29 May 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
Last week, Evgeny Prigozhin again emerged as a major newsmaker. For starters, he claimed that his private army had occupied the entire territory of the town of Bakhmut. At the same time, the Ukrainian side reported fighting was still going on, but already outside the city limits, i.e., confirming nonetheless the assertion of the head of the PMC.
After this, Prigozhin gave an interview to Konstantin Dolgov, the host of one of the pro-government Telegram channels. In this interview, he essentially made clear he is fully aware of the falsity of the official goals of the war unleashed against Ukraine. He also admitted that, in fact, the Russian army has suffered a series of defeats in this war and, as a result, the state may be on the brink of disaster. These reflections of his need to be taken seriously. They are the thoughts of a man ready for civil war. He is expecting such a war and, it seems, is looking for allies.
So, Prigozhin says things for which several hundred people have already been imprisoned: “We came in arrogantly, walking with our boots all over Ukraine looking for Nazis. While we were looking for Nazis, we killed everyone we could. We approached Kiev – in plain Russian we shit ourselves and retreated. Later in Kherson, we shit ourselves again and retreated. Somehow things are not working out for us.
Prigozhin does not directly accuse Putin of unleashing a senseless war but makes it clear that he, as well as others, were forced to get involved in the war and follow the order. And now that the war has begun, they must fight to the end: “We did not invent this special operation. But we heeded the command and said that if our country was in trouble, we should fight to the end…”. That said, when it comes to perspective, Prigozhin makes clear that he doesn’t share the main hopes of Putin and the group of fanatics: “There’s an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario. I have little faith in the first one. That Europe and America will tire of the Ukrainian conflict, China will bring everyone to the negotiating table and everyone will agree that what we have already grabbed is ours and what we have not grabbed is not ours. This scenario is hardly possible.
So the real objectives of the war are these: to keep what we have grabbed. But that is unlikely. And if everything goes according to a scenario that is disadvantageous to Putin’s elite, what then? What does Prigozhin, until recently known as one of those who carry out the president’s instructions, as a former criminal, hired to perform a number of delicate tasks in exotic countries, want in this situation?
Firstly, he really wants to earn himself political popularity, which he obviously hopes to use later. To do this end he lashes out at…no, not the ideological enemies of the regime – the liberals – but at the political and economic elite of the country, particularly targeting the younger generation – the children of the elite. He is gnashing his teeth over the sons and daughters of generals who he considers are growing fat at the country’s expense, and in particular, the daughter of the defence minister. In general, Shoigu is target number one.
It seems to be a win-win situation for him. It is not too difficult to incite hatred between the lowest layer of the current state pyramid and the very top. But what for? Any big ideas need the support of big capital. Should we quarrel with big business too? Besides, who is Evgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin himself? A billionaire and the owner of a not-so-compact catering empire. Owner of hundreds of properties across the country.
Prigozhin’s statements are just a headache for the official propaganda. That os why he is not allowed on state TV channels. He remains in the niche of Telegram-channels. That seems to be enough tor him for the time being.
Who now can be considered his real audience? Russian right-wing radicals, supporters of the takeover of their neighbours’ territories and the introduction of outright military dictatorship (the current one is not enough for them anymore). They, the real fascists, did not need these fake goals like ‘defending Donbas’ or ‘denazification.’ It is exactly what they wanted to trample and tear up neighbouring territories. And to use the sledgehammer effectively in domestic politics. It is also true that for them Prigozhin is not really Russian. But that they can tolerate that. For now.
And, secondly, among Prigozhin’s verbal attacks and invectives there is not a single one directed against the FSB or its leadership. Above all this gives us an idea of who Prigozhin would like to rely on in the further development of the war of attrition. And in anticipation of a possible collapse of the state. Yes, Prigozhin is thinking about this too. And suggests – albeit temporarily – a version of North Korea with complete isolation and a focus on domestic development. We have also heard similar ideas.
One can also assume that his way of thinking is to a certain extent shared by people in the broader stratum of FSB officers who have long understood the failure and catastrophic nature of the dictator’s adventure, but do not yet know what to do. For them, Prigozhin is also an outsider for a number of reasons. But still. In a crisis, very different people turn out to be able to find common ground.
