Yves here. Update 6:15 AM EDT: Helmer’s skeptical take on the hogtying of Prigozhin seems confirmed by breaking news. Per NBC: Wagner mercenary chief is still in Russia despite deal to end mutiny, leader of Belarus says. Key paragraph:
Lukashenko said last week that Prigozhin was in Belarus. On Thursday however, he told a rare news conference that Prigozhin was still in Russia, in his hometown of St. Petersburg, despite the Kremlin effectively saying he had been banished.
Recall that the agreement to drop charges against Prigozhin were contingent on his leaving Russia. So Prigozhin looks determined to dirty up Putin by forcing Putin to arrest and charge him.
Lukashenko also confirms that Wagner forces were expected to be in Belarus, not as exiles but as Wagnerites….when the Minsitry of Defense is supposedly taking charge of Wagner operations. And we’ve learned that the Russian government funded all of Wagner. So even if Prigozhin manages to retain a lot of his fortune, he’s been in the other people’s money business for a very long time. Hard to see him suddenly bankrolling a rump Wagner.
Back to the original post.
John Helmer discusses the political fallout in Russia from the Prigozhin mutiny. Even though there is every reason to think Wagner is being removed from Prigozhin (see for instance Russia takes direct control of Wagner forces in Syria and recall Wagnerites fighting in Ukraine are having to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, meaning not the Wagner private military company), it is a big enough operation that its fans (or perhaps hangers on?) are arguing it’s impractical and ill-advised to dismantle it. Helmer has two post on the aftermath; his first one addresses Wagner’s apparently essential status at the top: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – HOW THE RUSSIAN COMMUNISTS HAVE RESPONDED TO THE WAGNER MUTINY AND PRIGOZHIN’S EMPIRE
The calls have begun in Moscow, starting among the war blogs and battlefield reporters, for keeping intact Yevgeny Prigozhin’s conglomerate of military budget contractors. The reason argued is that they have established themselves so strategically in the logistics of the military services that they cannot be purged without doing greater damage than Prigozhin himself has caused.
In short, a Russian oligarch who knows too much, with too many mouths to feed, too many pockets to fill, and so too big to fail.
“There may be some reorganizations and a formal change of leadership,” Boris Rozhin, author of the Colonel Cassad media, has announced. “The reason for the preservation is simple. Over many years of work, Prigozhin’s structures have grown so deeply into the state fabric that cutting them out at the same time without serious damage to the state is fraught with serious problems. That is, you can cut it out, but the consequences will be serious.”
In his second post, WHAT’S THE SCORE NOW IN THE RUSSIAN REGIME-CHANGING GAME?, Helmer also contends that Putin’s position has been weakened because the Prigozhin meltdown (and the corruption investigation, which is necessary to cement public opinion against Progozhin and build a prosecution case) confirms what critics in Russia have said about bribery and other dirty military dealings. Jacob Drezin posted the remark below in Russian, as things widely whispered in Russia but even the rabid Ministry of Defense hater Strelkov were loath to ay in writing, while the Prigozhin rebellion was still in play. A machine translation:
Prigogine is a bandit from the 90s. You can see it on one face. One of the main beneficiaries of corruption in the Russian state over the past 12-13 years. All his money, from corruption BY DEFINITION, by the fact that they were allocated by the black cash register, not by law, but by “concepts.” And also, all his schemes in Syria and Africa, well, diamonds, I don’t know. I don’t know, and by the fact that those who were sent to investigate it were killed. Prigogine is a murderous criminal who imagines himself to be God. In his environment, he behaves like a little Stalin – whomever he wants, he beats, locks up, kills. Even against the Army began to encroach, kidnap, beat. Just because this man saved the Front from falling apart last fall doesn’t make it clean and fluffy. And does not make him a fighter, for anything. The fact that there are people in Russia who consider him a fighter for something (including against corruption!!!) proves that Russians can be just as stupid as the Anglo-Saxons. And also, his Council of Commanders or whatever it is, these are not Patriots, but a Transnational Corporation or an organized crime group, they have no homeland. Doubt? Why did they leave for Belarus? Like the private generals of the era of the late Roman Republic, Prigogine is a fighter for himself, and that’s all. And the fact that they failed to calm him down in time is a complete failure of the Russian statehood.
Mind you, it’s not as if our arms industry is a paragon of virtue. We have institutionalized corruption via revolving doors and no one having a chance of reaching the top level if they aren’t fully on board with pork-riddled contracts for wunderwaffen that perform better in videos than on the battlefield. We have over $21 trillion in spending not accounted for. Those of you who remember the Cynthia McKinney clip of her getting Donald Rumsfeld to squirm in his seat may have forgotten that her opener was that the DoD had failed to punish Dyncorp, a private military company that had been caught out sex trafficking:
Needless to say, the lack of progress in nearly 20 years in getting control of military spending says that’s a feature, not a bug.
