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Prigozhin’s Coup Attempt Exposes Putin’s Vulnerability

The war has gradually revealed Putin to be an ’emperor with no clothes,’ which even his inner circle will soon be forced to admit

Putin declares Prigozhin, his protégé, a traitor. St. Petersburg (the home city of both Putin and Prigozhin), June 24, 2023,Artem Priakhin / SOPA Images / ZUMA Press Wire / Scanpix / LETA

There’s no doubt that Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and his “army” were Putin’s personal project. Otherwise, Wagner wouldn’t have become involved in conflicts in Africa, the Syrian war, or the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Without Putin’s approval, Wagner wouldn’t have access to Russian penal colonies to recruit fighters, and wouldn’t have been able to put their advertisements up all over Russia. There would be no pictures of Russian politicians holding sledgehammers gifted by Prigozhin, and no law that prohibits discrediting “volunteer” combatants, which make up a portion of Wagner’s forces. That all changed on the morning of June 24, 2023, when the president was forced to abandon his strategic ambivalence toward Prigozhin, and instead publicly denounce him as a “traitor.”

Putin's political theory

A mercenary army led by a “nominal” commander is a natural element of Putinism. Such a structure carries out the orders of the country’s top leadership, but exists in a legal gray zone, operating largely outside of the law. Putin considers this approach to be a crowning achievement of governance and efficiency. Over the course of Putin’s 23-year rule and due to his distrust of regular government institutions, he has created quasi-businesses, registered in the names of his friends and former servicemen. He has even created entire quasi-states like the “DNR” and “LNR.” These tactics have allowed him to enrich himself, while simultaneously giving him the ability to disassociate himself from these endeavours at any moment, if need be.

This political strategy is based on the assumption that people are always under someone’s control and that their loyalty can only be secured financially. Once one boss stops paying them, they’ll look for another. If no one will pay them, they’ll stop working altogether. Putin’s laws on “foreign agents,” “undesirable,” and “extremist” organizations demonstrate this belief in the fundamental lack of human autonomy, as such agents and organizations are considered to be acting in the interests of his opponents.

Prigozhin, however, didn’t stop when he was cut off from his resources and stripped of his autonomy. Perhaps, he felt cornered. Those in power have long wanted Prigozhin out of the picture, but Prigozhin understood that without a source of power, he would become a criminal — both in Russia and abroad.

Prigozhin's political program

Realizing the circumstances he found himself in, Prigozhin began building a public communications strategy that would eventually turn into political activity. Prigozhin’s “agenda” has all the elements of a radical populist movement. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, a leading expert on the topic, describes the agenda’s main elements: a rigid division of society into a “good population” and a “bad elite,” a demand and promise to save the nation, and authoritarian methods to achieve these goals.

Prigozhin’s populist (anti-elite) position is obvious: generals don’t give out enough ammo, while the children of elites frolic in luxury destinations and on social media. He sees the elite as the cause of the army’s decay. While the army is the most obvious example in his rhetoric, all of society is in trouble. The elite must be put on trial in order to save the nation. Prigozhin considers only authoritarian methods to be effective, such as a general mobilization and the introduction of a planned economy.

It’s not clear to what extent this crudely constructed scheme reflects his real views, which, generally speaking, differ little from other members of Putin’s inner circle. But based on this agenda, Prigozhin has managed to mold himself into a national opposition political figure within a matter of months. Before the coup, it’s possible that his level of support was comparable to that of Alexey Navalny’s. If it were not for his brand of publicity, Prigozhin would probably already have been murdered or put behind bars. This suggests he has a certain amount of foresight.

It’s true that Putin has also infected the expert community with his belief that individual figures are unable to act independently. That’s why commentators have long wondered to what extent Prigozhin’s accelerating departure was staged. Many (most likely, correctly) believed that Putin needed Prigozhin to humiliate and intimidate certain disgraced generals.


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The naked emperor’s political future

Despite it lasting less than a day, the “Wagner uprising,” which grew out of this performance, is likely to deal a serious blow to Putin’s power. The mutiny has demonstrated the vulnerability at the core of Putin’s system of power. Prigozhin has just proven that it is possible to seize a city of millions in Russia without firing a single shot, and then move toward Moscow without meeting any resistance. This may suggest that many of Russia’s security officials and soldiers do not like their commanders, and will not risk their lives for them. The confrontation ending in stalemate has not changed anything in this respect.

For better or for worse, the rebellion didn’t last long enough to discover to what extent Prigozhin’s radical populist ideas are popular among Russia’s security services, which would have been evident from the number of military personnel defecting to the side of Wagner. In any case, Prigozhin has voiced his agenda, which will, in one form or another, circulate further in society.

Prigozhin’s insurrection is another link in a long process demonstrating the emperor has no clothes. Each such story almost literally “exposes” Putin: it strips him of one of his many “vestiges.”

The previous blow against Putin was in Russia’s Belgorod region, when relatively small military units crossed the border, seized populated areas, and then withdrew with impunity. This hurt Putin’s ability to say his “special operation” posed no threat to Russians.

The Russian army’s inability to solve large-scale combat tasks was demonstrated to the whole world, as the myth of the “world’s second army” and its leader collapsed with a bang. Putin’s reputation was first damaged in the early days of the war, when it became clear that he had been deceived about the state of affairs in Ukraine and that he was unable to filter out unreliable information — even as an experienced politician and a career intelligence officer.

Prigozhin, however, dealt the most crushing blow to Putin. It’s now clear that the president is unable to control “his” people, who at some point may become a threat to everyone else.

It’s clear that the Kremlin will try to get rid of the remnants of quasi-state structures like Wagner Group. However, the very existence of Prigozhin’s “march” on Moscow proved the inadequacy of Putin’s worldview, since he believed nothing of this sort was possible. Destroying private military companies, of course, will not fix that.

Interestingly, former politician Farkhad Akhmedov and Iosif Prigozhin (no relation to Evgeny Prigozhin) predicted the current turmoil in a leaked conversation. They saw Putin as the reason they were losing money, power, and opportunities to enrich themselves. It’s quite clear to them that the entire system Putin created is in crisis, and that the seeds of its decay are embedded within the system. However, they prefer to publicly praise Putin and earn as much as they can. There’s an understandable explanation for this, and it’s the only one that still allows Putin’s system to stay afloat: once everyone recognizes the emperor is naked, his court of hypocrites will be stripped bare too.

Maxim Trudolyubov is editor of Meduza’s Ideas column

Translation by Ned Garvey

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