Letter From the Editors

The Prigozhin mutiny’s fly-by-night threat to Vladimir Putin has provoked some reflection on the nature of his rule in the Russian media. Strangely, Putin himself greenlighted this scrutiny, announcing with regard to Prigozhin’s procurement contracts that “I hope that in the course of this work no one stole anything, or they stole less. But, of course, we will deal with it all.”

Still more strangely, he decided to “deal with it” in the manner associated with Aleksei Navalny. State television broadcast law-enforcement footage of Prigozhin’s mansion in the Northern Versailles neighborhood of St. Petersburg (a name surely meant to evoke the good order and usefulness of its elite residents), complete with personal helicopter, rolls of foreign currency and his own sigil – the sledgehammer.

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov explains the problem with this approach: “Putin is apparently trying to discredit Prigozhin by discussing in detail how he financed him. In reality, he is discrediting himself. Having a problem that you yourself paid for amounts to a complete failure. . . . After all, it wasn’t Khodorkovsky or Navalny and the State Department who created the problem. Nope. The problem was created by a close sidekick who was siphoning off the state budget only yesterday.”

Transparency International Russia director Ilya Shumanov also claims to have gained further insight into Russia’s unofficial power structures over the course of the Prigozhin saga: “The state system itself had to acknowledge the scope of corruption practices that Prigozhin was involved in.” According to Shumanov, the mercenary chief has managed to protect himself through control of Wagner’s benefit fund as well as a tangled web of international enterprises, “Yet I would not bet on his safety as a lasting arrangement.”

Whatever happens to Prigozhin, the system that created him lives on. After the TV exposés, Republic.ru writes, some Telegram channels “for the sake of objectivity, suggest showing people the mansion of [Russian] Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the houses of his deputies, the heads of Defense Ministry departments and the commanders of military districts.” Among various oligarchs and ascendant political figures, Shumanov points out one in particular: “Look at Ramzan Kadyrov and try to tell me that he greatly differs [from Prigozhin], for instance, in terms of the army that he has. He has political status; he has ambitions; and he is also bound up with the only person at the top of the state system – i.e., Putin. And just like Prigozhin, who appealed to Putin and came into conflict with the Defense Ministry, [Kadyrov] could not care less about anyone else. What is stopping Kadyrov from doing the same [coup attempt] tomorrow?”

Indeed, if you were betting a few years ago on which of Putin’s satraps would undermine the integrity of the state, the safe money would have been on Kadyrov. Few people know that better than Novaya gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina, who was abducted and brutally beaten outside Grozny alongside Aleksandr Nemov, the lawyer for Zarema Musayeva, a woman who had similarly been abducted from Nizhny Novgorod on Kadyrov’s orders. On this occasion, the Chechen leader said that he had “instructed the competent agencies to make every effort to identify the attackers.”

The media circus, if not the violence, has drawn the attention of Russia’s biggest neighbor. Nezavisimaya gazeta cites scholar Xiao Bin as saying that “the Wagner coup made China realize that the domestic political situation in Russia is very fragile. The fragility was there before, but it increased after the special military operation began.”

Someone should tell Kyrgyz president Sadyr Zhaparov. According to scholar Temur Umarov, he is one of the world’s few heads of state to grow closer to Putin during the war in Ukraine, notably by attending this year’s Victory Day celebration in Moscow and by suppressing antiwar demonstrations by Russian expatriates in his country. Supposedly, Zhaparov is doing all this to bring order to his country, because he sees Putin as a “role model of authoritarian stability.”