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Purges in the Kremlin

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Imagine the element of contingency, permanent danger, the marauder at your door, the family constantly fearing retribution. This is shorthand for policymaking and security in the modern Kremlin. While the surface structure looks solid – the leader, entrenched, brutal, assured – the brittle element can never be discounted.

The life of Yevgeny Prigozhin is a blueprint of the powerful, doomed careerist in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Convict origins and prison times.  Making money from hotdogs. Landing catering contracts with the Kremlin. Then came the darker side of his business mind. Arms, mercenary soldiers, a surrogate arm of Russian power projected through the Middle East and Africa through the Wagner mercenary group.

The criteria for the continued survival of such figures in the Putinverse is always one of usefulness coupled with controllable danger. As long as Prigozhin kept to the straight and narrow, with his paramilitary forces holding the frontline with unstinting brutality, he was valued. The capture of the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut after nine months of slaughter was the apotheosis of that arrangement.

But his battlefield successes in Ukraine began emboldening him. Much like Albrecht von Wallenstein’s relationship to the Habsburgs and Catholic cause during the Thirty Years War, careerism began to creep in. Accusations started to fly that the Russian Army was not pulling its own weight in operations against the Ukrainian forces, leaving the ruthless mercenaries, many drawn from Russian prison cells, to do most of the killing (and dying).

Cracks duly surfaced. In May, Konstantin Dolgov, a pro-Kremlin senator, published an interview with Prigozhin in which the commander railed against the ‘denazification and demilitarisation’ agenda of the war. Not only had such reasoning been fatuous, it had resulted in failure on the battlefield and a strengthening of the Ukrainian army, which he admired for its singlemindedness.

He also had choice words for a Kremlin elite with children who ‘allow themselves to live a public, fat, worry-free life applying face cream and showing it on the internet while ordinary people’s children are coming back in zinc [coffins]’. Ominously, he warned that such a ‘divide might end with a revolution, like in 1917, when first the soldiers rise up, then the older people close to them’ to ‘stick the elites on pitchforks.’

Then came the attempted coup, or a ‘march of justice’ which, to this day, looks exuberant, foolish, and even suspicious. The Guardian, not without some hyperbole, called the effort by Prigozhin ‘the biggest challenge to the Russian state since Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on Moscow’s White House during the 1993 constitutional crisis.’


'The as yet unanswered question will be whether Putin will be left stronger after this sanguinary purging... Failed coups have a habit of either consolidating iron-fisted rule or heralding imminent decline.'


On the surface, it looked like Prigozhin’s Moscow march had sufficient heft to worry the regime. His forces seemed to capture Rostov-on-Don, the main operational base for Russian operations in Ukraine, with little effort. In the capital awaited a few less than impressive national guard units. Publicly, Putin declared Prigozhin a traitor and called for the citizenry and army to resist him.

Nearing the capital, the Wagner commander, supposedly after a mediation with Belarussian strongman Aleksander Lukashenko, stood down, diffused the revolt and fled to Belarus, along with his core forces. Charges of mutiny and treason were dropped.

On August 23, reports began surfacing that Prigozhin had perished in his Embraer-135 in the Russian region of Tver. The private jet had been cruising at a height of 28,000 feet. The flight, carrying 10 people in all, also included close senior Wagner figures such as the group’s co-founder Dmitry Utkin. In one fell swoop, the organisation’s leadership had been extinguished.

Fingers from various quarters of pundit-land pointed the finger at Putin. ‘There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,’ remarked US President Joe Biden. ‘But I don’t know enough to know the answer.’ Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council, not wishing to be too profound, saw this as, ‘A gangster killed by another gangster gangsta style.’ 

But Lukashenko, in his typically cloddish manner, found it hard to see Putin’s incriminating hand. ‘He is calculating, very calm, even slow.’ The downing of the aircraft was ‘too rough and unprofessional work.’ A killer he might be, but not this time.

The conspiratorial, enigmatic matrix of Russian politics makes any clear discernment of this political mess difficult. But the sheer convenience of it all, including the prominent figures on the private jet, suggest a calculated, if bloody disposition of a problem. Putin’s own words eulogising Prigozhin supplied the menacing note. ‘He was a man with a complex fate. [Sometimes] he made mistakes; and [sometimes] he got the results he wanted – for himself and in response to my requests, for a common cause.’

June’s quixotic effort by Prigozhin also had its own peculiarities. The initial video showing a purported attack on Wagner forces by the Russian army was undoubtedly staged. It is also worth noting that Prigozhin’s criticism was never directly at Putin per se but his reviled military circle, notably the defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov. The Wagner chief had also taken umbrage at efforts of the Russian military to formalise, structure and integrate his mercenary force. His warmongering had to be a more freelance affair.

Putin’s late caterer can hardly be said to have been anti-war as such. After all, the Wagner group has thrived on conflict, often a heady nexus of cash, business and war. As Prigozhin himself mused with typical saltiness, ‘We didn’t start this special operation, but once the village had ended in a shitshow and you and your neighbours are fucking each other up, you’d better fuck them up to the end.’

Not long before the air crash, Prigozhin was again discussing such an apocalyptic frame of mind. In an interview with the pro-Wagner Grey Zone Telegram channel, he declared that, ‘We will go to hell. But in hell we will be the best.’ Well may he be there, but in a more terrestrial sense, the as yet unanswered question will be whether Putin will be left stronger after this sanguinary purging. ‘The people who gave the order do not understand the mood of the army,’ suggests the Russian military blogger Roman Saponkov. Failed coups have a habit of either consolidating iron-fisted rule or heralding imminent decline.




Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. 

Main image: Memorial to PMC Wagner leadership in Moscow (Wikicommons).

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Kremlin, Prigozhin, Wagner, Coup, Moscow, Putin, Purge



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Existing comments

It is extremely difficult for outsiders to know what exactly is happening in Russia and the Ukraine. Much which comes out is heavily censured and misinformation abounds. There are rumours that Stalin was assassinated. I think this is the only way Putin might go. Whether this will happen is extremely dubious. The Wagner Group now seems to be under the control of the NKVD. Russia has always been autocratically ruled. There is no opposition in the Ukraine. Peace? Democracy? We live in hope.

Edward Fido | 30 August 2023