Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence Russia

Patrick Lawrence: Russian (Melo)drama

Prigozhin rebellion Rostov tank with flowers in the muzzle June 24. Fargoh, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

After a few hours of high drama in southwestern Russia last Saturday, featuring a paramilitary leader, 4,000 to 6,000 followers, and a small column of trucks and other military vehicles driving north toward Moscow, let us keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs and blaming it on … Vladimir Putin. Let us try to understand what happened and why when Yevgeny Prigozhin, a commander of no military experience but nonetheless of some battlefield accomplishment, turned on Russia’s high command after months of heated and very public feuding.

Let us first try to understand what did not happen last Saturday. No one challenged state power. Russians are not reeling after a failed coup d’etat. The leadership in Moscow is not teetering. The Kremlin has not lost control. There is no civil war in the offing. 

Let us, in other words, set aside the floods of irresponsibly inflated media coverage that would have us believe an evidently intemperate paramil commander had set out and succeeded to destabilize the Russian Federation by challenging the authority of its president. The all-powerful dictator, the ruthless, merciless, brutal Hitler of our time, is suddenly revealed as weak in the face of a few thousand infantrymen and their leader, who turned back at what appears to be the first suggestion they do so. As Jonathan Cook asked in a weekend tweet, “What is to be done with the West’s script?”

Ignore it is my immediate answer. If Prigozhin’s very short-lived endeavor was farce, as the independent website Moon of Alabama terms it, Western media accounts of this escapade have been sheer buffoonery. There are things to understand about the events of last weekend and things we cannot, at least for the time being, understand with any kind of certainty. Our corporate-owned newspapers and broadcasters prove of no use in either case. They are simply too busy producing distortions intended to show readers and viewers that Russia is now a place of “chaos,” “confusion,” “instability,” “uncertainty,” “disunity”—all of these among the terms media have bandied about over the past several days.  

Yevgeny Prigozhin, like a lot of post–Soviet business people,  did not come from money. In the first years after the Soviet collapse he ran a sausage stand in St. Petersburg and parlayed it into a portfolio of restaurants and catering contracts with various government institutions. One of these was the Kremlin, by way of which Prigozhin drew close to the new president and became known as “Putin’s chef.” Another was with the Ministry of Defense. 

Prigozhin has poked a lot of other irons in the fire over the years, but it was as head of the Wagner Group, a private military company as Russians call it, that he rose to prominence as something other than a serial entrepreneur and a cook. As a paramilitary formation, the Wagner Group has carved notches on its holster in Syria, Libya and Central Africa, but it has been in the Ukraine conflict that its presence has been most keenly evident—if not, at times, decisive. So far as one can make out, given the poor media coverage of this war, it was Wagner’s troops that led the Russian side to victory this spring in the long battle for Bakhmut, the small city in the Donbas that both sides recognize as key to the future direction of the conflict. 

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It was in the course of the Ukraine campaign that Prigozhin began to complain that the Defense Ministry was running the war badly, that Wagner was not getting sufficient supplies of ordinance, that the ministry in Moscow was indifferent to Wagner’s casualties. Prigozhin had a reputation for displays of bravery in combat and for staying close to his troops, which, by the most widely accepted estimate, numbered about 25,000. To judge by a generous record, he loved being photographed in uniform with his rank and file. He played the soldier’s soldier card by singling out, for much of this year and very publicly, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov as soft, office-bound “fat cats” callously neglectful of the hardships and sacrifices of Wagner’s rank and file. These are respectively the defense minister and the top general running the Russian advance in Ukraine.

This is the pencil-sketched background to Prigozhin’s decision last weekend to surround the military headquarters in Rostov-on–Don, a city of a million across the Ukraine border from which Russia has run the war. It was from Rostov that he led his column on the main highway north toward Moscow. And it was a few hours into that journey that he negotiated an agreement, via Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, to call off the advance and go into exile across the Belarusian border. 

Moscow coped with this strange turn without violence—for appearance’s sake the last thing to which the Kremlin wanted to resort. Prigozhin is now reportedly destined for Africa, which would make him a minor-league Russian variant of Napoleon’s exile on Elba or St. Helena, the troublemaker out of sight and mind. 

Now the questions begin.

Did Prigozhin found the Wagner Group back in 2014, as he has claimed since last autumn? This does not appear to be so. The best accounts I have read indicate it is the creation of the Defense Ministry and one or more Russian security agencies. The GRU, Russian military intelligence, is reportedly well-represented in Wagner’s rank and file. If these accounts are accurate, they suggest Wagner’s purpose is to carry out off-the-books operations, so to say—tasks with which Moscow would rather not be officially identified. As a footnote here, this past spring the Kremlin granted Wagner troops status as official veterans. 