People of this kind do not have, and cannot have, any real plan. Prigozhin merely anticipates the crisis in the state and prepares to survive it. His style and vocabulary are, in a sense, something new in Russian political life: we have never heard so much swearing and criminal slang. Zhirinovsky, for all his temperament, did not enter this arena. A crude and uneducated man with a grenade launcher is knocking loudly on the door of Russian politics. And he was brought here, to this door, by the head of state and his comrades.
Incidentally, it has been reported that Konstantin Dolgov was sacked immediately after his interview with Prigozhin, that was so distasteful for the Kremlin. And he is already under Prigozhin’s wing. It looks like a premeditated plan.
Prigozhin’s position regarding the main objectives of this war has just been confirmed by the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement by the deputy minister. True, he’s not yet using the language of the criminal underground, but it is just a matter of time, I think. Ukraine must recognize the ‘new territorial realities’: that is, in essence, all. In other words, give to Putin what his troops managed to seize in the very first months of the war. The other conditions are largely secondary, but they also show that no negotiations with the Kremlin are possible right now. Putin is demanding that Ukraine refuse to join the EU and NATO and make Russian a state language. At the same time he has, in effect, already done everything to ensure that Ukraine will never accept these conditions.
Regular additional arguments from the Russian side, such as a strike on Dnipro, on the city hospital, resulting in further deaths of civilians, will certainly not help Putin.
Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders Pashinyan and Aliyev held talks in Moscow. For neither of them is Putin the most reliable or convenient partner anymore. But it is important for Pashinyan to match some of the hopes that some part of the Armenian population continues to place in Moscow. Those people are fewer and fewer in number. But Pashinyan can use a familiar format.
Aliyev, by and large, does not care where the Armenian leader reaffirms Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity – which includes the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The last war was lost by Yerevan. And the people of Armenia are tired of fighting. Azerbaijan can speak from a position of strength. All that Pashinyan can put forward as a condition is the observance of the rights of the people of Karabakh (Artsakh). Aliyev is prepared to guarantee something here, but on condition that the people living in Karabakh accept Azerbaijani citizenship. A difficult, almost impossible condition for people who are used to considering Azerbaijan as an eternal enemy.
The sides are actually close to an agreement. Although for the vast majority of Armenians the agreement will be part of a major historical drama, the world, and Europe, will have the opportunity to consider one conflict less. And it will be a very important development.
A little bit of science. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has opened a criminal case against one of Russia’s leading economists, Konstantin Sonin, a former provost of the Higher School of Economics. The economist was put on an international wanted list. Interpol has not responded to Russian enquiries for a long time, but what is important here is that the Investigative Committee has not specified what crime Sonin is accused of. Sonin himself believes the case concerns his social media posts in which he expressed outrage over the destruction of Mariupol.
What is important here is something else. Sonin is really one of Russia’s brightest specialists in the field of micro- and macroeconomics, a world-class expert, as evidenced by his teaching at the University of Chicago. And the (powerless and symbolic) attacks on him bring to mind the Bolshevik attacks on an entire galaxy of prominent Russian economists, philosophers and sociologists in the early 1920s – exactly one hundred years ago. Those attacks, incidentally, ended in exile for many at that time. And many of those who weren’t deported were killed a decade later. Yes, there is no getting away from historical analogies.
On 23 May, a General Meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences was held. Why is this event noteworthy?
A week earlier, the staff of the S. A. Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics addressed an open letter to the authorities and the scientific community. The letter’s main topic was the events taking place in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (SB RAS). The main subject of the letter was the arrests over recent months of a number of the Institute’s scientists – Anatoly Maslov, Aleksandr Shiplyuk and Valery Zvegintsev. All three were arrested on suspicion of committing crimes under Article 275, the most severe of the Russian Criminal Code, namely high treason. All the cases are classified. But the specialisation of the arrested scientists is well known – aerodynamics. It is also known that all three had very strong reputations in the professional community and received offers of employment from a number of foreign research centres. But they had remained in Novosibirsk… As we know, several other brilliant scientists have been put behind bars in recent years. Some died in prison or almost immediately after being released.
In fact, the scientists have no legal protection. The letter addressed by their colleagues is unique. Normally, both colleagues and relatives of those arrested are afraid to say anything at all in their defence. An atmosphere of universal fear has been created.
