In his interview with the New Statesman a few weeks after the rebellion that took the Wagner Group to the edge of Moscow on 24 June, a former commander of the mercenary army, Marat Gabidullin, insisted that the Kremlin could not afford to destroy Yevgeny Prigozhin. For two months, Gabidullin seemed correct. Vladimir Putin moved with caution when dealing with the very people he had called traitors in a televised address to the nation. He even met Prigozhin in the Kremlin, where they discussed the future of Wagner and a possible change of leadership.
Prigozhin was busy making plans for the future when the long hand of the Kremlin finally reached him. Predictable as the final denouement of the June rebellion may seem, there was something bizarre about it. Prigozhin and two of his main deputies – the Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin and its head of security Valeriy Chekalov – were not killed in an ambush in Mali or poisoned somewhere in Syria. They were assassinated when a private aircraft exploded somewhere between Moscow and St Petersburg, after they left the capital following a meeting with defence ministry officials. You may well ask how they could have been so reckless.
There are a few theories or explanations. First, as Gabidullin told me in July, his former boss was by nature reckless or overconfident. Prigozhin trusted his abilities, and in retrospect trusted them more than he should. Perhaps Prigozhin had become convinced that Wagner was just too valuable for the Kremlin, and therefore its destruction too dangerous for the Russian president. That calculation may well be vindicated in some way, but it did little to keep Prigozhin alive.
A second hypothesis is that Prigozhin was in fact correct that Putin would prefer to spare his life, but other actors in the Russian system prevailed upon the president to eliminate the troublemaker. It is not impossible and would explain Prigozhin’s sense of invulnerability. His error in this case would have been to think Putin’s was the only opinion that mattered.
The third possibility is the one I think deserves much more credence than it has received. The rebellion was only the beginning. Since then, Prigozhin had refused to let go of his status and wealth. Just days before his death, he had travelled to Mali to try to expand his role there. He seemed unwilling to be replaced in Africa by the people in the Ministry of Defence who coveted his business interests in gold, precious stones and oil. By being so openly defiant of any possible consequences for his mutiny, he signed his death sentence, but only because the rebellion was, in a way, still ongoing and needed to be stopped.
None of these theories reflects particularly well on Vladimir Putin. For a few hours, the spectacle of the mid-air execution may have worked to, as Machiavelli said, satisfy and stupefy the audience. But the effect is bound to wane, and questions will be raised. The first and most pertinent is about the state of a regime that has now turned against its inner circle. Imagine Hitler had started to execute Himmler, Göring, Goebbels and the whole entourage of Nazi prima donnas and road companions. Something similar has been happening in Russia in recent weeks. It is not the enemies of the regime that are under attack but its heroes and epigones, the very people that until recently were lionised by state propagandists. Even Stalin had to present the victims of his purges as enemies of the revolution. For Putin they are just enemies.
Prigozhin and Utkin were publicly incinerated. General Sergei Surovikin, the celebrated butcher of Syria, the man handpicked to lead the Russian forces in Ukraine in September 2022, the flower of Russian generalship, was interrogated, humiliated, placed under house arrest, and then summarily dismissed. Igor Girkin, the man who started the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, was arrested as well and is being kept in isolation. To better realise how unusual the situation is, remember that Ukrainians have been celebrating the fall of most of the country’s sworn enemies, but their executioner is Putin.
When Marat Gabidullin told me in July that Putin could not get rid of Wagner, his point was that Wagner was the real Russia. How could the Russian president turn against the real Russia?
Since consolidating his power in the 2004 presidential election, when he won re-election with no effective opposition, Putin has been able to rule Russia by targeting a motley of groups and interests with no real base in Russian society: liberals and Westernisers of different kinds, social progressives and historical revisionists. What Putin represented was, by contrast, the Russian living forces: conservatives, Russian imperialists, the Orthodox Church, Slavophiles and Eurasianists. As the Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy shows in his latest book The Russo-Ukrainian War, Putin often moved between these different orientations. He was able to appeal to Russian chauvinists when annexing Crimea, but other times he sounded like an Eurasianist, as when promoting the Eurasian Economic Union, an association of states extending to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But for two decades he never strayed from the safe path of ruling against liberalism and the West.
