War and Peace After Prigozhin
July 3, 2023
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation

Mikhail Vinogradov believes that the Prigozhin rebellion exposed serious problems with the administrative system, along with demands for changes coming from various social groups. However, it remains unclear whether decision-makers will show that lessons have been learned or pretend that nothing happened.

The events of June 24 marked the biggest political crisis in 21st-century Russia, overshadowing the Kursk submarine in 2000, the arrest of Khodorkovsky in 2003, the death of Akhmat Kadyrov in 2004, the protests on Bolotnaya Square in 2011, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the pension reform in 2018, military setbacks in 2022 and drone strikes on Moscow in 2023.

Experts have differing views on whether the crisis ended on June 24 or whether new decisions and measures will still be needed to resolve it. Many circumstances of the events remain foggy, though the main drivers of the situation seem quite clear.

Stress on the system and misjudged risks

The main cause of the crisis is the broad stress on the administrative system. Amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the system could not stay the same, though it was not ready to change either. Differences within the elites built up, while the public discourse ignored their real nature, attributing the current problems to the machinations of “external” enemies.

The country has been living in a state of war for almost a year and a half, but
“The speed of decision-making has not fundamentally changed compared to before the war – even though the situation at times clearly demanded a shift from a “relaxed” to a more energetic tone.
This was compounded by the fact that the career trajectory of government officials does not depend on the effectiveness of their work. In addition, there was a clear shortage of players who were ready during the crisis to work in the interests of the system as a whole, and not for individual clans or corporations.

Meanwhile, the state had declared that the set rules of the game are binding on everyone (the most striking example was the autumn mobilization), at the same time actively making use of “gray” and “shadowy” schemes, from parallel imports to private military companies that fall outside the legal space.

State propagandists asserted that the population as a whole was morally mobilized to support the war, yet in practice decision-makers are worried about discontent in society. To prevent the spread of negative sentiment about Vladimir Putin, “lightning rods” have been used. In the 2010s it was Dmitry Medvedev, whereas in 2022-23 Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has been the focal point of criticism.

The backdrop was the general nervousness of the last two months as people waited for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, which was seen as an extension of last year’s Ukrainian successes near Kharkiv and Kherson. Although the counteroffensive has not made any breakthroughs, the calls to find those responsible for failures and change the rules of the game have not disappeared. Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Defense in June tried to increase its control over Yevgeny Prigozhin’s PMC Wagner. It was announced that Shoigu issued an order demanding that PMCs sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense by June 30.

Decision-makers also underestimated the accumulation of rifts within society.
In addition to last year’s division into pro- and anti-war, differences have grown in the former camp.
Here, the split has become increasingly visible between “glory-hunters” (who tend to overestimate their own capabilities and explain failures solely because of sabotage and betrayal and advocate escalation) and “realists” who, for various reasons, are ready to follow any agenda that comes down from the authorities and agree with any official interpretation.

A special (and perhaps the largest) group was people who remained indifferent to what was happening, did not follow the news and preferred not to work out their own view. In addition, the “self-isolation” regime introduced in 2020 during Covid, to some extent, still characterizes the country’s life, in which there are no colorful events, no bright self-expression, no carnival (the last time such was noted during FIFA World Cup in 2018). Since then, a sense of timelessness combined with hopelessness has reigned.

Thus, throughout the spring demands for change had begun to gradually take shape. This was subtly felt by Prigozhin, who shifted his rhetoric from “victory at any cost” to demanding change, arousing curiosity and raising expectations across the most diverse groups of the population – from “glory-hunters” to “pacifists.”

State of siege

If we look at the June 24 crisis from a historical perspective, then perhaps the situation of general confusion and disorientation of the elites should even have been somewhat expected. Past historical examples include the landing on Red Square of Mathias Rust in 1987, obstruction by a significant part of the security forces during the State Committee for the State of Emergency in 1991, and the events of October 3, 1993 (when it took more than half a day to find military units loyal to the regime to suppress the coup attempt).

In 2023, society’s passivity has been on display, characterized by the views that the current situation is not fundamentally different than before or that people are unable to affect change. It is telling that even in 2022-23, sociologists recorded a surge of anxiety only twice (in February 2022, when the “special military operation” began, and in September 2022, when the “partial mobilization” was announced), while the sinking of the warship Moskva, the law on electronic draft notices or drone strikes on Moscow did not trigger shock.

