STOLYPIN: Patriots against Putin

STOLYPIN: Patriots against Putin
When Putin either had Evgeny Prigozhin killed or just approved it he may have eliminated one problem, but exacerbated another: Russia’s 'turbo-patriots' are increasingly angry. / bne IntelliNews
By Mark Galeotti director of consultancy Mayak Intelligence and honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies September 6, 2023

When Putin either had Evgeny Prigozhin killed or at least approved the operation for there is no evidence to suggest it came as a welcome or unwelcome surprise he may have eliminated one problem, but arguably exacerbated another. Prigozhin, after all, was a mutineer, but a loyal one: he depended on Putin's favour and indulgence and was not seeking to unseat but influence the president. The so-called 'turbo-patriots' are individually much less powerful, but collectively more independent and are increasingly angry.

It is not that they necessarily liked Prigozhin. Igor 'Strelkov' Girkin, perhaps their most infamous, had been engaged in a vicious feud with the mercenary-entrepreneur, but while he admitted 'I cannot say that I am upset, since Prigozhin was not only my enemy personally, but also, by and large, an enemy of Russia,' he nonetheless registered dismay that Russia was sliding back into the 'wild 90s'. The point was, rather, that for all his venal flaws and thuggish taste for vendettas, Prigozhin was willing to face the facts of the war, and to do what was needed if, in the turbo-patriots' eyes, it was to be won.


It is hardly coincidental that shortly after the mutiny Girkin was arrested and charged with extremism. He had enjoyed relative impunity to criticise not just Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov it has long been open season for them but also 'Our Unique Strategic Advantage', as he dubbed Putin, tongue firmly in cheek. He had emerged as one of the more acute Russian critics of the war effort, a voice for the turbo-patriots' belief that whether or not the war was worth starting (a debate which is more pragmatic than moral), once started it needs to be fought without the incompetence, corruption and amateurishness which has been painfully on display.

He had enjoyed this freedom at a time when others were being prosecuted and even imprisoned for simply sharing a critical social media post, not so much because he had a specific patron but a collective one. As one security establishment insider put it, he 'spoke for so many within the siloviki, maybe not the generals but the colonels, the majors, the captains.' He was at once a pressure valve releasing pressure for the disgruntled middle-rankers within the security forces and also a weather vane, showing the ways their sentiment was blowing.

Given that they were largely supportive of the war, for a long time Putin was willing to let them pose and rant, but the Wagner mutiny and, above all, the apparent unwillingness of so many within the security apparatus to resist it, seems to have changed his mind. Girkin's arrest was the most obvious sign, but there have been other moves. Some of the social media 'milbloggers' who were once so critical of the Kremlin, especially ones who were previously backed by Prigozhin's media empire, have abruptly changed their tune, leading to online spats as others call them out for having been bought off. Nationalist organisations like the All-Russian Officers Assembly are coming under renewed official scrutiny.

Meanwhile, while attention naturally focuses on the generals, there are accounts of a hurried rotation of middle-ranking figures within the National Guard and Moscow garrison, moving those known to harbour turbo-patriot sympathies to less significant positions. The FSB's Military Counterintelligence Department, which seems so signally to have failed during the mutiny, is being beefed up with secondees from the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism.


Prigozhin's public appeal, evident in the response of the people of Rostov to his arrival and withdrawal during the mutiny, was not so much because of his own characteristics so much as his populist image as a man willing to stand up for his 'boys' and tell it like it is to the politicians and bureaucrats. It reflected above all an exasperation with the powers that be, and a suspicion of the official line.

Even insiders who may have had little time for Prigozhin personally accepted that in his own thuggish way, Wagner demonstrated a determination and inventiveness at odds with a sclerotic state and a hidebound and lumbering army. The hawkish thinktanker and former parliamentarian spoke for many when he recognised Prigozhin as a 'symbol of Russia's military victory for millions of people' and Wagner as an example to the nation.

Likewise, Girkin is widely read and quoted (his taunting epithets such as calling Shoigu the 'Plywood Marshal' have become common), but not necessarily liked. He is, after all, a divisive figure, a war criminal, and a man whose charisma, such as it is, is essentially on the battlefield. The name of the new political movement in which he is involved, the Club of Angry Patriots, in many ways is telling. Like him, it is more an expression of frustration, a response to the present regime and situation, rather than something with a positive vision of the future. Girkin's evocation of the 'wild 90s' was telling, though: for so long, a central pillar of Putin's overblown legitimising narrative has been that he 'saved' Russia from those anarchic days of violence and disorder. The notion that he himself may be dragging the country back into those bad old days is a potentially compelling one as violent crime rises (gun crime was up 30% last year) and the ruble struggles.


This helps explain the response to the assassination of one and the imprisonment of the other. Some have described it as muted, but it is fairer to say polarised. Within their own narrow circles, there is genuine fury. There is still the distant chance of some kind of direct action. Certainly there were overheated vows of 'vengeance' after Prigozhin's death. Some lone gunman on a mission, though, is exactly the kind of threat Putin's massive security detail is best placed to intercept and eliminate, though. Nor are the remnants of Wagner in any position to repeat their mutiny, now scattered, under careful scrutiny and stripped of their heavy weapons.

The real challenges, though, are of disillusion. A growing number of the turbo-patriots seem to believe that it is actually patriotic to be opposed to Putin, even if that is about all on which they may agree. They are divided along personal, factional and even philosophical lines (some advocate ending the war lest Russia rip itself apart, most advocate escalation). Things may change in the future, but there is no one, and no movement, currently able to unite them.

But that was never the point. The real threat from the turbo-patriots is not that they themselves would turn against Putin and bring him down; it is, rather, that they choose not to support him. They are disproportionately represented within the security apparatus, not just the military and National Guard but the FSB and even the FSO, the Federal Protection Service. The last of these has apparently been seeking to identify which of its officers within the Kremlin Guard, the Presidential Security Service, the special communications officers who connect Putin to his empire may be sympathisers.

The real message of the Wagner mutiny was precisely that, faced with what was in effect a vote of confidence in Putin, so many of the siloviki, the 'men of force', chose to abstain. Likewise, the Prigozhin murder showed that Putin was willing to break his word to someone who, in the turbo-patriots' eyes, was one of the very few able to win victories for the Motherland.

The turbo-patriots will almost certainly not bring down Putin themselves. However, the more they are alienated, the more it becomes clear that they may not support him in a crisis, the more it may encourage others to plot against the president. After all, even amongst loyalists, there is a sense that things cannot go on like this forever. For some, the answer is a negotiated peace, for others an even more ruthless war. Either way, a Putin willing to murder his partisans but apparently unwilling to do more than wait for some deus ex machina victory to drop into his lap offers them little hope.

None of this means we can expect some kind of palace coup imminently, if at all. However, a regime which clearly once saw its main threat coming from the liberals now must also contend with disgruntled and despairing loyalists and angry ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists, and ones with guns at that.