26 June 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
The only thing we have to thank Evgeny Prigozhin for is that he pulled the window-dressing off the Russian regime’s facade. For a little while, his 25,000 fighters—adventurists in search of easy money and zeks released from punishment—plunged the federal regime into a stupor. The “march for justice” broken off on the approaches to Moscow turned out to be an operetta. But how the Kremlin panicked!
A counterterrorism emergency declared, military equipment on Moscow’s streets and at the entrances to the city, the planes of oligarchs and important officials flying out of the country, and, finally, Vladimir Putin’s special address, which by its tone should have started with the words “Brothers and sisters!” And all this over 25,000 “dogs of war” who were supposed to have faced off against the approximately 5 million employees of the various security structures.
“Should” and “would”
There’s a huge difference between “should” and “would,” though. There turned out to be shamefully few eager to shed blood for the father-tsar. In Wagner-occupied Rostov-on-Don, policemen and soldiers sat in their barracks and stations as quiet as mice, didn’t poke their heads out, and didn’t try to dispute the provisional regime. They’re genuine “heroes” when they beat and detain peaceful demonstrators at opposition actions; then they’re brave, self-confident, and proud of their calling. But faced with an armed opponent, all their bravado flies out the window instantly and they become unusually quiet and amenable.
They behaved exactly the same way 30 years ago during the red-brown putsch in Moscow. The police were gone with the wind, and army subdivisions stood on the city’s outskirts waiting to see which side would win and who they’d join. At the time, the civilian population showed initiative, and people went into downtown Moscow and defended puny Russian democracy from the red-brown contagion.
No one will be going out on Moscow’s streets today. Not for Putin and his thieving regime, and not for Prigozhin and his army of criminals and rapists. They won’t because there’s nothing to defend. They’ll watch, discuss, bet, and argue who’s better, who’s stronger and more promising, but few are going to want to get mixed up in the fight. The people are going to watch the way spectators in ancient Rome watched gladiator battles. They argued, admired, were outraged, were encouraging, but didn’t put a foot into the arena themselves.
Nowadays, of course, it’s a very different gladiator, but the people are the same and they like spectacles as much as the Romans did. Most important, they’re protecting themselves and participating in the gladiator battles only as spectators. Therefore, civil war, the inevitability of which so many political scientists, experts, and seers have been talking about, is off the table. For civil war you have to have an idea that attracts great masses of people. Like abolitionism in the United States in the nineteenth century or the socialist mirage in Russia in the twentieth. Neither Putin nor Prigozhin has ideas like that.
The disagreement they have is, one might say, purely stylistic: the right way to fight in order to conquer Ukraine. Prigozhin reproaches Defence Minister Shoigu for corruption and military ignorance, but in essence he’s fighting for his place in the sun in order to do the exact same thing. These are whelps from the same litter.
What next? The PMC was a useful but risky scheme for the Kremlin. It’s not easy to maintain control over people who are allowed to murder and run riot. Especially if they’re doing it for the sake of money or pleasure. Stalin understood that well, periodically repressing the top leadership of his special services and the Gulag. It’s highly likely that the same fate will befall the Wagner PMC, too. The Kremlin is hardly going to reject the company altogether, but without question it will change the leadership and try to maintain tighter control over the group’s actions.
It’s time for the Kremlin sages to give some thought to the basically private army of Ramzan Kadyrov, who today is profuse in his assurances of his loyalty to Moscow, but what is going to happen tomorrow is completely unknown.
Prigozhin’s little song, more than likely, has been sung. Putin is hardly going to forgive him the humiliation of his fear and his need to seek the mediation of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Prigozhin may sit it out for a while somewhere in Africa, carrying out the dirty orders of his Kremlin bosses, or he may disappear from the public horizon entirely. But today I wouldn’t give a hill of beans for his head.
Translated by Marian Schwartz