Putin’s acolytes smell blood in the water

Yevgeny Prigozhin, standing in the darkness next to a row of bloodied dead bodies, was shouting obscenities. With his yellowish, unnaturally hairless face contorted in primordial hatred, there was something about his appearance that seemed decidedly horrific.

Prigozhin may well be positioning himself for Putin’s likely downfall and the eventual (and probably very nasty) succession struggle

The look goes with his reputation. The head of the notorious Wagner (which cut its teeth as a mercenary force in Africa and the Middle East), Prigozhin is known for his untamed brutality and deep cynicism, and for his ability and willingness to get his hands dirty, or bloody. Perhaps that was why he volunteered to use his mercenaries — many of whom were recruited straight out of Russia’s prisons — for what he called the “Bakhmut meat-grinder,” the months-long assault on the Ukrainian town where thousands have been killed in intense urban warfare.

Now, Prigozhin claimed, the Russian Ministry of Defense was denying him the ammo he badly needed. So he called them out, trashing defense minister Sergey Shoigu and the chief of General Staff Valerii Gerasimov, calling them “bitches” and accusing them of inaction in the face of an unfolding disaster at Bakhmut. Prigozhin also promised to abandon the assault and surrender the town, now mostly under Russian control, to the Ukrainians.

The scene was so macabre, the attack on Shoigu and Gerasimov so vicious, that it even inspired internet memes. It also exposed deep fissures at the very heart of the Russian military effort.

In the days that followed, Prigozhin doubled down on his accusations against the military top brass, with a remarkable video posted on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, in which he again complained that he had not received the ammo he had asked for. In the video Prigozhin referred to someone he called “a happy grandpa.” “But how do you win a war,” Prigozhin asked sarcastically, “if it turns out that this grandpa is a complete dickhead?”

Prigozhin’s comments made ripples. Not just in the West, among Kremlinologists and armchair experts, but in Russia itself, in Telegram channels and in chatroom gossip. Who was he referring to? Shoigu? Gerasimov? Putin himself perhaps? The term “grandpa” was surely a pointer to Putin who has long been called “bunker grandpa” by his detractors.

Prigozhin himself later hinted that he was targeting Gerasimov. It’s a superficially believable claim. No love has been lost between the two, and Prigozhin may well be genuinely concerned about the General Staff’s failure to supply his dwindling troops with ammunition.

Yet questions remain, especially when it comes to Prigozhin’s studied ambiguity. Prigozhin knows the value of words. He is a master of disinformation; in fact, disinformation is literally his profession and Wagner’s trade. Any ambiguity therefore must send a message. It has to serve a purpose.

There are two distinct ways to think about Prigozhin’s shenanigans. First, his attacks on the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff could be a Kremlin plot, hatched up by Putin and coordinated with the security services to humiliate Shoigu and Gerasimov, blame Russia’s defeat on their stupidity, incompetence or treachery — and perhaps prepare the ground for their dismissal.

But this explanation doesn’t work — it’s much too complicated. A strong, assertive Putin wouldn’t need Prigozhin to pin defeats on Shoigu and Gerasimov. He could easily purge them (probably to the applause of more junior commanders). And while Putin is known for setting his minions against one another to promote internecine strife while retaining overall control, Prigozhin’s rants go much too far. They undermine the authority of the Russian military and, indeed, the Russian state itself. For, if Shoigu and Gerasimov are the “grandpas” in question, then what does that say about the commander-in-chief who appointed them and refuses to fire them?

The second way of thinking of Prigozhin’s antics is to see them as a deliberate, even if still carefully-worded, attack against Putin himself. In this reading, Prigozhin — charismatic, boundlessly ambitious, unscrupulous and deeply evil — is sensing blood. Not in Bakhmut, but in the Kremlin. As the extent of Putin’s blunder in Ukraine becomes more and more evident, Prigozhin may well be positioning himself for Putin’s likely downfall and the eventual (and probably very nasty) succession struggle. He is an outsider of course — not your conventional silovik — but he has cards to play, including a military force and sheer chutzpah.

This is a good explanation, though it probably overstates Prigozhin’s appetite for risk-taking. And what could be riskier than taking on the boss? Putin is notoriously vengeful and thin-skinned: he wouldn’t let Prigozhin get away with such an astonishing affront. In modern Russia, lesser sins have been punished with Novichok or an accidental fall from the window.

Here’s the bigger question. It does not actually matter if Prigozhin’s rants are a part of some Kremlin conspiracy to rein in the military, or simply a reflection of Prigozhin’s own frustrations and ambitions. What matters is the image he is projecting. This image is not favorable to Putin. It is an image of burgeoning chaos, weakness and of Putin’s inability to reconcile competing interests of warring factions. It is an image of Putin in terminal decline.

Putin came to power on the promise to strengthen the Russian state. Early in his tenure he ruthlessly cut down the oligarchs, imposing what he called a “vertical of power.” Now, though, this vertical is beginning to strain and crack under stress. The elites know that the czar has no clothes. The military doubt his wisdom. The people — the proverbial masses — look on passively, no longer certain of anything, tired of war and generally unwilling to sacrifice themselves on the altar of Putin’s faded greatness.

It is this uncertainly that Prigozhin is now seeking to exploit for his sinister ends. For him, this is a one in a generation opportunity to make a play for power: not in the jungles of Africa, nor in the deserts of the Middle East, but right here at home, in the midst of the deepening darkness of post-Putin Russia.

Original Article: https://thespectator.com/topic/vladimir-putin-acolytes-blood-yevgeny-prigozhin/