You have to conclude from all this—I do, certainly—that Prigozhin is given to a certain measure of self-mythologizing, image-creation. This is important as we make the best sense we can of what he did. He had no prior military experience when he took command of the Wagner Group—or, as is more likely, when the MoD in Moscow gave him command. If the ministry chose him, the question becomes why. John Helmer, the longtime Moscow correspondent and publisher of Dances with Bears, thinks it is because the high command needed a known quantity—remember the large catering contracts and the chummy relations—to manage the show if not quite direct it.

Now the questions grow larger and more puzzling. 

What under the sun did Prigozhin have in mind when he had his troops surround the military HQ in Rostov and then lead a fractional contingent of them on public highways toward Moscow? Did he think some sizable proportion of the Russian military would go over to his side? Of the 25,000 troops under his command, roughly a fifth went with him. None of his officers did. What was his point, his objective, his best outcome? Where in Moscow was he planning to go once he got there—assuming for a sec he thought he would? 

Prigozhin announced his plans in various videoed statements recorded prior to leading the short-lived convoy Saturday. “The council of commanders of PMC Wagner has made a decision,” he declared in one of these. “The evil that the military leadership of the country brings must be stopped.” The council of commanders? It is simply too grand an account to be believed—a thin cover for the fact that the referenced decision appears to have been entirely personal, his alone. And I find it impossible to accept that Prigozhin ever thought—or even intended, indeed—to reach the Russian capital. We are left wondering what the true story is. There is self-mythologizing and there is delusion. If we find evidence of the former in Prigozhin’s conduct, do we now detect he suffered from the latter?  

We’re in the sphere of speculation, then, if we are going to try to understand the intentions and motivations of the man who committed to countering “the evil” of the Russian high command. 

There is the possibility that Prigozhin, his unusually personal ties with Putin in mind, hoped the Russian president, with a critical mass of senior military officers following his lead,  would take his side in the flashpoint moment of truth and push aside either Shoigu or Gerasimov or both in recognition of his, Prigozhin’s, patriotic valor and tactical effectiveness on Ukraine’s battlefields. Possible but highly unlikely.

There is the thought, more plausible the more we learn, that Western intelligence—either the CIA, MI6, or both, with a possible role for the Kyiv regime—turned Prigozhin, and the events of last weekend reflected this. CNN reported Sunday that the CIA was aware of Prigozhin’s plans for two weeks prior to last Saturday. How, this awareness? The British dailies, not noted for their principled distance from Six, have run numerous stories in recent weeks suggesting Prigozhin was planning to make a move against Moscow. Why and of what origin, these stories?

There is some circumstantial evidence to consider in this connection. In the videos made public prior to his weekend escapade, Prigozhin made a series of statements that marked a 180–degree turn in his position. He charged that Russia’s February 2022 intervention was unprovoked and that there was no plan in Kyiv to mount a new offensive. He also asserted that Shoigu, in launching and prosecuting the intervention, sought to “deceive the society and the president” to justify the war and that plundering Russian oligarchs were the intended beneficiaries of this deceit.   

All this, suddenly, from the patriot previously and ostentatiously committed to the Russian cause in Ukraine?

There is more in this line. Last Saturday The Washington Post published a lengthy interview with Volodymyr Zelensky in which The Post told the Ukrainian president it had documents indicating that (1) the GUR, Kyiv’s intelligence directorate, had been conducting back-channel contacts with Prigozhin, and (2) U.S. intelligence was listening to Kyiv’s communications and would therefore know of these contacts. Zelensky tipped over in the direction of berserk when so confronted, and The Post stealth-edited the entire passage out of the interview overnight Saturday—but not before RT captured the deletions and published them. The restored snippets, found here, make thought-provoking reading. 

Was Prigozhin turned? There is certainly a very great deal to indicate complicated covert dimensions to the Prigozhin affair, including fungible loyalties, and that we have seen nothing like the whole of this iceberg. I rate this explanation plausible, with an asterisk indicating the involvement of Western intelligence does not cancel out other explanations. 

There are times when apparently kooky and whacky explanations of events turn out to be the most likely to be so, and to me this is the case with the Prigozhin affair for the simple reason the man at the heart of it is, open and shut, something of a kook and a whack. He must be, to have set in motion last Saturday’s silly business—and this is what it was, nothing more—in a way that is beyond Quixotic. His armored column, indeed, made Rocinante look a thoroughbred by comparison.

You have a man who made a lot of connections and a lot of dough—though nothing like what the serious oligarchs have accumulated—in part by catering the kitchens at Russian military bases. There is a critical deficit of grandeur here for a man of Prigozhin’s presumed station, I would say. He is around men in uniform and could afford to buy and sell all of them, but he is nonetheless required to use the service entrance. The next thing you know, the chef trades his toque and whites for a helmet and a bulletproof vest and sets out to make a name for himself as a paramilitary commander, with a private press service in tow to manage all the videos and photographs. 

