Prigozhin’s strange aborted coup is a sign of Russia’s malaise
On June 23rd Russia entered 24 hours of mayhem. Consider, for a moment, just how surreal it all was. A violent criminal and former hot-dog seller, nicknamed the chef, leads an armed irregular militia towards Moscow, demanding the heads of the regular army chief and of the defence minister. Border guards and security staff vanish, letting them pass. Ordinary citizens pour onto the street to observe the spectacle and chat with the militiamen. State television puts out a special news bulletin in the middle of the night. The president of a nuclear power appeals to his security services from the TV screen calling on them to stop the insurrection, and pledges a tough response. The mayor of Moscow announces that his city is on a state of counter-terrorism alert. Less than twenty-four hours later the leader of the Wagner militia group turns his men back and goes into exile. Treason charges are dropped; no explanation is given. The goals and logic of the chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, were obscure, but so are those of Vladimir Putins war in Ukraine. According to Russian Telegram channels, Mr Prigozhins escapade has left up to 20 Russian army servicemen dead and several military aircraft destroyed. But no one really knows any of the details; this was a mutiny mostly watched on social media, and facts are still thin on the ground. It has left everyone, in Russia and abroad, as they watched the spectacle unfold on smartphones and television screens, stunned and perplexed. A sign on the back of one car driving around Moscow said, in English, what was on everyones mind: WTF is going on? Circus was one of the most frequent descriptions on Russian social media. Kirill Rogov, a Russian analyst and founder of Re:Russia, a policy network, believes that the power-play by Wagners irregulars was the latest sign of the rot that has gradually eaten away at Russias institutions under Mr Putin. It is the decay of the regular state, he says. That process has been active for a while. But Mr Putins war in Ukraine, meant to stave it off, has instead accelerated it. Four months before he launched his full-scale offensive against Ukraine, Vladislav Surkov, one of the ideologues of Mr Putins earlier incursions into Ukraine, wrote: The Russian state, with its severe and inflexible interior, survived exclusively because of its tireless expansion beyond its borders. It has long lost the knowledge [of] how to survive otherwise. He argued that the only way Russia could escape chaos was by exporting it to a neighbour. But the result has in fact been that Russia has imported chaos from the war and moved again towards smutaa time of murky trouble that has stricken Russia time and again over the centuries. In his brisk address to the nation and the army on June 24th Mr Putin accurately described the condition that preceded the 1917 revolution: Intrigues, squabbles and politicking behind the backs of the army and the people resulted in the greatest upheaval, the destruction of the army and the state, the loss of vast territories. The result was the tragedy of the civil war. What he did not say was that it was his own actions that have created this situation afresh, and led his country to the edge of civil war. As someone who emerged from the thick of the gangster-ridden St Petersburg in the 1990s, Mr Putin has always relied on private arrangements rather than rules and institutions. Distrustful of state institutions and obsessed with personal control, Mr Putin created informal structures and private, often rivalrous, groupings that made him the indispensable arbiter. Mr Prigozhin, who ran a restaurant in St Petersburg where Mr Putin entertained his guests, was entrusted with delicate tasks. Mr Prigozhin and his group of mercenaries were purely Mr Putins own creation, one that he used to fight deniably in Libya, Mali and Syria before Ukraine, but which he was unable to control, and which in the end became dangerous to him. Formally, Wagner did not even exist: private armies are illegal under Russias constitution. But even such fundamental laws can be twisted, as Mr Putin himself demonstrated when he changed the constitution to keep himself in power. Last year, Mr Putin gave Mr Prigozhin permission to recruit prisoners to fight. As the Russian army suffered a humiliating retreat in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Mr Prigozhin started to verbally attack Sergei Shoigu, his defence minister and Valery Gerasimov, the head of the army, for their blunders. Mr Prigozhins public activity started to attract followersboth among the Russian public and more importantly among parts of the elite. It was starting to turn him into a political force, and that became a danger. The Kremlin decided it was time to bring him back into the fold. Mr Prigozhin was told to formalise his relationship with the army and integrate his forces with it. It was too late. Mr Prigozhin, who started to believe he was an important player, disobeyed and decided to assert himself. Some observers say he was unlikely to have acted alone, and that he must have been given a promise of safe passage to Moscow. But instead of striking at Mr Prigozhin, Mr Putin was forced to negotiate with him. As Mr Rogov argues, what protected Mr Prigozhin most but also made his threat real was not the size of his force, but his rhetoric: he attacked Mr Putin not from the anti-war position of Russian liberals, but from the pro-war position of Russian patriots. That makes him much more dangerous; Mr Putin could hardly attack his own heroic soldiers. Unable to face down Mr Prigozhin openly, Mr Putin instead opted to negotiate. For all the murkiness of a deal between Mr Prigozhin and Mr Putin, a few things are becoming clear. Mr Putin has been politically weakened. Very few in Russia came onto the streets to support him against the attempted coup. People who came out to watch the shenanigans were friendlier to the Wagner men than to the police. At the end of this strange day, neither side was a clear winner. To reassert his power Mr Putin might now have to resort to purges if he can be certain of the loyalty of all his repressive institutions when dealing not with unarmed liberals but with armed mercenaries. And although he may have stopped Mr Prigozhin from entering Moscow, he will not be able to stop the decay of the Russian state. Russia is now in an uncharted territory, says a senior American official.