Russia’s New Rasputin

Originally published at Project-Syndicate | Jun 9th, 2023

The chief of the feared Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been attacking Russia’s top military brass and warning that ordinary Russians, increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the Ukraine war, could revolt. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime in real danger?

NEW YORK – Russia’s war against Ukraine has not gone as planned, to say the least. And now Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the private military company Wagner Group, is escalating his public attacks on Russia’s military. At a time when the Kremlin is aggressively suppressing dissent, how does he get away with it?

Since launching his “special military operation” in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin has claimed to be pursuing a variety of objectives. After initially seeking the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of all of Ukraine (by seizing control of it), he aimed to “liberate” the eastern Donbas region. He has also spoken of defending Russia’s “historical frontiers” and insists that the West forced him to attack Ukraine.

These rhetorical shifts reflect battlefield dynamics – in particular, Russian forces’ repeated setbacks, mistakes, and miscalculations. Simply put, Putin is attempting to save face. But Prigozhin – on whom Putin has become increasingly dependent for battlefield victories – is not making it easy.

In a wide-ranging interview with the pro-Kremlin political blogger Konstantin Dolgov, published on May 24, Prigozhin railed against the special military operation. Instead of denazifying Ukraine, he noted, Russia made it “world famous.” And far from “demilitarizing” Ukraine, Russia militarized it: “If [the Ukrainians] had 500 tanks before, now they have 5,000. If 20,000 fighters were skillful then, now it’s 400,000.”

Prigozhin pinned the blame squarely on Russia’s elites, particularly senior military leaders, accusing them of lack of commitment to the war. And he warned that ordinary Russians, increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress, could revolt. The only solution, in his view, is to escalate the war effort, declare martial law, and launch “a new wave of mobilization.” Otherwise, “we could piss Russia away.”

Prigozhin is not wrong to question the commitment of Russia’s elites to the war effort. In early June, Konstantin Zatulin, State Duma deputy of Putin’s United Russia party, conveyed a similar sentiment – that “many goals of the operation have lost meaning… there is no result.” He insists that Russia needs to regroup and push on, but his comments expressed bewilderment at what is going on at the top of the Kremlin. Virtually the entire cabinet – including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a favorite target of Prigozhin – would prefer to avoid further escalation, and the military may well be devising strategies to that end.

This is a pragmatic decision. Most of Russia’s ruling class believe that it is hard for Russia to “win” the war. The more it fights the more Russia could turn into a kind of North Korea, a country willing to sacrifice everything – living standards, security, even sovereignty, as the country becomes ever more dependent on a China that covets its resources – to satisfy its leader’s obsessions.

But Prigozhin is just fine with that outcome. He wants Russians to give up material comforts (never mind the huge sums he makes from the war) in the name of the mythical “unique country-civilization” that Russia and the broader Russkiy mir (Russian world) represent. In his view, the refusal of Russian elites fully to embrace jingoism is indefensible, especially in the face of rising civilian deaths from Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory. And he is not alone.

Relentless propaganda may not have convinced ordinary Russians to join the war effort, but it has fueled their rage. When I was in Moscow in January, one could freely express displeasure with the Kremlin – at least in relatively private social settings. Now, as in the Stalin era, enemies are everywhere. Friends and neighbors report on each other, and café workers eavesdrop on their customers.

Some of these enraged Russians are beginning to see enemies everywhere, and would no longer mind full militarization of Russia’s political and economic system. They are still pro-Putin, but as the war drags on, they increasingly doubt his might. So, is the revolt Prigozhin envisions – and appears to desire – becoming more likely?

To answer that question, one must consider Prigozhin’s influence, which rests on the Wagner Group’s fearsome record of battlefield victories and atrocities. Furious Russians may also be drawn to his ruthless rhetoric (“a dog receives a dog’s death,” he said of a video showing the execution by sledgehammer of a former Wagner mercenary who had switched sides in Ukraine).

The fact that Prigozhin can criticize the war effort without consequences – his interlocutor, Dolgov, was fired over the interview – only augments his mystique. In Saint Petersburg, his native city, one can take a guided tour of Nabokov’s or Pushkin’s Petersburg, and now of Prigozhin’s.

But Prigozhin is not using this influence to challenge Putin. On the contrary, when he attacks Russia’s military and political elites, he draws attention away from the man at the top. And, ultimately, Putin probably agrees with much of Prigozhin’s stance. After almost a quarter-century in power, Putin has no capacity to lead a revolution on the ground. But the war in Ukraine – and his often-unhinged rhetoric – have shown that he is an instigator at heart.

Prigozhin is outside the system, but the system is what he serves. In this sense, he is much like Grigori Rasputin, the “mystic monk” who befriended – and strongly influenced – Russia’s last imperial family, the Romanovs, before the 1917 revolution. In both cases, the state lacked coherence, and the man in charge failed to display adequate leadership, even as he dispensed orders. Fringe elements emerged to fill the void, not by attempting to guess what the boss wanted and executing it, but by establishing themselves as forces to be reckoned with – all against a backdrop of popular fury.

Putin might identify with Prigozhin and appreciate the Wagner Group’s contributions to the effort to destroy Ukraine. But he must understand that Prigozhin’s independence, boldness, and ambition subvert the social quiescence that is essential to the regime’s survival. Rasputin came to a grisly end after making himself the target of a decadent elite. Prigozhin could be on a similar path.

Nina L. Khrushcheva: Professor of International Affairs at The New School, is the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler), most recently, of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St. Martin’s Press, 2019).

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