But back to Prigozhin. Strelkov’s embittered statement indicates Prigozhin has cast himself in the role of looting warlord and no one tried to curb him (save the MoD allowing the US to bomb his men when he was leading a freelance operation to take some US-managed oil operations). And the description of Prigozhin as Putin’s caterer was a wink and a nod at the idea that Prigozhin’s long-standing relationship with Putin meant he had free rein.
That is a long-winded way of saying that Helmer’s take is counter to the anti-globalist position that the Prigozhin crisis strengthened Putin’s position. Helmer instead contends it, along with the probability that the war won’t be over in 2024, increases the odds that Putin will not run for re-election. Even though Putin surmounted this crisis well and enjoys strong support for how he handled it, there must be lingering doubts as to why Putin allowed this situation to fester, and over such a long period. Another instance of mismanagement could feed those concerns. And war is such a treacherous affair that, for instance, a technically successful operation like the withdrawal from Kharkiv can have terrible political knock-on effects (recall it freaked out Donbass leaders that they might be abandoned too).
Personally, I think Putin has too much at stake not to run again, assuming he remains in good health. He is clearly enjoying playing a central role in forging a multi-polar order. And it would seem….unprofessional…to have set something like the SMO in motion and not see it through to a point where Putin could say the campaign had clearly improved Russia security, even if the war was not decisively over.
By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
Russian regime change is war – it isn’t cricket.
Between the US, the UK, and Russia there have been regime-changing games for more than a century now. Thirty years ago Boris Yeltsin was their big hit. They have been bad losers since then. In cricketing terms, the Kremlin regime-changing plan of Alexei Navalny was a googly. The Yevgeny Prigozhin plan was a bouncer. Both have ended as ducks on the scoreboard.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns has telephoned Sergei Naryshkin of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) to say Prigozhin wasn’t his batsman. In a public speech to a British foundation of twelfth men, Burns said the CIA doesn’t play cricket. “This is an internal Russian affair, in which the United States has had and will have no part,” he claimed.
If MI6 was planning and paying for these match failures, they need to pull stumps, leave the field.
There are many Russians, however, who believe the Prigozhin affair, the dismantling of his business operations, and the associated clean-up of the Defense Ministry and Army, have upset President Vladimir Putin’s confidence that his campaign for re-election in the presidential election in six months’ time will be unopposed. The Russian sources point out the shock of the events of June 23-24 is visible on the president’s face. A minority of sources believes he will retire from the race after finding a reliable successor.
“Earlier my sense was he was a sure winner if he won the war,” a Moscow source says. “But the victory is not cleancut and not in sight. I’ve believed that escalation on the battlefield would be a prelude to his retirement and that he wanted to leave a legacy of ‘no compromise’ with the Americans. But then he failed on that by keeping the old economic policy-Central Bank team. Third, the war was a perfect opportunity for him to distance himself from the oligarchs and show clean hands. These are three political failures. He is going to be like [former Kazakh president for life, Nursultan] Nazarbayev now.”
In Russian public opinion polling over the past fortnight there is no evidence that voter confidence in Putin has been shaken; nor in the Russian General Staff’s direction of the battlefield. General Patience has been growing in Russian public support.
According to the independent Moscow pollster Levada Centre, “in May, almost half of our respondents (45%) were sure that the conflict in Ukraine would last at least another year – since May 2022, their share has more than doubled. Another quarter see the end of the ‘special operation’ no sooner than in six months. Meanwhile, more than the rhetoric of Russian politicians, it is the course of events that has convinced them of this.”
What has just happened is that confidence in battlefield victory has slipped as a result of the Wagner mutiny. There was public support for the victory in the Battle of Bakhmut, and the role Wagner was advertised to have played in that. Prigozhin destroyed this support by his actions, including the shooting-down of Russian Army aircraft and the killing of its Russian crews.
Levada pollsters were interviewing a nationwide sample from June 22 to 28, and in the results they have been able to track the immediate impact of the armed rebellion as it began, unfolded, collapsed, and resulted in the dismantling of Wagner, and the exposure of Prigozhin as an oligarch-sized crook. “The attitude towards E. Prigozhin during the survey decreased by half: from 58% on Thursday-Friday [June 22-23] to 30% by the beginning of the working week [June 26],” Levada reported on June 29. “In the future, we can expect a further decline in the authority of E. Prigozhin.”
If, in the coming weeks, the Ukrainians commit their reserves, along with NATO weapons in stock, and they are defeated as thoroughly as their offensive in June, Russian public confidence will recover. So will the slip in Levada’s measurement of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s public rating.
