Prigozhin’s Mutiny as a Product of the Putin System
July 5, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
Nikolai Petrov writes that Prigozhin’s raid has created a serious political decision for the Putin regime. Whereas previously the Kremlin tried to maintain a sense of normalcy and peace inside the country despite the war, now the likelihood of Russia being put on a war footing – in the social, economic and other spheres – has jumped.
The Prigozhin rebellion was short-lived, marking the end of the acute phase of the crisis in which Putin’s autocratic rule finds itself. However, the event will determine the political dynamics in Russia for a long time to come. In form, Prigozhin’s raid might be described as a mafia showdown with the use of state military force against the state. In essence, it was an attempt – apparently successful – to use Prigozhin to force Vladimir Putin to change his current tactics and escalate the war in Ukraine.

Regime at a crossroads

The rebellion clearly marked the two main political crossroads that Russia is facing, and further developments will likely be determined by the choice that the regime makes.

The first crossroads is over the war in Ukraine. Before the “Prigozhin putsch,” there were three possible scenarios: maintaining the status quo, which suits the Kremlin the most; reducing the intensity of the war and trying negotiations to end it; and making the “military operation” into a full-scale war for Russia. Now, the likelihood of the first two scenarios has plummeted due to the weakening positions of the Kremlin and Putin personally, along with the rise of advocates of escalation – high-ranking siloviki who appeared to be behind Prigozhin.

In the event of a military escalation, as Prigozhin called for in May, everything in the country – its economy, society and elites – will be subordinated to war goals. Such a decision would trigger massive changes in a variety of areas that the Kremlin will have to deal with. The system would face tough tests, the consequences of which cannot be calculated.

In this situation, it will no longer be possible to avoid a large-scale mobilization. In addition,
“More pressure on the political and business elites would be expected, with aim of forcing them to ratchet up investment in production, which is now one and a half to two times lower than what is needed for economic restructuring.
Businessman Malik Gaisin's was put under house arrest for failure to meet state defense orders. His machine building factory was seized by the state. Source: VK
This is not just a “tax,” but an obligation to invest the profits from your business in the expansion and modernization of the military-industrial complex.

Steps toward putting the economy onto a war footing are already visible, especially in the court system. For example, although court decisions are completely controlled when it comes to oppositional figures and other “enemies of the regime,” at the local level courts often rule in favor of local elites and business. And this is what the Kremlin wants to do away with, as evidenced by the repressions targeting the court system at the regional level, including tougher sentences for officials and businessmen (see Nikolai Petrov in Russia.Post about the Rostov case) and the seizure of private property for “failure to meet state defense orders” (see the case of Urals-based businessman Malik Gaisin).

In one way or another, citizens’ savings should also be confiscated and “labor discipline” tightened like in the army – meaning workers unable to leave their job, obligated to work wherever they are told, etc.

The mobilization and return of soldiers from the front create a serious risk of social tension, especially since some part of the “veterans” will be criminals who were sent to fight right from jail. Also inevitable is a warped labor market and higher inflation amid an expansion in social benefits and raising of wages for a wide range of people working “for war.”

There is a high likelihood of a further ratcheting up of repressions, expansion of the repression apparatus and the installation of a wartime regime, replacing what little remains of the rule of law with “military expediency.”
Security Council, which is generally believed to be a formidable force behind Vladimir Putin's most important decisions. But maybe its power is exaggerated? Source: Wiki Commons
Loyalty or effectiveness?

This describes the second crossroads. The reaction to the rebellion demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the administrative system built by Putin. However, this “weakness” of the regime should not be given too much importance. “Manual control” is really ill-equipped to respond to new challenges – the separate elements of the system go into a state of stupor, and without a signal from the very top, do not work very well.

When solving military issues that require real-time coordination of various armed forces, manual control is cumbersome. The real levers of control are in the hands of autocrat Putin, while the Security Council, which is supposed to coordinate the security agencies, is not at all as formidable as it is believed to be. In reality, it is partly a club for high-ranking officials and partly a team of veteran “strategists” serving their leader.

Prigozhin’s rebellion called into question the guiding principles of the system’s organization and personnel management that had been introduced and implemented for more than two decades: (1) strict centralization and control over the parts of the system, depriving them of independence, turning them into “cogs;” (2) people are chosen based on loyalty, not effectiveness; (3) control over corporations – primarily security corporations – through controlled conflicts in which Putin acts as the supreme arbiter.

