Yevgeny Prigozhin is gone, two months to the day of his aborted insurrection against the Russian military. The Wagner Group chief was likely killed in a plane crash on orders from the Kremlin. A piece written after Wagner's coup offers a reminder that Russia is in the hands of a man obsessed with control, who wields his cowardice as a weapon.
This article was updated Aug. 24, 2023 at 5:40 p.m.
At most, perhaps, Prigozhin's goal was to capture Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in Rostov-on-Don, and force him to write a letter of resignation or parade him around the southern city like a circus bear.
But in the end, the Wagner boss got scared. He got scared of how far he had gone. It's one thing to launch a coup; it's another to wield real power. What would he do with it? Was he aiming to become president of Russia? No, with his prison background, this would have been impossible, even in a country like Russia, and he understood this.
What forced Prigozhin to act urgently back in June was the looming deadline of July 1, the date by which the mercenaries, according to the Russian authorities, had to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. After Prigozhin was banned from recruiting prisoners, he began to run out of personnel. The 25,000 soldiers he claims would be only enough for another two months at that rate.
And that was it. The coup was over — but apparently not forgotten. Prigozhin is now presumed death after his plane crashed outside of Moscow late on Wednesday. Whether Putin was his ultimate nemesis two months, the Wagner chief paid the ultimate price for even leaving a trace of ambiguity.
Why Putin fled Moscow
Prighozin had spent nearly a year playing a political game that was driven by a desire to enter the highest echelon of the Russian elite. Polls held before his death showed a level of trust in Prigozhin of 55% and distrust of 22%, which is very high, based on building the perception that only he told the truth to the Russian people, that only he risked to be where the action was, as if he was the answer both to and for the elites.
Back in the early 2000s, in an interview, Putin described how he and his friends, walking around Leningrad as young boys, found a rat in a yard and cornered it, and the rat attacked them. It was as if he was drawing a parallel with himself.
The elites are scare, and are expecting repression
We must remember that Putin is a sociopath, with a low tolerance for pain and fear. Simply put, he is a coward, a rat who, sitting in the corner, prefers to wait, no matter how long. Waiting is his primary strategy in any unclear situation. Putin believes he is irreplaceable because Russia has no "number two" right now.
But the elites realized: Putin could no longer guarantee them either wealth or security. So they will have to look for an alternative.
They will not take any active steps now. The elites are scared, and are now expecting repression. But when the first fear passes, they will start looking around. Much will depend on how the situation at the front develops. If the Russian army suddenly pushes back Ukraine's counteroffensive, then Putin will have a relatively quiet time in the March 2024 elections. If not, the appearance of a second or third "Prigozhin," some as-yet unknown figure, is likely.
President Vladimir Putin speaks in a video following the Wagner insurrection.
Coup and another coup
The Russian Federation has 89 territories, including the newly annexed territory in Ukraine. Only eight of them have a governor from the region itself. The central funding for the local level comes through so-called state programs, which the governor is responsible for distributing. Therefore, local elites have a straightforward choice. Or rather, there is no choice. Remember how the Soviet Union collapsed: the empire began to collapse from the peripheries.
So the only thing regional elites in Russia dream of today are decentralization, and restoring a local financing system. Of course, Moscow does not want this.
In terms of separatism, only the elites of two or three regions are theoretically ready to secede. First, Chechnya, but they don't need it. Then Yakutia, but the territory is half of Europe, and the population is only a million, so they can't pull it off.
A memorable moment in Prighozin's final act was how people bid farewell to the Wagner fighters leaving Rostov: with enthusiastic applause. People want change, just as they did in the USSR. Taken together, we are all in favor; but individually we are against it.
Russians saw Prigozhin as someone who told the truth and a man of action. If Putin suddenly disappeared tomorrow, they would be happy. But paradoxically, Russians won't actively do anything to further this goal. They are too scared.
Repression is only possible with with fresh blood. Joseph Stalin demonstrated this.
We should not expect a new round of punishments in the Kremlin. Repression is only possible with profound personnel changes and system renewal with fresh blood. Joseph Stalin demonstrated this. But elites and militaries are interconnected; they will not persecute each other.
And so Russia is left as Russia was, though now definitively minus Yevgeny Prighozin.