The constant is public approval of the president, which is holding above the 80% level of a year ago, and the conviction that the war is the US and NATO’s doing. Defeat on the battlefield in the Ukraine is understood by Russians to be the defeat of the US and the NATO alliance. The first ever.
Levada publishes some of its surveys and poll reviews in English. But in publication on the Centre’s website, many surveys are not translated into English at all. Those which are translated and published lag the Russian releases by at least two weeks.
The latest Putin approval rating chart shows that between March and August of last year, the rating went from 82% to 83%, then dropped to 77% in September. It has revived since then to 83% in February, 82% in March, 81% in June. The Levada Centre has not released its latest measurement following the two Kremlin addresses and other speeches by the president in the wake of the mutiny.
Polling since then indicates that to Russians across the country the most persuasive leaders are Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. At the latter’s 76% approval mark, no Russian foreign minister has ever been so popular.
By contrast, Defense Minister Shoigu says very little in public; General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, says next to nothing at all. Public recognition of the latter is accordingly low, and Shoigu’s public rating much lower than Lavrov’s.
When they were the targets of Prigozhin’s public attacks in the last stages of the Bakhmut battle and then in the days preceding the mutiny, there was a marginal impact on Shoigu; none recorded for Gerasimov. Shoigu’s rating then slipped, according to Levada’s tracking, from 60% on June 23 to 48% on June 28.
In the Levada polling, Shoigu’s approval rating has varied within a narrow range. The measurement of public support for the Army has been more constant over the sixteen months of the special military operation; the range reported by Levada has been from 81% in March 2022 to 83% in June 2023.
For tracking the public impact of the mutiny, Levada polled by direct face-to-face interviews at respondents’ homes across the country, with a total sample of 1,634 aged 18 or older in 137 localities in 50 regions, including Moscow and St Petersburg. The poll results have been summarised this way. “The survey was conducted from June 22 to 28 and in the most general terms recorded the fluctuations in public opinion caused by the events of June 24. The breakdown of responses by dates – before and after the mutiny – shows that what happened hit the attitude of the respondents to S[ergei]. Shoigu and brought down the authority of E[vgeny]. Prigozhin in the eyes of Russians by double. If prior to Saturday’s events Prigozhin seemed to Russians to be a ‘fighter for the truth’, a ‘real leader’, a ‘patriot’, and a victorious general, then by the beginning of the working week [June 26] negative assessments began to prevail in his image: ‘he caused trouble’, ‘went against Russia’, ‘rushes to power’ – the quotes are taken from the answers to an open question. More than half of the respondents consider it permissible to use mercenaries and convicts in military operations. At the same time, against the background of the events of June 24, support for hiring mercenaries has decreased slightly compared to last year’s measurement.”
Levada’s earlier polls have uncovered increasing acceptance on the part of most Russians that the war will be a protracted one; and at the same time also an increase in the numbers of Russians who favour more decisive action on the battlefield. Ukrainian attacks across the border in Belgorod and other regions, the drone attack on the Kremlin, and the Kakhovka dam flooding have intensified public anger at Kiev, the US, and NATO, and raised support for a major Russian offensive – a “big bang”.
“Society today is divided almost equally into two opposing camps. Some want ‘people to stop dying,’ relatives and friends to ‘stop being conscripted’, ‘not to be touched’ themselves, and for ‘all this to end sooner, no matter how.’ For others, however, ‘it is very important how things end,’ ‘if you have started, you might as well fight to the end,’ and in any case ‘the president (government, military) knows better’ – hence the fighting must go on. In May, the number of those in favour of continuing the special operation rose markedly and for the first time since August last year slightly exceeded the number of those in favour of peace talks. More and more people not only expect hostilities to last a long time, but also do not want them to end immediately.”
“Anxiety remains diffuse, unfocused, often unspoken and not reflected on – positive moods still prevail. Anxious moods seem typical, first and foremost, for the most well-informed Russians. As they say, the less you know, the better you sleep. The companion of this anxiety is gradually increasing bitterness, which spills over into the focus groups: ‘why are we pulling our punches with them (Ukrainians, Europeans, Americans)’; ‘we’re still messing around with them’; ‘it’s time to go for the bang.’ Thus, the lobby for a ‘decisive response’ to the enemy is finding new supporters.” This was reported by Levada in mid-June.
Prigozhin capitalised on this sentiment. He has now lost it.
The gainers are Putin and Lavrov. The Army is unaffected, and there is accordingly no political justification for the leading generals to appear in public. Their visibility on television and their remarks are of limited circulation in the press; of interest only to military intelligence services, war bloggers, and the propaganda agencies in London and Washington.
For this reason the outcome of the anti-corruption investigation of Prigozhin’s decade-long bribes and kickbacks at the Defense Ministry, and of Dmitry Utkin’s neo-Nazi associations, will be muted.