I am well aware of the perils attaching to the practice of armchair psychiatry, but in a case such as Prigozhin’s psychological considerations of this kind cannot be left out.

The glory seems to have been glorious for quite some time, but lately things have turned sour for Prigozhin. Earlier this month the MoD seems to have advised him that he would have to use ministry-approved suppliers for his catering business. Who knows what kind of graft this rule may reflect—another conversation—but Prigozhin complained it was going to damage his cost structure and so the profits on which he still depended. In short order came another directive—this reportedly from the Kremlin—requiring all PMCs operating independently to sign contracts by July 1 effectively incorporating them under the Defense Ministry’s authority. 

Each in its way, these administrative changes suggested the end of Prigozhin’s star turn as a paramilitary commander. And it was in the weeks and months prior to these, when it was clear the Wagner Group would no longer be what it had been, that Prigozhin’s hostile critiques of the MoD’s most senior officials became more stunningly vulgar and more public. 

“Big ambitions and personal interests led to treason,” Putin said in the brief speech he delivered to the nation Saturday. I argue here in favor of this assessment: It was a frustrated megalomaniac, not a grand strategist with a plan for a new, reformed  Russia, who set out from Rostov to Moscow last weekend. Putin called Prigozhin’s conduct a betrayal and he called it a mutiny. He did not call it a coup or anything like one, which would imply more organization and design and less in the way of one man’s shoot-the-moon ego trip.

I return to the thought that Prigozhin may have acted with some measure of support or encouragement from Western intelligence agencies. It is possible Prigozhin’s mission never included reaching Moscow and marching down the MoD’s corridors. Merely to present the world with an image of Russian instability, a Kremlin under threat, could conceivably have been the mission. If this was so it was at least a partial success: The Putin government has suffered a severe setback on the public-relations side this week. 

The thought that egocentricity was what drove this man supports such a case. If the only one in Prigozhin’s story was Prigozhin, the Ukraine conflict would have served as nothing more than the proscenium he needed for his performance. If we accept this as so, it is easy to imagine he fell into the trap of taking his enemy’s enemy as his friend. Suddenly he is back-channeling with Kyiv and playing some kind of footsie with Western intelligence. Did Prigozhin risk charges of treason by turning 180 degrees on the cause of the Ukraine conflict because he saw  a chance to damage the defense minister and the rest of the high command?  

My mind has wandered often over the events of these past days, and then over  the plentiful images of Prigozhin in uniform with a visage of soldierly determination under his helmet. And then it drifted into thoughts of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and finally Stockton Rush, who just killed himself and four others in that submersible cylinder looking for the Titanic. These are rich men in search of grand adventure and exotic sorts of distinction—in space, at the bottom of the ocean. They all want to appear as heroes before the great, broad masses, having made fortunes by way of other than heroic endeavors. They all want more, in a single word. They all appear foolish in one or another way as they present themselves to the rest of us. 

Does Yevgeny Prigozhin belong on this list, given he shares a preoccupation with image, with derring-do, with Übermensch status—given his apparent foolishness? Is he some peculiar, out-of-context variant of Elon Musk? I cannot answer this, but I think enough of the question to pose it.

I knew it was going to be fun reading the Western press on the Prigozhin affair as soon as I read James Risen’s report in The Intercept. “Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup targets Putin and his ‘oligarchic clan’” was the headline. Not to overload readers with display type, but the subhead is equally terrif. “The mercenary’s bid for control may be the greatest threat to Moscow since the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev.”

It was a coup. Its target was Putin and his “oligarchic clan,” whoever they may be. It was a bid for control. And as a threat to state power—let’s get some grand scale in here—it rivals the (properly named) coup against the late President Gorbachev 32 years ago. 

It was not a coup attempt even by its perpetrator’s description, there is no such clan, it was not a bid for control, and the events of last Saturday are as house dust in the corner next to the events of 1991. Four preposterously conjured untruths before you even get to the text, wherein lie many more. Is this just wonderfully imbecilic or what? 

Risen’s piece was published at 1:29 East Coast time last Saturday afternoon. You would want to call this professionally imprudent given the kinetic nature of events, but this kind of thing matters not to reporters such as Risen. What the piece records—and pretty well, I have to say—is what Risen, who has never been a correspondent abroad and it shows, wanted to be unfolding across an ocean and half a continent. He wanted a coup attempt. He wanted sudden instability. He wanted the beginning of the end of Putin and his “oligarchic clan.” (If only Risen had troubled to identify this lot, but when you put “Putin” and “oligarchs” in the same sentence there is no need.)

