5 June 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
Prigozhin and Russia’s War against Ukraine
The main figure of the current stage of the war, Evgeny Prigozhin, after withdrawing his unit from the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, has undertaken some kind of political action. That is how his tour of a number of Russian cities can be described. And we need to pay attention to this person – there is no way round that. Such are the peculiarities of political life in today’s Russia. Judging by the geography of the trip, the head of the Wagner PMC wished to show himself in the country’s largest cities (excluding the capitals): Ekaterinburg, Vladivostok, Novosibirsk and Nizhny Novgorod. In each city he gave a press conference.
One gets the impression that the head of one of Russia’s private (or private-state, you never know) armies is simply basking in glory. Still, the tour itself and the detailed answers to journalists’ questions has not had a direct impact on the situation on the fronts. Mr Prigozhin was very open and frank with the participants of the press conferences and talked about various topics. This time, however, he did not lose his self-control and he did not make overly risky attacks as before. So, for example, he finally decided whom he meant by “happy grandfather”, who may be a negative character (we replace the more colourful term used by Prigozhin with this euphemism). It turns out that the Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, was the one he meant. We should point out that before Prigozhin came up with this version, observers thought that another person was meant.
In essence the statement made by Prigozhin in the course of all these press events sounds like a programme of political grouping – the most radical supporters of the war calling for it to continue until the ‘victorious end.’ With some ambiguity about the meaning of the last word. In this respect, Prigozhin certainly did not meet with the writer Prilepin, who is undergoing treatment after his car was bombed, for nothing. They wanted to demonstrate to us all a kind of ideological unity (real or imagined, the near future will show). What ideas are we talking about? It makes sense to discuss this in a little more detail.
So, according to Prigozhin, martial law must be imposed throughout the country. This idea, it should be recalled, has been proposed by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. In our view, this idea sounds rather radically stupid. It is not known whether the gentlemen in question have read the relevant law on martial law. What exactly are the benefits of martial law that these gentlemen would like to exploit? Prohibition of political parties, strikes, rallies and demonstrations? Well, they have already been banned. Strengthening of public order? So, the National Guard, the police, the special services and whoever else has already received all possible powers. Special regime for the industrial enterprises that produce not the very latest in military hardware? They are already working in three shifts. Restrictions on the travel of citizens abroad? So it is already limited for those who have received electronic summons.
Then what remains is something that could embitter the peaceful and (let us assume) loyal citizens as much as possible, but will not have the slightest effect on the situation on the fronts. For example, a curfew (the prohibition on citizens being on the streets and in other public places at certain times of the day). Or seizure of property from citizens for the needs of defence. Or again: banning the operation of radio transmitters by individuals.
Very useful measures, of course. And on what territories of the vast country do the above mentioned gentlemen wish to introduce all this? Maybe the whole territory – from Moscow to Nakhodka?
Another idea from the same programme is general mobilization – capable of bringing almost two million more Russian men to the front. In fact, this proposal would also entail recognition that the Ukrainian military is already superior to the Russian armed forces in terms of military equipment. But the main thing is that the realization of this measure will require enormous resources and maximum efforts of the whole economy and, of course, of the whole system of military registration and enlistment offices. And all this for what? In order, as Prigozhin puts it, to achieve the ‘liberation of Donbas in two years.’ Bakhmut, which is now a pile of smoking ruins, has been waiting its turn for ‘liberation’ for almost a year. Now fifty more towns and cities in western Donbas are in line? Such are the prospects.
Prigozhin also proposes a win-win idea – to reinstate the death penalty: above all, to apply it on the front lines. He should have noted that, in fact, he himself reinstated this mmeasure long ago on the front line with which he was entrusted. And he even chose the method of its enforcement. It cannot be said that this helped much in solving purely military tasks, in my opinion. But I think some will find Prigozhin’s idea attractive.
That, in fact, is his whole programme.
Prigozhin no longer talked about the tricky questions of who started this war and why. But he stated that the war will, apparently, be a long one. His revelations are those of a field commander, intoxicated by the glory that has fallen on him, and aware that he is still needed. He is seizing the moment. He is popular with radical supporters of the war. This, however, is no guarantee he will have a harmonious relationship with other field commanders. When in the course of his speeches he also managed to upset Ramzan Kadyrov (by referring somewhat disrespectfully to the role of the Akhmat Regiment), the latter was not slow to respond through his comrades-in-arms, State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov, speaker of the Chechen Parliament Magomed Daudov and Apti Alaudinov, Commander of the Akhmat special forces. All of them issued harsh rebukes to Prigozhin.
The fact is that Prigozhin is not really a politician. Today he is a field commander and is making enemies even among those who might be his allies. The situation looks like a prelude to civil war. Though the structures of government are intact and so far Putin has concentrated major powers in his hands. This situation could change to some extent if the Russian army suffers another sensitive defeat and is forced to retreat again.
