From Republic.ru, June 26, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/108883. Condensed text:
Editors’ Note. – What was Yevgeny Prigozhin trying to achieve with his actions? Military expert and political analyst Yury Fyodorov believes that his intentions were quite serious. Farida Kurbangaleyeva asked him what made the PMC head turn around, whether he might repeat the rebellion, and what Putin will do now.
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Question. – Many political analysts and Western politicians are calling Prigozhin’s battle march on Moscow a powerful blow to the Putin regime and the authority of Putin personally.Do you agree that Putin’s system failed this test, and showed weakness and vulnerability?
Answer. – Yes, this is an entirely fair point of view. First, Putin – the Russian president, who is responsible for the country’s security – let the situation reach the point of military mutiny or rebellion. In other words, he let things become incredibly risky. This is his obvious fault, and he will be reminded of it. And not just by his opponents, but also by his allies – the people on whom he relies. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that rebellions must be suppressed by force when they occur, but Putin was not able to do this. At first, they were saying that the traitors and defectors had to be neutralized, but several hours later they had to negotiate and close the criminal case, even though Prigozhin is a perfect example of a classic mutineer from any point of view.
Third, Putin not only had to go against his better judgment, but he also had to appeal to Lukashenko: “Aleksandr Grigoryevich [Lukashenko], please, help me get out of this appalling situation.”
There you have at least three moments that demonstrated the weakness of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s security system. In addition, this revealed the interesting fact that a person in charge of 25,000 people with light infantry combat experience could bring the country to the edge of civil war. Such an experiment could be very attractive to other military personnel.
Moreover, what Prigozhin says matches the mindset of a significant number of officers – roughly as high as colonels. And it could be that some generals also realize that the war has reached a dead end and the country’s leadership is politically impotent. The military command is doing one stupid thing after another to “solve problems,” as they themselves love to say. After all, the problem isn’t with Prigozhin. Prigozhin is a figure who is supported by certain levels of law-enforcement and security structures, which, it seems to me, have been thinking the same way as Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] for a long time.
Q. – Then why didn’t anyone from the military go over to his side during the revolt?
A. – Because, from a legal standpoint, siding with a rebel would have very serious consequences for any service member if the rebel is not victorious. All Prigozhin can count on is neutrality on the part of the Army. But neutrality in and of itself is the result of coinciding views, moods and so forth. If the Army remains neutral, Prigozhin has a chance at victory.
Q. – Some people think that Prigozhin decided to try for a rebellion out of desperation: He realized that he had been expelled from both Ukraine and from [Russian] power circles, so he decided to go for broke.
A. – I don’t think this viewpoint really holds water. First of all, Prigozhin wasn’t expelled – he left on his own. He announced that he was withdrawing a group of his mercenaries from the front, and sending them to field camps to rest and regroup. And this can already be considered something very similar to a revolt, because it is a refusal to carry out orders from commanding officers.
Second, Prigozhin apparently didn’t have any other option for breaking through to the top and realizing his ambitions. But if he gave up on his ambitions, then what would have happened to him? Nothing. He would have continued on in his former capacity: a wealthy man with a private army.
Theoretically, he could have flown to Africa, taking some of his people with him, and then become some kind of local “monarch” there. So he did have ways out – his situation wasn’t hopeless. But, as far as I understand, he has major political ambitions.
Q. – To become president?
A. – Prigozhin wants a political role, and any political role in Russia is the role of head honcho. And this means he wants to become the country’s leader. . . .
Q. – What could Prigozhin’s goal have been during his march to Moscow?
A. – The ideal goal would have been for Putin to resign out of cowardice and for Prigozhin to then become the natural leader of Russia. But there was a chance this wouldn’t work – and it didn’t. The second goal was to increase his political weight and to establish himself as a second center of power [in Russia]. We have to take a second look here – this might have worked, or it might not have.
But Prigozhin’s third goal was to show that even though his influence doesn’t compare to Putin’s, he is still a key political player who could afford to lead an armed uprising against the government and the president, and who has so far gone unpunished. So he definitely won in this sense. Perhaps, of course, he will soon be killed. But, as we know, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Q. – How can you explain the fact that the Wagnerites were able to move with such ease across Russian territory?They crossed the border unhindered, they seized Rostov-on-Don without any resistance from the Defense Ministry and then they raced along the highways to Moscow, knocking down cordons.According to Prigozhin himself, he stopped them 200 km from Moscow.What does this say?Is Russia not protected in the event of such a military invasion?
A. – That is the most interesting question: How was a formation of Wagnerites able to approach Moscow in a day (and possibly get closer than 200 km, according to some information)? This means that the forces that were supposed to stop them were not prepared to do so. The Wagnerites had some heavy equipment, some tanks, but not that many. They mostly had their trucks. Again, there was some completely pathetic attempt to stop them with bombing, but in response the Wagnerites took out several helicopters with Stingers and Javelins [portable missile systems] that they had most likely seized in Ukraine.
It was just that the Army didn’t want to get involved. The police, the security services and the Russian National Guard did not want to interfere. They took the position that law-enforcement and security agencies traditionally take in times of political crisis and political uncertainty. The same exact thing happened [during the August putsch] in 1991 and [the coup attempt] in 1993, I remember this well. . . .