The reaction of the elites to the June 24 events shows that they, as previously, are not ready to act jointly, especially in the absence of a public authority and the confidence that their own subordinates would follow their orders.
“Unwavering declarations of loyalty to the regime were hardly accompanied by concrete steps to defend that regime.”
The Chechen battalion Akhmat was reportedly dispatched to Rostov to counter Prigozhin's rebels. Source: VK
In elite circles, complete confidence in the capacity of top leaders was lacking. As throughout the entire Ukraine conflict, the question remains as to whether there was actual an anti-crisis headquarters that made quick decisions during Prigozhin’s “mutiny” and was empowered to issue orders to all the people involved.

As a result, the rhetoric and storm of actions taken did not translate into effectiveness – the march of PMC Wagner was picking up steam and during the day came as close as 200-300 kilometers from Moscow. Some actions of regional authorities looked completely counterproductive. For example, the roads being dug up in Lipetsk Region did not include the federal highway (on which the PMC columns were moving), only the exits from the highway into the region. The desire to prevent the “mutiny” from spreading to their own regions actually looked like an “invitation” to the PMC units to continue on their way to Moscow.

Interestingly, the heads of the regions involved in the crisis (Voronezh, Rostov regions, partly Moscow) preferred to not make noisy statements condemning the “mutiny” – objectively, they had no time for this, and in the case of Rostov and Voronezh, it would have been awkward from the standpoint of safety in Rostov-on-Don and on the highways.

The leaders of these regions were seemingly more interested in keeping their own populations neutral than coming out loudly for the regime. The statement of the Lipetsk governor that PMC Wagner is moving through the region but that “the situation is under control” looked bizarre.

To prevent anxiety and panic, the authorities only very sparingly informed the population about what was happening. The media was dominated by two items – reports of a “mutiny” (often without hard facts or even the names of who was behind it) and the usual broadcast confidence that “everything is going according to plan.”

The announcement by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of an additional day off on Monday, June 26, sounded like a signal to “save yourself if you can.” The jump in prices for international flights showed that Sobyanin’s signal had matched the sentiment of some Muscovites.

An ambiguous situation developed in Rostov-on-Don. Amid the welcome (judging by the video) extended by locals to the PMC fighters, reports about the Chechen battalion Akhmat being dispatched to the city to counter the rebels had even loyalists confused: the liberation of a Russian city from Russian rebels by Chechen detachments would be, to put it mildly, traumatic for the national consciousness and looked explosive.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin himself became a hostage to his success in the information and military space. His goals, intentions and motivations remained unclear, as well as the ability and willingness of the PMC to go to the end. And the more rapidly the action unfolded, the bigger the expectations grew. When, on the evening of June 24, Prigozhin announced a halt to the march amid vague terms, all parties had suffered an obvious loss of face and reputational risks.

Delayed consequences

The reaction of the Russian authorities after the failure of the march on Moscow was both intense and vague. On June 25-26, there were big expectations that the pro-government media would try to “forget” and “blur” what had happened, but officials themselves did not let it die.

On the evening of June 26, Putin, returning to the public space, began to actively comment on what had happened. He was quickly joined by senior officials who talked about the quick and effective steps taken on June 24 to counter the insurgency. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko added many details varying in terms of their plausibility.

Vladimir Putin on a whim called off the Covid protocols that had been in effect for more than three years and has begun to actively appear in public with the military, residents of regions and officials who did not go through the usual quarantine before their audience with the president. Official propaganda worked in opposite directions: “cooling off” the crisis situation (as was the case after the drone strikes on Moscow at the end of May) and warming up attention to it amid an unexpectedly more public Putin. Following the June 24 events, three main stories can be distinguished.

The first is war and peace. Technically, it is not on the agenda at all. But the rift in the pro-war camp is obvious, though the extent is yet to be determined. Vague rumors about the arrest of General Sergei Surovikin (technically the commander of the air force and deputy commander of Russian operations in Ukraine) are unlikely to increase the controllability of Russian troops or strengthen their morale.