On the one hand, if the separate parts of the system at the grassroots level had had more independence, the system as a whole could have responded more quickly and effectively to the threat. On the other hand, if Prigozhin had not received, unlike other cadres, relative independence and control over several important resources at once – armed forces, financial, media and political assets – there would have been no rebellion.
The principles of the system’s organization, which worked well in the calm and prosperous pre-war period, have led the system into a major crisis while a war is going on.
Even if he realizes this, Putin, as the chief architect, can do little, except to change his approach when making personnel decisions in the future.

Many authoritarian regimes control their security institutions by creating controlled conflicts between them, and this could be seen in relation to the Ministry of Defense and PMC Wagner. It has long been practiced in Russia. However, in the case of the conflict between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin let the situation get out of hand, failing to put a stop to it at an earlier stage.

Putin turned out to be unwilling to support either side, and then withdrew himself, leaving the Defense Ministry free to act. (Putin behaved similarly in 2015 after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, when the FSB and the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov clashed.) From the Kremlin’s point of view, with the Russian army shifting to the defensive and the Ukrainian army unable – at least, so far – to mount a major counter-offensive, there was no longer an urgent need for Wagner and it could be taken out of the game. This is exactly what was going on when Minister Shoigu issued an order subordinating PMCs to the Ministry of Defense.

Having realized that his stock had fallen sharply, Prigozhin went for broke, trying to maintain and strengthen his position in the system. There is no doubt that he relied on the support of both high-ranking military men who are dissatisfied with the way Shoigu and Gerasimov are waging the war, as well as some of the FSB leadership that wanted to shift responsibility for the disastrous course of the war onto the military leadership. Without such support, Prigozhin would not have made his demarche, and if he had tried, he would not have been able to come within 200-300 km from Moscow without opposition.

Lessons from the past and conclusions for the future

Wagner is actually Putin’s personal army, which he put above the law, and Prigozhin is not so much the owner of the asset as its manager. The PMC itself, its state funding – which we know about from Putin now – the recruitment of prisoners from jails and finally Putin’s non-public agreements with Prigozhin that freed the latter from criminal liability for the rebellion are all egregious violations of the law.

With Wagner being taken away from Prigozhin and divided up – partly to the military, partly to other managers – Putin is left with a quasi-PMC in the form of Rosgvardiya and its Chechen units in particular. This is not quite his personal army, but not quite a state army either. Thus, the transfer of heavy weapons to Rosgvardiya should be seen not so much as strengthening its head Viktor Zolotov, but as a regrouping of the forces loyal to the autocrat.

Putin’s own position has been undermined, and efforts to build it back up make him more dangerous than before. Moreover, time does not seem to be on his side.

Having started the war and now having faced down a rebellion, Putin and his regime are in a downward spiral:
“Time is constantly speeding up, giving the regime new, complex tasks, which it is unable to effectively deal with without changing the administrative system’s current principles.
Ultimately, this is bringing its end closer.

The events of June 24-26 both illustrated the current state of the regime and provided a glimpse of a dangerous future.

Prigozhin’s rhetoric and Russians’ undeniable interest in him (though perhaps not long-lasting) testify to the built-up irritation toward the elites and a public demand for populism. According to Levada Center polling, on the eve of the rebellion 19% of respondents were ready to vote for Prigozhin in the 2024 presidential election (after the rebellion, the figure halved).

Satisfying this demand by replacing Prigozhin with some kind of loyal populist is fraught with serious risks, meaning more populist rhetoric and actions from Putin himself should be expected. Meanwhile, the need to compensate for the damage that the Prigozhin rebellion did to Putin’s image further raises the likelihood of repressions against the elite.

For the maintenance of the system, much will depend on how it can resolve the contradiction between tight control, which is its essential feature, and the initiative of its constituent parts, without which the system cannot effectively respond to new challenges.

Tight control safeguards against internal shocks like the Prigozhin rebellion, but also makes the system cumbersome in turbulent conditions when flexibility is needed. Turbulence, however, will only increase on the back of external shocks and those generated by the system itself. With the accumulation of problems and “fatigue,” any major shock from the outside or inside could bring the whole thing down.
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