And it’s interesting that there are very few troops in and around Moscow. The Tamanskaya Division and the Kantemirovskaya Division are there – the first is a motorized rifle division and the second is a tank division. Plus, there are various kinds of officers at military academies. As well as military officials from the Defense Ministry, the General Staff and so on. And a small number of enlisted soldiers and all sorts of support staff who serve this bureaucracy. The rest is the Russian National Guard, but it can’t fight – its purpose is to disperse demonstrations. And in [the Prigozhin] case, they would have had to fight people who came from the front and aren’t scared of dying. And it is still unknown who would have taken what.
Q. – So then why did Prigozhin back down?
A. – I think that he had several considerations. First, he could have tried to take Moscow, and he probably could have. But that would have meant fighting. [The Russian authorities] would have brought in some contingents of troops from across Russia – brigades of GRU [Chief Intelligence Administration] special forces. And that amounts to 40,000 people who are not so easy to contend with. So there was a chance for a military victory, but a rather dubious one. That’s the first thing.
Second: If he had been able to reach an agreement (and I think that’s what happened), one of the conditions of the deal would have been the removal of Shoigu and Gerasimov. From the viewpoint of the Russian nomenklatura and the military command, anyone who manages to get senior military leaders removed essentially controls the real levers of power. Putin understands that Shoigu and Gerasimov are not the people who will win the war. But he clings to these people in every possible way, simply because, as we know, he never solves problems under pressure. In any case, that’s what people who know him say. He understands that Ivanov-Petrov-Sidorov [the most common Russian surnames – Trans.] are idiots and bribe takers, but he won’t fire them just because someone wants him to.
And if Prigozhin actually did obtain a promise to remove these people, then he has a real instrument of power. . . .
So, what’s next now that Prigozhin has withdrawn his troops? Where did he send them? To camps in Rostov Province. The place they came from. That means there is a chance of repeating all this. So I wouldn’t underestimate his potential here.
Q. – Do you anticipate a schism within Wagner?Some mercenaries are unhappy that Prigozhin backed down and are calling him a sycophant.
A. – Actually, the schism has already started. Of course, many of these 25,000 people were convicted of grave crimes. And, of course, they would like to reach Moscow, there’s no doubt. But this is a normal phenomenon. Radicals and extremists always crop up in organizations like this. But there are also cautious people. So Prigozhin is probably balancing between these two groups. . . .
Q. – Could Prigozhin really set up shop in Belarus, as Lukashenko and [Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry] Peskov announced?
A. – I think this is a real possibility and that it is one of the terms of the agreement. This is bad news for Ukraine, because 25,000 highly experienced fighters is twice the size of Belarus’s ground forces, which don’t even number 12,000. They could loom over Ukraine’s northern border and threaten to invade it.
Q. – Could Prigozhin and Putin decide on such an offensive?
A. – Let’s separate them: Putin and Prigozhin are two completely different characters. Putin could decide to do anything, but it seems like he’s no longer always capable of carrying out all his decisions. And Prigozhin – who knows? I can’t rule out the possibility – and many have written and spoken about this – that Prigozhin could fly to [Ukrainian spy chief Kirill] Budanov in Kiev or meet him somewhere on the border and say: “Kirill, I am now prepared to go with you to Moscow, to restore justice, and the people will follow me.” . . .
Q. – Putin naturally doesn’t need a competitor like that.CNN writes that Putin could order Prigozhin’s assassination in Belarus.What do you think? Is that possible?
A. – That’s the first thing that comes to mind, because Putin is exactly that kind of person – this is clear from the story with [oppositionist Aleksei] Navalny. He didn’t kill him, but he did do practically the same thing [by sending him to prison; see Vol. 74, No. 11, p. 11 – Trans.].
This also applies to other politicians and oppositionists he despises. And I think he hates Prigozhin to death. Yes, Putin will naturally try to [kill Prigozhin]. The question is if he has any chance of doing so. Prigozhin has good security, I think, and people are loyal to him. That’s one thing. Second, I can’t rule out the possibility that he has informants in the very systems and agencies that would be instructed to kill him. I think there is sympathy for him in those places. And why not assume that a killer or group of killers will go to Prigozhin with a confession and say: “Yevgeny Viktorovich, we repent, we are on our knees. We were ordered to kill you, but we don’t want to.” . . .
Q. – How could the situation within Russia develop further, considering that Putin and his entourage are probably demoralized by Prigozhin’s escapade?
A. – It’s not even that Putin is demoralized, but that his authority has greatly decreased. And this, of course, forces people from his entourage – the top 1,000 people on whom the situation in the country depends – to think seriously. Of course, they’ve been having such thoughts for a long time – I’m totally convinced of that too. But now there will be even more doubts about whether it’s better to change the leader. Because the leader is out of his depth; the leader is weak. First, as I already mentioned, he allowed a rebellion to happen; second, he wasn’t able to suppress it.
It’s clear that everyone is going to ostensibly speak about loyalty and show loyalty to Putin. But there will naturally be growing doubts about his suitability to serve the country’s interests. And this makes Putin’s position much more complicated. He may have to declare terror – terror against his own people and not against the liberals, who play no role here. His own people are the ones doing the betraying.
Q. – Who has a greater chance at victory in the confrontation between Putin and Prigozhin?
A. – I think Putin has a chance of winning only if Prigozhin capitulates, but he doesn’t seem to be getting ready to do that. Or if Prigozhin is killed. But if Prigozhin doesn’t lose his drive for power and tries to make it a reality, then I think victory will be his.