KABANOVSKY: From kitchen to Kremlin? Prigozhin's treacherous twist

KABANOVSKY: From kitchen to Kremlin? Prigozhin's treacherous twist
Mercenary boss Prigozhin has mutinied. He appears to have a 50:50 chance of succeeding, as there is a hardline faction in the Kremlin that is also dissatisfied with Putin. But will they act?
By Alexander Kabanovsky in Berlin June 24, 2023

"Et tu, Brute?"  Last words of Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare's play

“Nothing hurts more than the betrayal of a friend." George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire

While the Western press was fixated on the Ukrainian counter-offensive, debating whether or not it had commenced in full force and, if it had, whether or not it was succeeding, another story late on June 23 exploded into the headlines, one that may be no less important and poignant for the ultimate outcome of the Ukraine war.

Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the private military company “Wagner,” has graced my articles with his presence on numerous occasions in vignettes to highlight the cracks forming within Vladimir Putin’s government. Now the time has come for the conductor to mount the podium and take centre-stage, for he has launched a military revolt against Putin and his friends.

His performance right now merits our complete and undivided attention, as he has taken the cleaver to the rotting carcass of Putin’s regime in an effort to carve his own path to power. Mr Prigozhin has been systematically increasing the pressure with his ever more daring criticism of the defence ministry, the government and the power elites for several months. The mounting tension has finally culminated in open revolt. In the words of Sherlock Holmes: “The game is afoot!”

The Ministry of Defence gave Prigozhin and his merry band the final excuse to do what he has been itching to do for a very long time: launch a military coup and make a play for Putin’s seat. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, after dithering over whether or not to attend the performance staged by Prigozhin, finally made his decision and announced his arrival at the concert with a bang, launching a missile attack on Wagner group rear positions in an effort to neutralise Prigozhin on June 23. Whether this was sanctioned by Putin or whether it was Shoigu’s personal initiative remains unclear. However, the repercussions of this act will be felt throughout Russia for a long time. Regardless of whether Prigozhin makes a successful debut or whether the show closes after the first performance, the impact is significant.

Prigozhin, backed by a well-trained and loyal paramilitary army with tens of thousands of soldiers hardened in the sands of Syria and rainforests and deserts of Africa, has turned his 'musicians' against his sponsor, launching an all-or-nothing gamble not just against the Ministry of Defence, but against Putin himself, the man who created the 'musical' maestro and bestowed upon him unprecedented powers.

Prigozhin launched his group head-first into the war in Ukraine by committing to take Bakhmut in short order. This was a gamble on his part to further ingratiate himself with Putin while showing up the ineffectiveness, corruption and incompetence of Shoigu and Russia’s chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov. With bravado and brutality, Prigozhin threw his band of 'musicians' into the heart of the Ukrainian conflict, composing a discordant symphony that led to the tragic loss of thousands of lives, in an effort to prove Wagner’s value and exclusive fighting ability.

To aid him in this task, Prigozhin was granted unprecedented powers by Putin, giving him free rein to tour Russia’s vast network of brutal penal colonies in search of new performers for his orchestra. Armed with thousands of new recruits, Prigozhin sent these men into the meatgrinder in his desperate effort to capture Bakhmut and prove his worth. The operation sputtered in the face of heavy Ukrainian resistance, and internal criticism of Wagner grew. Shoigu, never a fan of Wagner or Prigozhin, tried to use the failure in Bakhmut to weaken Prigozhin’s standing with Putin. Prigozhin, sensing his ever more precarious position, turned to the public to garner grassroots support by exposing the corruption that Putin’s rule has wrought.

During his Bakhmut campaign, Prigozhin, also known as “the maestro,” went out of his way to humiliate Shoigu and the General Staff. He never missed a chance to discuss incessant corruption, professional incompetence and heavy losses suffered by the Russian army. The impunity with which he was able to do this was quite surprising. As the criticism grew sharper and more intense, everyone was waiting to see how Putin would react, but the silence from the man in the bunker was deafening.

With every statement he made, Prigozhin’s image and popularity among the Russian population increased. His confidence and self-assuredness, coupled with his use of brutal, obscenity-laced criticism of the power elites, played well among the Russian population, especially when contrasted with Putin’s silence and perceived weakness. Putin’s uncertain demeanour at the St Petersburg international Economic Forum (SPIEF) and disastrous meeting with war correspondents, coupled with a spate of horribly out-of-touch public and television appearances, led to open talk among the ultra-conservatives about the need for a change.

Prigozhin’s well-run and professionally curated PR campaign produced by his “Troll Factory” crafted an image of an honest, if brutal, warrior, a patriot and leader who cares about Russia and its people, as opposed to the out-of-touch fat cats in Moscow. He never failed to acknowledge the bravery and fighting skill of the Ukrainians while appealing to the common soldiers as a tough but caring, no-nonsense general who spent his time at the front lines with his musicians while others were hiding in luxurious bunkers in Moscow. He was clearly positioning himself for something bigger than curator of Wagner and, sensing Putin’s weakness, jumped at the first opportunity to make a play for the throne.

Moscow is in a panic heavy military equipment has been moved into the city in anticipation of Prigozhin’s next moves. Putin has made a weak appearance on national TV condemning the rebellion and promising to shut down Wagner’s performance. However, the situation may be beyond Putin’s power to rectify. There are divisions within his government and society, and Prigozhin has thrown down the gauntlet, offering an alternative to Putin around whom the opposition can unite. It is highly likely that the longer his revolt lasts, the more disaffected and disenchanted people will join him in his endeavour.

The elites have long realised that the war in Ukraine has been a terrible mistake and that Putin will not be able to extricate the country from the mess he created. The realisation that an alternative to Putin had to be found in order to negotiate a more or less palatable end to the war dawned upon the power elites a long time ago. It was just not clear who had the guts to take on the challenge. Prigozhin has boldly thrown his candidacy into the ring. It is highly unlikely, of course, that Prigozhin has done so without significant backing from high-powered fans of the music he is now playing. It is hard to believe that he would undertake such a gamble on his own. The Byzantine world of the Kremlin simply does not work that way. Whether the backing he has garnered so far is sufficient for him to succeed is not clear, but that he is not alone in his effort is certain.

It is also important to point out that while Prigozhin’s chances to overthrow Putin and take over the reins of power may be no better than 50:50, Putin’s chances of remaining in power are not much better. The truth of the matter is that his rule is being exposed for the corrupt, ineffective and disastrous mess that it is. His power base is not as strong as he would like to believe, and there are significant interests that his remaining in power simply does not satisfy. Whatever happens, it will definitely not be boring, and Russia will not be the same. Welcome to the Revolution!

Alexander Kabanovsky is a formerly Russia-based banker and entrepreneur. This article first appeared on his substack “Thinking Out Loud” here.