‘A Rebellion Aimed at Resolving a Limited Range of Problems’
July 10, 2023
  • Grigorii Golosov
    Political scientist
  • Denis Kasyanchuk
Grigorii Golosov discusses the aims of and fallout from Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion, why Putin could not eliminate Prigozhin earlier, how public support looks in a “demobilization regime,” and the Putin-Lukashenko relationship.
The original text in Russian was published in The Bell and republished here with their permission (you can read The Bell in English here)

Immediately after the mutiny, there were commentaries that Putin’s regime had been dealt a crushing blow. Is that accurate?

I don’t know why they are writing that Putin’s regime was dealt a crushing blow. In fact, Putin relatively easily resolved a serious problem, the existence of which he had long been aware of – that of Prigozhin. It is not clear how Putin would otherwise have ensured the subordination of Wagner to the Ministry of Defense, and this was clearly the goal of the Russian authorities.

How will Prigozhin find a new place for himself in the world? That is an open question. But the fact is that people who supported the rebellion will not enjoy Putin’s trust like they used to (if they did before). And overall, the Russian president rather strengthened his control over the security forces as a result of the recent events.

In Russia, for many years it was common to talk about some kind of struggle between the elites, the war between Kremlin towers, etc. Prigozhin’s rebellion – is that what this is? Or is Prigozhin a random element, a marginal, whose actions do not reflect the processes in the Russian elites?

Much of what has been said about “Kremlin towers” is fantasy. As for Prigozhin’s actions, he was clearly quite far removed from the bulk of the Russian ruling class and did not enjoy wide confidence. Moreover, he made the point that he had serious differences with this class. Therefore, perhaps in a very broad sense, one can interpret Prigozhin’s actions as a manifestation of what is usually called “a split between the elites” in Russian commentaries. Which, by the way, has nothing to do with the original meaning of the term.

What is the original meaning?

A split within the elites is a term from one of the theories of democratization, so-called transitology, referring to situations when so-called hawks who are against democratization and doves who are for it separate themselves in the ranks of the ruling class. There was nothing like this in Russia, because there was no democratization as such.

Many observers in the months preceding the rebellion were worried about the question: why is Prigozhin allowed to publicly cuss out the head of the Ministry of Defense, the head of the General Staff? And does this mean that the situation is getting out of the Kremlin’s control?

This is a rather naive question, given the colossal role played by Wagner PMC on the battlefield until very recently. How could Wagner have been done away with if, in fact, its mercenaries had taken Bakhmut, the decisive battle of the previous phase of hostilities.

The fact of the matter is that
“Prigozhin became a problem for Putin, because it was impossible to do away with him. But it grew necessary to, because his political ambitions became obvious.”
How did they [his ambitions] manifest themselves?

Prigozhin sought to become a public political figure. He formulated the political theses of a pure populist – the government is ineffective, because the ruling class is ineffective, corrupt and unable to take care of the interests of the people and the state. This is the basic platform of populism, and it works in elections. I do not think that Prigozhin’s immediate plans included running for office. But it was quite clear that he had already begun to mold a reputation for himself not only as an effective leader of a military entity, but also as a public politician.

And I believe that Putin was aware of this as part of a complex of problems stemming from Prigozhin’s non-total loyalty. But this problem, from Putin’s point of view (and in my opinion), is now resolved.
Now everything that belongs to Prigozhin in Russia is being taken out of the country. This means that as long as Putin has the levers of control, Prigozhin has no prospect of becoming a public political figure in Russia. If the situation changes radically, if Prigozhin is alive by that time and wants to build on the political capital that he has earned in recent months, he really has a shot. His political capital is not that big, though it is, let’s say, capable of soaring in certain contexts.

What do you think Prigozhin’s ultimate goal was? And why was it not achieved?

Prigozhin said bluntly that his goal was to change the leadership of the Ministry of Defense. I believe him. It is clear that if Prigozhin had succeeded, his influence not only on the military establishment, but also on Putin, would have increased enormously: the people who replaced Shoigu and Gerasimov would have enjoyed greater favor from Prigozhin and would have been less controlled by the president.
That is exactly why Putin did not go for such an option. Probably, he is aware of the underperformance of Shoigu and Gerasimov, but considers them loyalists on whom he can fully count. That is why, I believe, options that involved the sacking of Shoigu and Gerasimov were completely unacceptable to him.

The widespread opinion about Putin is that he “does not forgive betrayal.” Does this mean that Prigozhin will not be left alone?

As soon as Putin is convinced that the obligations that he assumed have been fulfilled, and the questions related to the activities of PMC Wagner in Russia and abroad have been resolved,
“The moment will come when the Russian president will allow himself to do what he wants with Prigozhin.
And then I fully acknowledge the possibility that the rebellion will be avenged. But Prigozhin is a man who can take care of his own safety. So, what will happen to him next is a separate question.

Will there be any purges now?

It is possible that some officers of middle rank and even slightly above that will be replaced. But if there were reshuffles in the top echelon of the military, this would mean that Prigozhin achieved his goal. Thus, I do not expect any.

There is a popular opinion in the West that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to restore his image among Russians. What do you think of it?