The Ministry of Defense also appears weakened, especially compared with the rising Rosgvardiya. The transfer of Wagner heavy equipment to Rosgvardiya (the fate of the PMC’s remaining weapons, which had been considered its biggest strength, is unknown) does look like an acknowledgment that
“Internal security is more important for the Russian authorities today than results on the front line.
Viktor Zolotov, who heads up the National Guard (Rosgvardiya), claimed after Prigozhin's failed revolt that PMC Wagner would not have "taken Moscow." Source: Wiki Commons
In addition, due to the isolation of Prigozhin, Moscow’s position has been weakened in the run-up to the Russia-Africa summit planned in St Petersburg at the end of July, which was supposed to strengthen the legitimacy of the Ukraine conflict in the eyes of African leaders. It was Wagner’s activities that drove Moscow’s rapprochement with the countries on the African continent that support it today, like the Central African Republic, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Reports by the American press about Washington’s request to Kyiv not to strike at the territory of Russia on June 24 sounded sensational. Implicitly, this gives the White House the moral ground to present itself as one of the “saviors” of the Russian regime and demand concessions in return.

Are repressions and personnel shakeups to come?

The second story is the scale of internal repressions. Speculation that the “mutiny” would lead to martial law and another ratcheting-up of pressure on the opposition has yet to become reality – except for the recognition of Novaya Gazeta Europe as an “undesirable organization.”

As for weeding-out and punishing people of the “Prigozhin lobby,” expectations are very high. In this regard, it has even become common to recall that June 26 marked the 70th anniversary of the arrest of Lavrenty Beria, which was also accompanied by a large-scale purge of the state apparatus. It should be considered, however, that rumors about supposedly coming repressions against specific officials have been less than credible for a long time. Though detentions and arrests of course cannot be ruled out, it is impossible to verify these rumors, and they are more often than not wrong.

For example, in 2022, there had been reports – though unconfirmed – that the previous curators of Ukraine policy, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak and former presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, and even Defense Minister Shoigu and high-ranking FSB officials, had been put under house arrest. This reduces the credibility of talk about repressions against Surovikin and other high-ranking officials and soldiers close to PMC Wagner. The next few days will shed more light.

Finally, an equally important story is whether personnel changes will follow, which would indicate that the authorities decided to draw lessons from what happened. The changes would be in an agency whose actions or inaction contributed to the crisis, like, for example, the Ministry of Defense, FSB or Ministry of Internal Affairs. This would be a signal that the authorities are alarmed by the inactivity, or even paralysis, on the part of a considerable part of the administrative system, which failed not only to predict, but also prevent the June 24 crisis.

No less important would be the signal to public opinion.
The conflict has exposed the demand for changes and interest in their possible catalysts across various milieus – including warmongering patriots, loyalists and pacifists – which inevitably undermines social stability.
As political scientist Alexei Chesnakov wrote, the authorities have two scenarios: “leave the kettle to cool down gradually, without making tea” (calmly demonstrating normalization) or “drain the kettle and pour new water” (taking actions that demonstrate positive changes that could quickly compensate for the shock and its repercussions). “The only question,” writes Chesnakov, “is where to drain it – into the sink (to put an exclamation point at the end of this whole story) or still make tea (to take meaningful actions and make personnel decisions).”

A clear sign of change could be the replacement of Shoigu. It’s another matter that the next minister of defense runs the risk of running into the same problems, which the failed “mutiny” will only exacerbate, and eventually being blamed for the poor performance of the operation. Thus, for potential replacements, the post may be a “hot potato” and a dead end for their political career.

The experience of past years shows that the accentuated rejection of “old” faces, combined with the presentation of “new” ones, usually allows the authorities to restore a positive public mood and create a sense that the leadership has a certain strategy of action. Technically, the demand for changes is not hard to ignore – though it is in the air, it is not clearly expressed and is not at all the same across people with differing views. However, the complete absence in the official discourse of substantive changes, including personnel shakeups, as well as the absence of stylistic changes in rhetoric, makes a 2024 election campaign on the inertia scenario – which implies Putin’s reelection for a new, six-year term – harder to get off the ground.

The 2024 campaign will have to take one of the positions that Chesnakov laid out: either “forget” about what happened, act like nothing happened, or take into account what happened and show that lessons have been learned. So far, no decision has been made.
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