Is Wagner Group Too Big to Fail?

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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.

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  1. Stephen

    I read Dreizin’s comments last week in translation and he is very convincing. It sounds a reasonable take. Prigozhin seems a classic business owner who was seeking to protect his revenue stream, status and power base.

    Putin will be deeply concerned about the succession if he steps down. This is tricky in any autocratic type system, although we can debate how well that describes Russia, of course. If the succession goes wrong then he would have personal risk. Especially in the midst of an unfinished war. Hard to see why he would create that for himself.

    At the same time, very believable that the graft associated with Wagner is so entrenched that it cannot be undone easily. Guess Prigozhin is now playing on that and possibly engaging in a game of dares.

    Not so different to our own dysfunctional systems in reality, as you suggest. Things do increasingly resemble 1984 where authoritarian blocs are in a state of perpetual conflict but in reality no side is totally noble. War for the sake of war to stay in power. On balance, I feel Russia is less ignoble and has more reason to feel aggrieved than the west. But their set up is not perfect either. Humanity never is.

    I do think Russia will win though. Surveys showing that people think the war will not end quickly just show realism. This combined with continued approval of Putin simply confirms that in my mind.

  2. Lex

    I’ve thought from the beginning that the real import of the Prigozhin Mutiny was in Russian domestic politics, and particularly because he was an old school oligarch from the St. Petersburg group which means we’re dealing with deep questions of loyalty. It’s interesting to watch Putin’s government try to manage this. I think Simplicus’s take from 7/4 on the actual effectiveness of Wagner vs. the Russian military (excepting operations in Africa where Wagner has been very effective, for good or ill) is important and closest to the truth, except in the realm of perception.

    I disagree with Helmer and his sources about Putin running again. There may be cracks in the oligarchic relationships but that’s unlikely to affect the elections except in the event that unfriendly oligarchs make a serious political attempt on Putin. But they had better not miss, because assuming Putin wins one more election, it can be assumed that he’ll use his final term to clean up the rest of the oligarchs.

    I agree with Helmer that the longer the war lasts, the more difficult Putin’s political position becomes. It won’t necessarily be reflected in his personal approval rating but rather in stresses along fault lines of internal contradictions in the Russian state. I can’t think of a Russian political analyst I read who doesn’t think that governmental/political reforms are necessary. That said, I suspect that Ukraine is much closer to total collapse than it looks from any media lens.

  3. Sam Owen

    I’m skeptical of biased polling against Prigozhin, at least when compared to Shoigu. Shoigu is definitely less popular. This was Putin’s failure to diffuse a spat between one force trying to win the war and one trying to sabotage it. Big boy Luka had to step in and prove he’s still #1.

  4. Cake Comptroller

    In August of 1991, waiting to see how the coup faired against Gorbachev, with the rest of the KGB, Col Vladimir Putin did nothing to aid his country. One must the appreciate the irony after nearly 32 years, nobody took to the streets to aid President Putin, nor did the Russian security apparatus, co-mingled within the Wagner Group, prevent the insurrection.

    “You can have [Shoigu and Gerasimov]!” said the 1st Deputy Commander of the GRU, about men he was sworn to protect, to Prigozhin.

    Taking ownership of problems is not a job the Russia security state does nor ever did. Which is at the center of Prigozhin’s charisma; he was taking ownership of the war, as gruesome as it is. One has to wonder if he were in charge, the Ukraine situation would not have devolved into such a problem, the questionable solution for which after years of rudderless paramilitary operations on Ukrainian soil: a special operation to protect the homeland meta-government from its own mirror image, a state which refused to protect itself from itself.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      From what I understand if the situation, there were a couple thousand troops rolling up a major highway towards Moscow. The Russian air force could have blown them to tiny pieces any time it wanted to, and the whole affair was over in about eight hours or so.

      What aid was required exactly?

    2. Paradan

      The leadership of several countries offered to send troops to Moscow to protect Putin and the government. Russian citizens took it upon themselves to dig trenches across the highway in order to block the convoy. The Chechen military leadership publicly stated their support for Putin and condemned the uprising. There were many more examples of support.

      The fact that the insurrection fizzled out and failed in less then 48 hours seems to me to imply that the Russian security apparatus was successful in preventing it. As for taking ownership of problems, they have a long history taking ownership of problems and then burying them.

  5. Polar Socialist

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the aim is to cut “Prigozhin’s structures” (a.k.a. “Concord holding and management”) out of the government, but to cut Prigozhin out of his structures. As far as I know, he personally has no official position in his companies at the moment, fronting for Wagner has been his 24/7 job for at least a year, so somebody else has been running his business “empire”.