We can see that contradictions are brewing among supporters of the war as well, and any failure will only exacerbate these contradictions.
The War: a 1,600-Kilometre Front
So far, the confrontation along the 1,600-kilometre front line continues, and it seems the Ukrainian side is now most concerned about finding weaknesses, gaps in the Russian defence. It is likely that the Ukrainian drone attack on Moscow was also a probe of the air defence capabilities around the capital. Perhaps also the point of the attack was to force the leadership of the Russian armed forces to pull back some of the anti-missile systems to Moscow.
The attacks by the Ukrainian army or its associated units of the so-called Russian Volunteer Corps on the border settlements of the Belgorod region should probably be considered in the same context. Judging by the number of Ukrainian tanks involved in the operation (various estimates range from five to eight), the fighting there was serious. And the destruction in the centre of the Russian town of Shebekino is quite severe, although it certainly cannot be compared with that of Ukrainian towns on the front line. But one way or another, the Ukrainian military leadership appears to be looking for some non-standard solutions to launch an offensive operation.
Russian troops have not been active since the occupation of Bakhmut (according to the Ukrainian side, sporadic fighting is still taking place on its southwestern outskirts). However, cruise missile and drone attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities have not slackemed. The purpose of this regular shelling has already been discussed many times by the expert community. This includes psychological pressure on the population and a desire to deplete the stock of anti-missile defences that Ukraine has at its disposal. So far, the obvious result of these attacks has been further casualties among the civilian population.
Culture and politics
And now, from military news to news about culture. It has become known that Danila Kozlovsky will not be performing at the Maly Drama Theatre in St Petersburg until the end of the year – he has formally gone on sabbatical. The plays in which he was performing have been cancelled. But it is known that the General Prosecutor’s Office declared him a suspect in a case related to the fact that one day immediately after the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine, Kozlovsky made an anti-war post in a social network – a rather large text in which the actor gave a harsh assessment of the actions of the people who unleashed the war. He deserves credit for this. Among his millions of fans is a very large number of strong supporters of the war. Despite this, Danila Kozlovsky has reiterated his position, and to a certain extent he has paid the price. Most audiences probably know him from his film roles, but in recent years his main focus has been on stage work.
In Soviet times, films starring Savely Kramarov were banned for several years after he left for the West. One can remember some more examples from that period of about 50 years ago.
The writer and publicist Viktor Shenderovich was forced to cancel his appearances in several Georgian cities. Representatives of the Georgian authorities told him at Tbilisi airport on 2 June that he was banned from entering the country. Special mention must be made of the current Georgian authorities.
To begin with, under Putin the Russian state, using separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has in fact occupied about a quarter of the territory of Georgia. In this context, all relations between the countries, including diplomatic relations, were severed and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was treated as a personal enemy and object of hatred by the Russian dictator. The feelings were of course mutual. But in 2013 Saakashvili stepped down as president and his party lost its status as the ruling party.
Its successor, the Georgian Dream party, led by the billionaire Ivanishvili, has based its policies on the idea of compromise with its powerful neighbour, taking into account the current economic interests of Georgia’s citizens and businessmen. This group of politicians has mainly tried to avoid strained relations with Russia. It can be assumed that this policy enjoys the support of part of the population. In recent years, the Georgian authorities managed to agree visa-free travel between the two countries and, most recently, to restore direct flights.
The payment for these developments is, in particular, the tacit decision by the Georgian authorities to deny entry to some Russian critics of the Putin regime. Such has been the homage paid to the Russian dictator. Viktor Shenderovich is not the first Russian opponent of the Russian regime to have been refused entry to Tbilisi, but I think he is the most famous.
It is not a very pretty compromise. But Ivanishvili’s group is still in power and this means it has some support from the electorate.
Members of the Latvian Saeima, after three rounds of voting, elected Edgars Rinkevics president of the Republic of Latvia. He is rather young (49 years), but a very experienced Latvian politician who for nearly 12 years served as foreign minister under various governments and presidents. He is one of the politicians who welcomed the relocation to Latvia of Russian opposition media and political and public figures who have criticised the current Russian regime. He both welcomed and contributed to this process.
He has expressed his position against Putin’s war on Ukraine on several occasions. In particular, on 12 June 2022 he wrote the following post: ‘I wish that Russia will lose its war of aggression against Ukraine, give up its imperial ambitions and build a modern, democratic state based on the rule of law.’ Not so long ago he also commented on the call to ‘Derussify Latvia!’: ‘…If the need arises, and I see that this is the best option, I will speak in Russian… Latvian is the main language. But you know, when I hear the cry “Atkrievisko Latviju!” sometimes I would say “Latvisko Latviju.” And there’s already a slightly different, more positive connotation”.
Translated by Rights in Russia