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24 June 2023

Russia’s tipping point

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny has shattered the false reality of Putin's Russia.

By Vladislav Zubok

“Alea iacta est” – the die is cast. These were the words that Julius Caesar supposedly uttered when crossing the Rubicon to seize power in Rome in 49BC. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, is no Caesar, but he possesses the same political intuitions that defined the Roman conqueror and other historical pretenders to power. Corrupt and cynical, and with a criminal record for robbery and fraud, Prigozhyn emerged from Vladimir Putin’s close entourage. Yet he is the first man from this clique to experience a kind of conversion, realising that the war Putin launched on Ukraine in February 2022 had disrupted, and possibly weakened, the power structure inside Russia, creating an opportunity for an audacious conqueror.

For 30 years the structure of Russian power was a legacy of the Soviet collapse. The demise of the Soviet central statehood in 1991 led to the onset of hyper-capitalism. Power no longer belonged to the Politburo but was captured by super-wealthy oligarchs, robber-barons of the east. In 1992 the billionaire industrialist Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that power no longer belonged to “the men with the rifle” – the communist regime – but to “the men with the rouble”.

When Putin was appointed and then elected the president of Russia in 2000, he declared himself master of this new regime of power. He and his entourage, including the leaders of the army and security forces, became wealthy beyond belief. The state did not so much prevail over the oligarchs; senior state officials became the oligarchs themselves.

To rule securely over his cronies, Putin knew he had to secure popular legitimacy. To millions of Russian citizens, Putin argued that he was the defender of common people against the plutocratic oligarchs. He also argued that he came to power to prevent calamities such as the bloody and cataclysmic revolutions of 1917 and 1991 from happening again. The majority of Russians trusted him that life would become easier and more predictable under his rule. No more revolutions, no more wars and no more wild-eye ideological experiments. External military adventures in Georgia in 2008 and Syria from 2015 were viewed as something that added to Putin’s strengths as a leader, not as interventions that violated his pact with the Russian people.

But the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has fundamentally shaken this trust. Putin called the invasion a “special military operation” and has behaved as if the war has nothing to do with Russian domestic affairs. The enormous military casualties in the spring and summer of 2022, the army’s calamitous retreats from Kharkiv and Kherson, the continuing corruption in the armed forces – all of this has been ignored by the state-controlled media. But Russian social networks reflect the growing anger among “Russian patriots”, who see those defeats as a result of the deeply corrupt and dysfunctional regime that Putin has constructed.

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[See also: Rebellion comes to Russia]

Prigozhin’s Wagner Group was first active in Ukraine during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the latest war, its mercenaries were deployed to assist Russian forces in March 2022. Prigozhin feared the war would lead to instability inside Russia, yet publicly supported Putin. Military setbacks and defeats were blamed on the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov. Over time, Prigozhin has grown increasingly brazen in his attacks on the oligarchic nature of Russian power. His revolutionary proposal was to end the post-Cold War power structure altogether: a military dictatorship where “the men with the rifle” would replace rule by “the men with the rouble”. After months of silence from the Kremlin, Putin ordered Prigozhin to fall into line and become subordinate to Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Prigozhin then did something that nobody in Putin’s regime has done before – he rebelled. His crossing of the Rubicon has vast implications for Russia. Prigozhin has acted like the False Dmitrys of the turn of the 17th century – pretenders to the Russian throne during the so-called Time of Troubles” between 1596 and 1612, a brutal period of internecine struggles that detonated a series of crises in which Moscow was sacked and the dynasty came to a violent end. Prigozhin called on his Wagner troops to pursue “a march of justice” to Moscow. He appealed to the embattled Russian officers to support them. Putin, grasping the seriousness of the situation, addressed the nation today (24 June), and seemed close to admitting that Russia was in a state of existential peril.

How will this mutiny end? The unfolding events have broken the spell of the Kremlin propaganda machine – the false partition that had been erected between domestic affairs and the war is definitively over. Millions of Russians, who distrusted people like Khodorkovsky (the old oligarch, now a leading opposition activist in London) and trusted Prigozhin, are in a state of cognitive shock. There is a huge contrast between Prigozhin, a new strongman, and Putin, the aged, bunker-ridden autocrat who looks almost like an AI-generated clone of himself. After two decades of “no alternative”, suddenly there is one. It is the Russian peoples’ great misfortune that this choice is being played out on the planes of southern Russia, by the men with the rifles.

In his The Technique of Revolution (1931), the Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte described the essential ingredients of a successful coup. His main reference was to Lenin and Trotsky’s revolution in 1917. Malaparte argued that a passionate minority with a determined leadership can succeed only if they acted resolutely at a tipping point, when everything hung in the balance without worrying about the consequences. Those in power, if they dithered and prevaricated, would lose. The period of charmed suspension inside Russia seems to have come to an end. Even if the Prigozhin mutiny fizzles out, it has punctured a hole in the performative Russian “reality”. And through this gaping hole everyone can see a looming catastrophe. The next stage of the drama will be decided by the military officers along the front line and the security forces at the rear. They may capture and kill the most adventurous of their kind. Or they may shout: “Hail Caesar!”

[See also: The Prigozhin mutiny]

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