Among the politicized public, the current political leadership of Russia seems weak. But this idea had come up before. It was cultivated by influential bloggers such as Girkin-Strelkov, and in general in the pro-war camp. There was widespread skepticism about how the military operation is being conducted. This skepticism was projected onto a general perception of the ineffectiveness of the Russian government.

Probably, the skepticism [after the rebellion] increased somewhat. But you need to understand that now we are talking about a relatively small group of highly politicized Russians. Of course, there is another group who have not supported Putin for a long time and have always been skeptical about his leadership. I believe they outnumber the “turbo patriots.” For this group of people who have never supported Putin, nothing has really changed – they didn’t support him before, and they still don’t.

Nationwide support for Putin was not visible during the rebellion. As usual, the Kremlin had to organize state employees to show support. Does this mean that support for Putin is greatly exaggerated?
There has never been political support for Putin that could be turned into political action. This follows from the nature of the Russian regime – it seeks to demobilize.
A pro-war rally (the words above read "For Putin, For Russia") in Nizhny Novgorod. September 2022. Such expressions of public support for Putin are usually not spontaneous, but organized by the authorities. Source: VK
It would have been strange if people had spontaneously begun to take to the streets and demand the suppression of the rebellion, express their support for Putin. Institutional mechanisms are needed for mass action. And the Russian political regime is designed in such a way that whether Putin has support or not, this kind of display of support is impossible.

What conclusions can Russians draw from the rebellion? And will it weaken the regime’s position?

The vast majority of Russian citizens made, I would assume, the conclusion: things worked out alright. That’s all from these events that was clear to the bulk of the population. I think many [Russians] recognized these events as a threat, especially the residents of Moscow. But if everything worked out, then great.

What about the elites? Will they split or rally around Putin?

There has long been a widespread negative attitude within the ranks of the ruling class toward Putin’s policies. To put it in popular terms, most people in the Russian ruling class understand that Putin set them up.

What conclusion do they draw from this? For the most part, I suppose, they are inclined to think that Putin made problems for them. But resolving these problems, in their opinion, will still be easier with Putin’s participation, while he remains in power. And they believe it’s still possible. Putin, of course, in every possible way encourages that belief.

What is Putin’s main challenge now?
The main challenge is to somehow get out of the situation that he created in February last year.
Probably, against this backdrop, Putin is giving some attention to the growth of discontent in the ranks of the ruling class and is pushing his security agencies to prevent manifestations of discontent as much as possible if they appear.

In his address, Putin accused the West (“this is the outcome that the enemies of Russia wanted”) of organizing the rebellion. What is the logic behind these accusations?

Well, there is no logic here. This is a common rhetorical device: the West is to blame for everything bad that happens to Russia.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has acted as a "peace broker" during Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny in June. In the photo: Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko at the Eurasian Economic Forum. Moscow, May 2023. Source: VK
There is an opinion that perhaps the biggest humiliation for Putin was the need to rely on the mediation of Alexander Lukashenko. What roles do they now play in relation to each other?

I don’t think Putin sees this as a humiliation. He has long regarded Lukashenko as a junior partner. If a junior partner can help a senior partner in resolving issues, this is, from the point of view of Russian business and political logic, a completely normal thing. And here nothing has changed in the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has done an important service for Putin and may now feel that the Russian president owes him. But the balance of the relationship has not changed. It is an unequal partnership in which Putin plays the leading role.

No one has been punished for the mutiny and for the pilots killed during it. In your opinion, why did the authorities back down from arrests, criminal cases, etc.?

Due to some set of circumstances that we do not know exactly, Putin decided to keep the word he gave to Prigozhin. It involved the dropping of charges against him and permission to evacuate Prigozhin and some of his people to Belarus. But this is what we know.

Perhaps Prigozhin received additional guarantees for some specific actions. But the fact is that Putin is simply keeping his word, and that is completely beyond the legal logic you lay out. These are purely political moves. The fact that the law enforcement system and the police in general in Russia has long been politicized is an open secret. We are now seeing additional confirmation that political considerations can easily prevail over legal ones.

What do you think, can a military coup be one of the scenarios for the future?

The prospect of the military component expanding in Russian politics stems from how the political regime is evolving, as in the conditions of war it must rely more and more on the armed forces and security agencies. And if a country enters such a dynamic, the possibility of a military coup generally rises.

But what kind [of coup]? This is a separate issue, driven by the dynamics of the regime itself. Because military coups are all very different. There are situations when power structures, including the armed forces, seize power in a consolidated manner, and then a regime is established that can last for a long time, as was the case, for example, of Chile in the 1970s. I find such a turn of events in Russia extremely unlikely.

But there are also situations when serious contradictions arise within a security corporation. And then there is the possibility of an unconsolidated military regime being set up. Such regimes are short-lived. Often they leapfrog one another without changing their core features. This is what is possible in Russia, though it has not yet emerged as a foreseeable prospect.

I want to specifically emphasize that the actions of Prigozhin were not an attempt at a military coup. It was a rebellion aimed at resolving a limited range of problems. And even if the actions of the rebels had met with success, they would not have led to the establishment of a military regime – they would have simply sped up the process of the military component expanding in the structure of the Russian regime.
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