, and that Prigozhin is still, as far as we can tell, alive and influential, he still bears watching.
THE FALLOUT IN RUSSIA, however, goes far beyond Prigozhin or his insurrection-lite. That Putin has been not only weakened but shaken by these events—including, perhaps, the stark evidence that no one was willing to fight for him—seems undeniable. No wonder a lot of Russians have been recalling, and memeing, a line from the classic 1973 Soviet comedy Ivan Vasilievich Changes Jobs, in which a maverick inventor’s time machine accidentally causes a Moscow building superintendent to trade places with his lookalike and namesake, Ivan the Terrible: “The troops are rioting—they say the tsar isn’t real!”
Putin’s bizarre appearance in Derbent, Dagestan, where he was mobbed by supposed fans and where he hugged and kissed squealing teenage girls—in such stark contrast to his usual obsessive social distancing that it fueled new “The tsar isn’t real” speculation about Putin doubles—reinforced the appearance of weakness. Not only did Putin look awkward and out of place; the whole thing seemed an obvious publicity stunt meant to counter, and mimic, the viral video of Prigozhin getting the rock star treatment from locals while leaving Rostov-on-Don.
Keep up with all our coverage of Ukraine and Russia by signing up for a free or paid subscription:
Meanwhile, rumors of post-mutiny purges persist, fueled by the continued absence from the public arena of Prigozhin ally and onetime commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin. To this, one can add another self-inflicted black eye: Putin’s sudden admission, apparently out of pique at his former protégé’s betrayal, of the long-denied fact that Wagner had been “fully financed” by the Russian state. At a Kremlin meeting with soldiers on June 28, Putin said the group had received 86 billion rubles, about $1 billion, from the defense ministry just from May 2022 to May 2023—not counting another 80 billion rubles for Prigozhin’s catering companies for supplying meals to the Russian armed forces. Then, on July 2, in his critical report on the Wagner Group, Kiselev, the TV propagandist, gave an even higher figure, saying that the Wagner Group had received nearly $10 billion from the government—though he didn’t specify the timeframe.
The propaganda machine’s about-face on Prigozhin and Wagner, which prompted Nacke and other commentators to invoke George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with its “memory-holing” of undesirables and constant reversals on which foreign superstate is the regime’s enemy, has had some other ironic results. The victory at Bakhmut, only recently hailed as practically a new Stalingrad, is now being waved aside as the capture of a strategically insignificant small town. And, at least in theory, all the talk about Prigozhin as a thug emboldened by impunity should make some people wonder who gave him that impunity and why. (It is notable, by the way, that the piling on Prigozhin and Wagner in the official Russian media seems not to have included any references to the group’s reported crimes against Ukrainians or its documented brutality toward fellow Russians, above all the filmed sledgehammer execution of a defector last November. Perhaps this would have raised uncomfortable questions about the Russian authorities’ refusal to look into the case.)
It’s hard to say how many propaganda-stupefied, apathy-mired Russians will notice these increasingly glaring self-contradictions—or wonder if the same propagandists will turn on Putin as readily as they’re turning on Prigozhin. But it is very likely that the Wagner revolt and its consequences will help further weaken both military morale and societal confidence in Russia—especially if the Ukrainian counteroffensive’s successes, currently real but slow, become too big to deny. Nacke has also suggested that Prigozhin’s rebellion “isn’t over” in the sense that it’s likely to have sequels: For Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine, who are still griping about abuse, lack of provisions and equipment, unpaid salaries, and orders that amount to suicide missions, mutiny is now a line that has already been dramatically crossed. It will be the ultimate irony if Putin’s henchman and his “private” army, built up by the Putin regime to do its dirty work while preserving plausible deniability, help contribute to its demise.