The war in Ukraine changed everything. Suddenly, Putin was caught in a new and dangerous dynamic. Western liberalism ceased to exist, even as a manufactured internal enemy. In a recent conversation, Andrey Kortunov, who until this year headed the Russian International Affairs Council, told me that after the invasion and the exodus of many young, educated Russians, liberalism is dead in Russia. Kortunov has a liberal reputation himself.
At the same time, the nationalist or imperialist forces grew emboldened and started to run ahead of what Putin, at the head of a weakened Russian state, could possibly deliver. There is no question that these developments have taken the president by surprise and made him increasingly uneasy. In a way, he probably feels trapped. He knows that no one can rule the country by governing against Russian nationalists and imperialists, yet the dynamics of internal conflict – during a war the right becomes all powerful – have forced him to do just that. I do not see any indication that the move against Prigozhin was anything but a last resource. It seemed to Putin like a fateful move, one from which there is no return.
In a leaked memo written for the Kremlin shortly before the Prigozhin rebellion, the political strategist and Duma member Oleg Matveychev alerted Putin to the new reality. The memo is particularly interesting because, even though it is clear that Matveychev has seen the contours of a genuine threat to Putin, his solution may well involve the president in even greater problems. What Matveychev argues is this: there are no more “liberals and hipsters” in Russia, and if some can be found sipping espressos somewhere, they are thoroughly demoralised. A new danger has emerged: the “hurrah patriots”, people like Girkin or Prigozhin. The Matveychev memo, although written in June, is said to have played a role in Girkin’s arrest on 21 July. After the Prigozhin rebellion, its warnings were taken more seriously.
Once the war in Ukraine started, a rift between the government and Russian society started to grow. Suddenly, even popular television shows gave a platform to open critics of the authorities, people who argued that those authorities are not competent enough or strong enough to wage a victorious campaign in Ukraine. Several factors explain this. First, everyone expected the war to be quick and triumphal, so cheerleading seemed a safe bet at first. Once the problems appeared, it was too late to tone down the message. Second, and more important, these critics appeal to a form of legitimacy higher than Putin’s: the greatness of Russia and Russia’s history. How could Putin make a move against those speaking for Russia? The strength of this position is made apparent by the fact that Putin has moved, very conditionally, against individuals like Girkin, deemed by Matveychev to be “insane and impossible to talk to”, not the broader current of thought.
In the memo, Matveychev notes that Prigozhin, among others, needed to be persuaded to stop whipping up the public mood with statements about shortcomings in the army and political leadership. Just before the rebellion, Prigozhin went so far as to criticise the war, but what he criticised were the half-measures, the weak posturing of a defensive war against Ukraine and the West. He wanted an openly imperial adventure and could not be so persuaded to lower the “temperature”. Can his execution achieve the same outcome? It obviously cannot. The only thing the “hurrah patriots” will have concluded from Prigozhin’s fall is that they need to be more cautious than the Wagner leader. At the same time, they will have learned that Putin is now their enemy, that the liberals and hipsters have left the field and that the final battle is between Russia and the Kremlin.
In 1917, fresh from a visit to Petrograd to negotiate with the Provisional Government, the Ukrainian writer and political figure Volodymyr Vynnychenko said: “Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question begins.” Which was a clever way of saying there were no Russian democrats because the fundamental political principle was always that of Russian imperialism, and democracy had merely to find some place within it. The same applies to Russian liberalism. The Russian sociologist Greg Yudin said a few years ago that if you scratch a Russian liberal, you will find an “educated conservative”. That is my experience too. Often when introduced to someone described as a “good Russian liberal”, my impression was that this person was an urbane traditionalist one could talk to rather than someone who, as happened on other occasions, would spend the dinner shouting about the “Kyiv junta”. The opinions, at a fundamental level, differed very little. Of course, Western audiences often felt better about themselves believing Putin was tyrannising over a liberal and democratic Russia, a good Russia struggling to assert itself. But this was not the real Russia.
That Putin successfully ruled against the non-existent forces of Russian liberalism and democracy is not particularly surprising or impressive. Now that he has declared war on the real Russia, the challenge begins.