    Also, it’s been less than two weeks since the “march for justice” (or whatever that mutiny was), so we’re still within a reasonable time frame for the bureaucracy’s wheels to grind and keep the Wagner troops in their garrison while their status is being defined individual by individual. And same goes for the man himself – Prigozhin’s presence in Russia is probably needed by prosecutors and lawyers to make everything legal. As we know, Mr. Putin prefers actions to have an aura of legitimacy.

  6. Maxwell Johnston

    We don’t know where Prigozhin is; all we have is media speculation (unless we are to take Lukashenko’s statements at face value, and I for one do not). I have yet to see a photo or video of Prigozhin on RU territory. Eventually, maybe, the truth will come out as to what this elaborate stunt was all about. I continue to think it was mainly about money; i.e., Prigozhin being unhappy about losing his access to huge cash flows as of 1 July and making a public stink about it. But if innocent soldiers were killed–and this appears to be the case–then Putin will have to exact some form of justice. Maybe that’s why Prigozhin is in St Pete (if true), to negotiate some kind of deal that saves face all around.

    Nobody does surrealism like the Russians. Even Dali and Kafka must be laughing in their graves at this ungodly mess. You cannot make this stuff up.

    1. Andrew P

      The thing is we don’t know what really happened. How much of the Wagner “Mutiny” was staged and how much was real. And Putin may still need Wagner. I was thinking that Wagner in Belarus, as a “rogue” force, could do some dirty work on the Ukrainian northern front that even Putin wouldn’t want to be directly connected with, and that dirty work would force Ukraine to divert troops to the north in large numbers. Perhaps we will see something like this when the ballyhooed Ukrainian offensive gets underway in earnest.

  7. Susan the other

    We’re all snouts. That’s why war is a feeding frenzy. Or as my sister-in-law once said about pigs: “That’s why we call them pigs.” Reverse prejudice with no sense of humor at all. I’m not capable of following the Pregozhin forensics but it fits the banality of the entire subject. Yet somehow it is astonishing to see a dollar figure of 21 trillion unaccounted for right here in the land of the free-wheeling. It is outrageous not because it was spent but because it was spent irresponsibly. In material terms it represents decades of lost opportunity. Can’t we call that something like “social abuse”?

  8. Robert Gray

    I again have to raise the question that everybody seems to be ignoring. Two nights ago on The Duran, Andrei Martyanov repeated, loudly and clearly, a claim he has made recently to the effect that the supposed longterm, close friendship between Prigozhin and Putin is a complete hoax. Neither Alex nor Alexander challenged him on this, letting it go by without comment. Then, yesterday, on The Duran, Robert Barnes several times echoed the standard version (bosum buddies for decades) — and neither Alex nor Alexander challenged him. Reports today make it clear that this coup-mutiny-rebellion-maskirovka episode is not yet over. Any serious link — or not — between Prigozhin and VVP is crucial to understanding what is going on. Fog of war? Thousands of kilometres from the battlefront?

    1. Polar Socialist

      Why would they be buddies? Because they’re both from St. Petersburg? Because Putin once ate in his restaurant?

      As one man several years ago commented in tv the tendency of the western media to classify almost anyone in Russia as being a member of Putin’s inner circle: he (the man) is a really good friend with St. Petersburg’s waste management director, who worked closely with Putin when Putin worked for Sobchak, so he (the man) must be a part of Putin’s inner circle, right?

      The thing that everybody seems to be really ignoring is that Russia doesn’t revolve around either Putin or Prigozhin. Putin rules with the consent of several powerful groups – it’s a balancing act between the interests of those groups. Prigozhin isn’t really a member of any of those groups, even though he probably though he had a say in several of them.

      Now that I think of it, Prigozhin did not challenge Putin, but the siloviki (the security services). It may not matter whether Putin thinks Shoigu and Gerasimov should go, the top ranks of the Armed Forces, FSB, Rosgvardiya, SVR and so forth won’t let a shady businessman (for whom they are paying well) to step on their turf.

  9. maray

    The question of popularity and popular support for wars in illusory and uninformative. The question is how many are willing to be actively engaged in stopping war. With the structure of the military industrial state, that number remains low, hence wars will continue even if 80% of the population are nomailly against it. One need only look at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 70% of the western populations were against it and there was general global hositilty. The military and the corporations (including media owners) were in favor and thus war was launched.
    This war will go on for as long at the west keeps pushing arms. The Biden decision to supply large numbers of land denial anti personnel weapons that cause long term and indiscriminate deaths shows some problems for the west as the media and NATO heads are unable to deny the global opposition and outright banning of this type of terriroty denying ordinance

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