There was no special reaction to this letter. Valentin Parmon, head of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, made the keynote speech. But he did not mention the names of the arrested scientists. Only one fragment from the speech by RAS President Gennady Krasnikov need be noted. In particular, he said: “We are closely following every accusation made against the Academy, its members and leading scientists. We have set up a special consultation mechanism where leading academic lawyers and legal scholars work to provide members of the Academy with legal defence. I would like to note that every case is different but we try to study all of them, get to the bottom of what is going on and provide support where necessary. And, of course, we are in constant contact with law enforcement agencies.”
What complicated words. I don’t think there is really any kind of constant contact. There is justified fear. There is the arbitrariness of the security services and there is the utter helplessness of academic science. And what can we demand from these people? Yes, there is a collective letter, and that is almost a feat.
Right in front of our eyes a group of some shady people in uniform, specializing in murder and torture, are slandering and harassing those who make up the scientific glory of the country. And the country is quietly sobbing with a blanket over its head. But as life has shown so many times, it is impossible to create the basis for normal scientific development on fear and slave labour.
Yes, we are living through, witnessing, creating, what are now perhaps the most shameful pages of our country’s history. But let us note that in these pages there will also be lines about the plight of the sciences.
Some more news of public life. The Supreme Court has liquidated the People’s Freedom Party, also called Parnas. It is one of the first and oldest Russian parties, established back in 1990. Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Vladimir Milov and Boris Kasyanov were its members. The pretext for liquidation was completely bogus – that the party did not have enough regional branches. This is not the real reason. The point is that the group of people who now make up the government is purposefully destroying civil society infrastructure. That is, any organizations which are able to oppose and criticize the authorities. Parnas was not an influential political force, but it made critical statements over the whole of the last year. In the authorities’ view, no criticism of any kind of political nature can be tolerated anymore. That is the strategy. Apparently Yabloko is next in line.
And in the United States, the most popular and well-known (after Trump) Republican politician, Ron DeSantis, has finally announced his candidacy for the presidency. The 44-year-old Florida governor looked like a perfectly natural alternative to the former president as recently as last year. Young, successful (he easily won the last gubernatorial election) and good-looking. Yes, all that is true. Still, it’s premature to talk about him having any clear advantage over Trump. The trick, I think, is this: the Republican candidate can win if he wrests part of the electorate away from his traditional rivals, the Democrats. That is, if he gets into his rival’s electoral field.
But Desantis’ record is such that he can only be liked by ultra-conservative Republicans – gloomy and heavy-handed people. He has almost nothing to offer the wavering part of the Democratic audience. Desantis has signed a raft of legislation that suits the interests of extreme conservatives – including restricting abortion, making it easier to carry guns and banning transgender transition surgery. This transgender-specific legislation is particularly interesting. Putin’s audience would have loved it. This Florida law prohibits teachers from discussing gender and sexual identity in school classes. It may be in line with the preferences of the state’s conservatives, but it’s all too much for the whole of vast America. Desantis has managed to squabble with the Disney company- encroaching on its autonomous status. And so on.
That’s not to say that Trump’s agenda is much more liberal – it’s not about their policy programmes at all. Where Desantis will seriously say with a scowl that transgender people must not be accommodated in everything (and most Americans would agree with that), Trump will say nothing and just smirk. And some transgender and gay voters will vote for him. Simply because his charm will work. Although he just doesn’t give answers to a lot of tough questions. He jokes instead. And Trump can get away with it. But only him.
He will, however, have a very hard time this time round. But that is a different, special subject.
Finally, another important international news item is the re-election of Recep Erdogan to another presidential term. There are doubts about the votes cast for him in the regions affected by the recent catastrophic earthquake – there are almost no voters left there, very many have left. But, by and large, the electoral process was conducted within the framework of the law – a fact that the opposition also acknowledges. In general, the 20-year rule of one politician with the ambitions of a dictator is always a risk for the nation. But if the main democratic institutions are working – as in Turkey – the risks are somewhat mitigated. If these institutions are shut down or destroyed, as in Russia, then trouble awaits the country. Big trouble.
Translated by Rights in Russia