From Republic.ru, June 15, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/108750. Condensed text:
The fate of Wagner private military company (PMC) chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is sealed. His long-time foe, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, has issued an order demanding that all the members of “private military companies” (aka “volunteer militias”) sign contracts with the Defense Ministry and thus join the Russian military by July 1. Obviously, the primary purpose is to neutralize Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, Russia’s most prominent PMC. But it only looks like Shoigu is the one giving the order here. In reality, he is merely acting on an order he received from his boss, the supreme commander in chief of the Russian Armed Forces – [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. That’s the only way things work in Putin’s top-down chain-of-command system, especially in wartime.
Shoigu’s “order” to bring Wagner goons and Prigozhin himself to heel and make them subordinate to the Defense Ministry is a death knell for the “Kremlin chef,” and, of course, Putin alone has the authority to give such orders – although I’m sure that Shoigu will be delighted to carry out this decree, considering that the Wagner chief humiliated him publicly on a number of occasions.
It is worth mentioning at this point that Putin tolerated Prigozhin’s defiant behavior for a very long time. Any other person acting out in this way would have lost their career and possibly even their life a long time ago.
For example, the Wagner boss was very arrogant and at times openly insulting in his dealings with the president’s right-hand men, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov, who rank much higher in the hierarchy than Prigozhin.
To Putin, hierarchy means a lot, and normally he does not forgive such insubordination. He might be willing to turn a blind eye to the sadistic murders that Wagner thugs regularly boast about, but he can’t put up with insubordination. And yet for a very long time, Prigozhin got away with his regular attacks on Shoigu and Gerasimov. Why was the Kremlin duce so lenient with Prigozhin? Perhaps there are two reasons.
First, it could be that the “chef” took advantage of having direct access to Putin and persuaded the latter of his unique effectiveness. The second reason why Putin was so tolerant of the Wagner chief’s rants is because Prigozhin was, to Putin, someone who put himself in harm’s way for his country. In Putin’s hierarchy of values, this means a lot, and a person like that can be forgiven a lot of things. . . .
But Putin’s patience is not limitless.
The Wagner chief has become a huge problem for Putin, and the dictator can’t solve it the same way he used to solve such problems in the past – at least not yet. The monster that the Kremlin’s Dr. Frankenstein has produced in his lab has now turned against its creator. It is even challenging his authority.
Usually, Putin acts swiftly in situations like that. But this time it turned out that his old, trusted methods no longer work.
After Prigozhin ridiculed his boss, calling him a “carefree grandpa” and a “total dickhead,” the fate of the “chef” who overstepped his boundaries was apparently sealed. Putin merely paused for a month, as he always does when he does not know how to proceed.
The thing is that in his statement of May 9, Prigozhin crossed two red lines at once. Firstly, by speaking out of turn, the “chef” once again showed insubordination. What’s worse, he did it in the middle of a truly fateful war (especially for Putin personally). Second, he openly insulted his patron, and Putin never forgives personal insults. All of Putin’s opponents who were allegedly killed on his orders – people like [opposition leader] Boris Nemtsov or [journalist] Anna Politkovskaya – had all publicly insulted him.
A little later, Prigozhin realized that he went a bit too far and tried to walk it back, saying that his “grandpa” comment was “only” aimed at General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov. But the person he actually had in mind understood perfectly well what Prigozhin meant. Naturally, Prigozhin was talking about Putin, who is often called “granddad” or “grandpa.” Whenever Prigozhin feels like lashing out against Shoigu and Gerasimov, he openly calls them out by name.
Secondly, and more importantly, Prigozhin has become so influential that he poses a real threat to Putin’s regime. Vyorstka reports that according to Google Trends, Web searches for Prigozhin peaked during the week of May 28 through June 3, while searches for Vladimir Putin were only 28% of that number. But the problem, of course, is not that the Kremlin despot was jealous of his former chef’s popularity. The reason Prigozhin is a threat to Putin is because he undermines the foundations of Putin’s system, where the top dog has to have complete control over everything and where multiple power centers are impossible by definition. However, that is precisely what the Wagner chief did. Basically, he created his own private army, and now he is an independent center of power in Russia.
Prigozhin started out as a sort of valet attending to the monarch. At some point, Putin decided to promote him and make him his messenger, to dispatch him to developing countries as his private “special envoy” endowed with special powers. Putin used Prigozhin for his black ops, primarily to seize various assets in politically unstable countries. But in the course of what Putin calls a “special military operation” [in Ukraine], Prigozhin evolved into an independent military and political leader.
Perhaps Putin spent a long time thinking about how to get rid of Prigozhin, and eventually he felt like he had found a perfect solution. He would do it using his standard administrative methods. If Prigozhin agrees and becomes Shoigu’s subordinate, he will be assigned some impossible mission, from which the “butcher chef” and his most loyal men will never return. This could be arranged in a number of ways. For example, one could leak Prigozhin’s GPS coordinates to the Ukrainians, or he could get killed by Russian regular forces in a friendly fire accident, or Wagner men could be sent on a charge across a minefield. The important thing is that any of the above would solve the problem relatively quickly.
However, if Prigozhin refuses, disobeying the defense minister’s order during wartime is punishable by death. That would be a nice and easy solution as well.
But all of a sudden it turns out that Prigozhin is not that simple. Putin’s chef has tens of thousands of well-armed and well-trained mercenaries – and it was Putin himself who helped him build this private army! Wagner men have not just small arms; they also have tanks, artillery and even aircraft. And we should also be mindful of the fact that this is all happening against the backdrop of the Ukrainian offensive.
With such a mighty force under his command, Prigozhin seems to have no intention of surrendering and begging Putin and his pencil-pushing generals for mercy. After Shoigu ordered the members of Wagner Group and other private military contractors to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, Prigozhin basically decided to make his army even bigger by recruiting new members.
Here are his exact words: “We are being approached by various volunteer militias. We will accept them and integrate them into our command structure, but they will operate as separate assault units. We will provide them with artillery support, air support, intelligence and everything else. We have no problem working with various volunteer militias who join Wagner and become part of our family.”
It is not clear at this point how Putin can solve the problem of Prigozhin’s rogue army. He may do the same thing he always does. When he is in a tough situation and he doesn’t know what to do, he often puts the problem on the back burner indefinitely, until the problem goes away on its own or he comes up with a plan. On the other hand, by launching a large-scale war against Ukraine, Putin unleashed such tectonic shifts that it is quite possible that instead of Putin solving the problem of the rogue army, the rogue army may solve the problem of Putin. . . .