This is what we got all weekend and all week and as this piece went to press. The coverage was wall-to-wall wishful thinking and, if I may say so, masturbatory. You could cut with a knife the eagerness with which the corporate press and broadcasters put Yevgeny Prigozhin down as Russia’s next hero, a true revolutionary, the man to take down Putin—the man for whom these same media had no time whatso while he led his troops against the Kyiv regime’s and then took Bakhmut. Yes, that Prigozhin. Talk about the enemy of your enemy being suddenly your friend.

I would not think this kind of reminder necessary, but it seems so as we review the inventory of the past week’s press and broadcast reports. Russia is a nation of 11 time zones and 143 million people. It has an economy worth roughly $1.8 trillion. Across it there are thousands of heavy, medium-sized, and light industries. There are lots of banks and universities and research institutes, small businesses, television stations, financial markets, oil refineries, container ports, and farms and museums and concert halls—all with people in them. No measurable number of these people stood with Prigozhin last weekend. No provincial governor, no big-city mayor, no senior military officer, no oligarch—no anybody. 

What is our logical conclusion here? To me it is that the Putin government, at the price of a p–r calamity, has just given us a display of remarkable national unity under difficult circumstances. This is an unbearable thought for American media and the policy cliques they serve. There must be disunity in Russia. We must have disunity. It took until Wednesday, but The New York Times then published a piece quoting, but of course, unnamed intelligence sources asserting that Sergey Surovikin, a top Russian general, knew of Prigozhin’s plans and may have assisted him—this an indication of, yes, disunity at the top in Moscow. So was Yevgeny Prigozhin, with a helmet, a vest, a video camera, 6,000 rank-and-file recruits and no evident political design or intent, going to change the course of Russian history. Let us read on. 

Two of my all-time favorites among those covering or writing about Russia had an excellent time of it this week. One is Anton Troianovski, who I rank the worst Moscow bureau chief The New York Times has assigned in decades. (And I admit I have said this repeatedly over the years, each one worse than the predecessor.) “This weekend, Russian stability was nowhere to be found,” Troianovski reported either late Saturday or early Sunday, “and neither was Mr. Putin, who after making a brief statement on Saturday morning vanished from sight during the most dramatic challenge to his authority in his 23–year reign.”

 I love the thought of no stability anywhere, the entire nation thrown into nervous pandemonium—shops closed, no trains or telephones. Of course it cannot be other than so. And the “vanished from sight.” For those unaccustomed to reading our Anton, this means the president was probably in his office, working. But fair enough: Troianovski couldn’t see him. 

At some point Monday, Troianovski recorded a long audio with a Times interlocutor. “It shows us how incredibly unstable and vulnerable the system that Putin built has turned out to be,” he explains in it. “Putin’s power does not rest on institutions like parliament or the justice system, or even the police. It’s all about these personal, informal ties that he has built with people in his inner circle and the elite.” 

Incredibly unstable and vulnerable. There are no institutions, only personal ties. This is trashy boilerplate among the Moscow correspondents at this point, Troianovski merely exemplary of the trope. Personalize, dehumanize, demonize: It is straight out of all the war-propaganda handbooks. There is no Russia, Troianovski wants us to accept—which is why, I suppose, he never reports it for us. There is only Putin and his “inner circle” —the unnamed, never-named “oligarchic clan” in Risen’s copy. 

It is fun for a while, but even fun has its limits.

And reliably as ever, our Anne Applebaum, the compulsive Russophobe’s compulsive Russophobe, exceeded this limit once again this week. 

Her piece on the Prigozhin affair—published in The Atlantic Saturday afternoon—but again, why wait when you know what you will say regardless of events?—appeared under the headline, “Russia Slides into Civil War.” If you like that, you will find the subhead simply priceless: “Is Putin facing his Czar Nicholas II moment?” Tell me you can beat this for sheer idiocy. In an update time-stamped 6:58 Saturday evening, Applebaum retreated from a few of her wilder assertions. She admits now, if implicitly, she has no idea what she is talking about: There are only “theories,” which is an improvement. But the thesis stands as we speak. And as evidence she quotes none other than Yevgeny Prigozhin’s videos. “Everyone who will try to resist,” says the one she singles out, “we will consider them a danger and destroy them immediately, including any checkpoints on our way.”

Try to tell me this is not clear evidence that Putin is in the same danger the last czar faced when the Bolsheviks got to town. 

In that audio The Times just published, Anton Trianovski promises we have just witnessed “an incredibly extraordinary event that all of us will be interpreting, deciphering, for weeks, months, maybe years to come.”

And maybe not.

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Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.


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