Carolina de Stefano, professor of Russian history and politics at Luiss in Rome, what happened on Saturday 24 June in Russia?
“It wasn’t a coup, that’s clear. It was a mutiny, an internal affair of the military forces deployed in Ukraine after months of escalating tensions between those forces. But we must not underestimate another aspect as well».
«The personal factor: Prigozhin feared for his fate and that of his company, Wagner. In recent months, in Ukraine, he has seen many of his soldiers die, especially in Bakhmut, and has repeatedly tried to attract Putin’s attention with a series of videos, although without ever directly attacking him but addressing the leadership of Defense (Minister Shoigu and Chief of Staff Gerasimov, ed). Faced with the prospect of seeing the Wagner Group formally submitted to the Defense Ministry, as was scheduled to happen on July 1, he launched into this operation to negotiate, counting on the fact that the Kremlin could not do without Wagner in the Ukrainian conflict or however that he could not afford an internal crisis.
And did he go well?
“I wouldn’t call it a success for Prigozhin. At the moment he has survived, but we will only find out in the coming weeks how he will change his position, how the Kremlin will manage “the Prigozhin dossier” ».
What could be hiding behind the agreement negotiated by Lukashenko between Prigozhin and the Kremlin?
«It was probably an agreement in which Prigozhin was also given economic guarantees. But many things we will probably never know.
43 million euros were found in Prigozhin’s hideout…
«He is a millionaire, a criminal millionaire: it is very possible it is his money, but it could also be funds from the Wagner Group, which – let us not forget – is a band of mercenaries who control gold and diamond mines in Africa. It is no coincidence that those 43 million were immediately found and heralded around the world: it is all part of a campaign of delegitimization typical of the Russian method”.
Could there be some Western state behind the Wagner uprising, as some have speculated?
“Prigozhin is a mercenary, he’s ready to take money from anyone who offers it, he certainly wouldn’t object on moral grounds. Nothing can be excluded from this point of view. But what happened remains an internal problem, which has the relationship between Prigozhin and the army at its core».
In its June 24 blitz, the Wagner Group killed between 13 and 20 Russian soldiers and shot down a Defense aircraft and helicopter, yet met virtually no resistance on its march towards Moscow. Not only that: Prizoghin came out unscathed, perhaps even unpunished from a criminal point of view, and there will be an amnesty for the mercenaries who led the blitz. Why didn’t the autocrat Putin strike a hard fist this time?
“Because he wanted to avoid a civil war. If Wagner’s men had arrived in Moscow, the operation – which started with different intentions – could actually have turned into an attempted coup. But behind this “soft” line there is also the “gangsteristic” approach with which Putin manages power relations: he solved the case on the basis of his personal assessments alone, without taking the country’s institutions into consideration at all ».
The Russian newspapers, quite unusually, have underlined how on this occasion the state has revealed its “vulnerability”.
«There is a nationalist fringe – legitimized in recent years by the Kremlin, among other things – which cannot accept what happened: on the morning of the 24th Putin assured that the blitz would not go unpunished, but after just a few hours it in fact self-denied, allowing Prigozhin to expatriate and granting amnesty to his soldiers. All of Russia saw what happened: there is no rule, if even ex-convicts released to go and fight can afford to threaten the system».
Is Putin weaker now?
“Yes, undoubtedly. I always tend to reject certain readings that we sometimes give in the West regarding imminent breaking points for Putin’s regime, but what happened on the 24th is so farcical and at the same time perceived as an offense by the population that it will necessarily have consequences . This time in the Kremlin it will not be enough to intensify the repression, as happened after the protests of 2012. There are things that cannot pass for the Russian population”.
Is this the most difficult moment for the president since he has been in power?
“More than for Putin, let’s say that it is perhaps the moment of greatest instability and tension for Russia since Putin has been in power”.
What impact will what happened on June 24 have on the war in Ukraine?
«This is the big question, but the answer is not clear today even in Moscow. It will be necessary to see what will happen in the coming weeks: what will happen to the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defence, how the soldiers of the Wagner Group will be integrated into the Russian army… On the southern front, the dependence on Wagner has not so far been as impactful as it was, at least in the first phase, in Bakhmut».
Where does Prigozhin’s malaise towards Shoigu and Gerasimov come from?
