Letter From the Editors
When this week’s news cycle began, the Putin regime had just faced its most serious threat ever: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the “Kremlin chef” turned mercenary chief, seized the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don and led thousands of armed Wagner soldiers on a “March for Justice” headed straight toward Moscow. What stopped them 200 kilometers short of the capital was purportedly a compromise brokered by Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Mainstream Russian media offered all kinds of speculations – including a theory spun by Nezavisimaya gazeta that the Kremlin knew of Prigozhin’s plans in advance – but there are a few elements common to all the stories. For one, Prigozhin had loudly and repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the Russian Defense Ministry for lack of effective leadership in the Ukraine conflict. Then, that ministry recently issued an order that all private military companies operating in Ukraine must sign contracts by July 1 to bring themselves under the ministry’s jurisdiction. This requirement was likely what prompted Prigozhin’s show of force. As for Lukashenko’s deescalation deal, reports concurred that the Wagner leader and some of his fighters will end up in Belarus without prosecution.
But these reports mainly sidestepped the big question of what will happen to the Putin regime after this open challenge to presidential authority. Here is where the smaller, independent outlets stepped in to fill the gap. For example, Yury Fyodorov, in an interview with Republic.ru, said that the rebellion dealt a serious blow to the president’s image: “It’s not even that Putin is demoralized, but that his authority has greatly decreased. . . . [T]he leader is out of his depth; the leader is weak. First, . . . he allowed a rebellion to happen; second, he wasn’t able to suppress it.” In a similar vein, a Wagner veteran interviewed by Meduza was sure that the PMC could have taken the capital without a fight. He consoled himself with this thought: “Well, at least we managed to demonstrate to the whole country the impotence of our ruling elite and our phony generals.”
However, Pyotr Skorobogaty wrote emphatically in Ekspert: “For the benefit of outside observers, an illusion of the authorities’ helplessness was created. However, if need be, the Wagner units could have been wiped out. . . . Some people believe that Putin should have bombed Wagner [fighters] to make an example of them, thus restoring his reputation as a tough leader. However, the president acted humanely by prohibiting bloodshed. And given the military’s desire to settle scores with the rebels, he thus proved that he is in control of the vertical chain of command.”
However, plenty of people close to home seem to disagree. Just days after the rebellion, as NG reported, Igor Strelkov’s Club of Angry Patriots (CAP) held a rally in Moscow that focused “on condemning the Prigozhin mutiny, or rather, the Kremlin’s ineffective actions to quash it.” Strelkov himself stressed that “Putin and other members of the elites show no understanding that the war [in Ukraine] must be fought until victory.”
Further from home, China seems to be at least skeptical about Putin’s leadership. Although the People’s Daily published only limited coverage of the mutiny, Chinese experts say that Putin’s ability to control the situation is at stake. At the same time, there is the possibility that if Prigozhin’s retreat leads Wagner to pull its personnel out of their entrenched positions in Africa, that may open the door for China to expand its presence on the continent. In any case, we have a feeling that the agile Yevgeny Prigozhin will land on his feet. Soon we might see footage of him training the Belarussian military, and who knows where he might go after that? Someday he might even be serving dim sum to Xi Jinping.