“The Wagner Group felt sent to slaughter in the Ukraine. The war is not going according to plan and this is creating tensions. It is clear, however, that Prigozhin’s messages are indirectly addressed to the Kremlin. Having said that, I would be careful not to take all of his statements at face value, a trend that I have noticed in recent days ».
Videos have circulated on social networks in which the Wagner soldiers and Prigozhin himself are seen welcomed by the population with applause and choirs of support. Apart from the fact that they may be propaganda clips, how are these mercenaries seen by the Russian population?
“This is a very interesting point. Those videos were shot in Rostov and people’s reaction seems genuine. In the almost medieval context in which Russia finds itself today, characters like Prigozhin acquire their own legitimacy, also thanks to social networks and the space granted to them by the Kremlin. The attraction of a part of the population towards him also derives from the fact that he is one of the few in the country to be perceived as a person who can afford to tell it like it is, to the point that he even goes so far as to challenge the power . Having said that, however, Rostov is not all of Russia: we need to understand what the sentiment is in the rest of the country».
Why was the agreement with the Kremlin negotiated by Lukashenko?
“The priority was to get Prigozhin out of the country, so we needed a country to send him to. Who better than Belarus, practically the only remaining ally?».
The march of the Wagner group to Moscow abruptly stopped 200 kilometers from the capital. Why did Prigozhin stop? Did he understand that he had no chance of getting out of the blitz alive or was he promised something in return? Was his reasoning based on realism or opportunism?
“Perhaps he was both a realist and an opportunist. Realist because he himself was frightened of what could have happened, also because he probably hadn’t fully foreseen it. But also an opportunist, because evidently in a short time the things he asked for were granted to him, even with all the question marks that remain».
In the West, we struggle to understand whether the sanctions against Russia are working. How are things really?
«The impact is there, above all on the Russian elite, who see their resources reduced, while for the rest of the population the economic conditions were already not very good for the rest of the population. We need to understand, however, if there will also be an impact in the long term. 2023 is proving to be more critical than 2022. Last year there were still rich reserves, supermarkets were full of western goods, spare parts were available… At this stage we are witnessing a very rapid transition towards China: simply, some of my contacts in Moscow tell me that many more Chinese people are seen around than before and many more Chinese products are sold in shops… Within one or two years we will understand if this transition is really working».
Why did Putin refer to Russia in 1917 in his video message on the morning of the 24th, at the height of the Prigozhin blitz? Why exactly 1917?
«The reference is undoubtedly excessive. Maybe he wanted to give the idea of a panic situation, also to show himself as the representative of order in the face of the possibility of a civil war, a prospect that scares everyone but particularly scares the Russians, given their historical experience. The situation was much more similar, if anything, to that of the attempted coup in 1991 or the bombing of the Duma in 1993. But Putin could not refer to those crises».
“Because, when he came to power, he presented himself as the one who would restore order after the chaos of the 1990s. Comparing the current situation to that of 1991 would have meant questioning his entire legitimacy. Better to go and take an example further back in time, of which no one has direct memory, but which nonetheless shows the specter of civil war».
If Putin were to fall, would Russia risk balkanization?
“Good question. More than balkanization, I would speak of feudalization. Given how centralized power is in Russia today, there is always the risk of creating spaces for tensions at the local level, but I am thinking more of tensions linked to the criminal world, as it was in the 1990s, than to popular protests. The fact is that every month is crucial to change the nature of the regime, which is increasingly militarised: Putin’s exit prospects in previous years are not the same today and will not be the same in three years time. It is necessary to look at what kind of state there is at that particular moment, how internal struggles are going on, how much a dormant popular discontent can have a realistic margin and context, not necessarily in the form of popular revolts, but also only in support of a change ».
What kind of situation do you see today?
«Today one might say – but we are still in the field of speculation – which military figures would have a better chance of succeeding Putin. Then, however, it would be necessary to see if that system could hold up over time. Furthermore, it would be necessary to observe the developments of the crisis at the territorial level: in 1917 the revolution was able to take place also because the peasants had already taken the countryside, and it is always in the suburbs, and not only in Moscow, that the cracks are created and the demands that arise they will lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia is a country where regional dynamics matter a lot, over which the Kremlin does not have so much influence. Reading the Russian regional press in the coming months will be very interesting to observe any changes ahead.