Wagner insurrection: Business deal gone awry Featured

Second of 3 parts

THIS column is the second part of last week's "Wagner insurrection — business deal gone awry!" All these are just now coming to light two weeks after the event.

Looking back, both Putin and Prigozhin misinterpreted each other's bizarre moves. Prior to this debacle, it should have been clear to Putin that his game of pitting Wagner/Prigozhin against the Ministry of Defense (MoD)-Shoigu/Gerasimov would yield unintended consequences detrimental to all actors. Putin is a political survivor because he did not allow groups like Wagner to grow too large to become a threat; the same strategy was employed to prevent the siloviki, the oligarchs and the bureaucracy becoming too independent and powerful to challenge the centralized vertical power system that he has painstakingly built up over the past 23 years.

The rivalry between Wagner and the MoD came to a head when Wagner saw some successes that portrayed the MoD as incompetent — and incapable of winning this Ukraine war. Starving Wagner of war materiel resources, designed to rein in the group and sign contracts with the MoD, folding Wagner into the MoD by the July deadline — no doubt with a complicit Putin — was an irresponsible retaliatory measure.

This march to Moscow, a show of force by Prigozhin, was perhaps designed to force Putin's hand to resolve Wagner's dilemma in its favor. This march was not — at first — against Putin. Its direct targets were the MoD and the military bureaucracy, principally to establish a modus vivendi and extract some concessions. But with Prigozhin's arrogant public demand for a replacement of the MoD leadership, this altered the tenor of the whole exercise. In some imprecise logic, Prigozhin sees the participation of Wagner in Ukraine as a patriotic duty and his loyalty given freely to Putin — the man who really made him what he currently is, from a status of "caterer-restauranteur."

Putin's misinterpretation of Prigozhin's move with his knee-jerk, harsh harangue on June 24 rejected Prigozhin's credo, painting Prigozhin instead as a traitor, condemning the march as an affront to his authority and power and threatening criminal cases against him. Putin took the MoD's side. Bad move! Whereupon Prigozhin's declaration of "presenting a new Russian president" hinting of a regime change was an afterthought. The whole scenario was a caricature of a Keystone cop's series of deadly faux pas that exposed all sides' perfidy toward each other — with deadly consequences!

The aftermath

In retrospect, Putin's flaws were incipient even prior to Prigozhin's march. The autocrat was oblivious to the signs everywhere, hubris veiling his weakness, becoming transparent when his voice was not heard; no direct orders filtered down to the national guard, the police, special forces, or the army. Or if they were given, they were disregarded — an even more ominous breach. This was made obvious by the free passage of the mutineers toward Moscow, where they were unopposed along the route; except for a few skirmishes by helicopters of the Russian Armed Forces, only a token resistance was offered. In Moscow and the Kremlin itself, the elites and the billionaires, Putin's natural allies, were profoundly quiet. So, where were the hordes of Putin supporters?

In May 2023, according to the Russian media, 80 percent of Russians approved of Putin, a popularity level higher than the 77 percent bannered in his last election. By contrast, we saw on video the adoring crowds in Rostov-on-Don when the Wagner columns entered — like conquering heroes. Prigozhin's act inadvertently exposed Putin as the proverbial emperor with no clothes.

This will haunt Putin, irreversibly damaging his image of invincibility. The long-seething grievances by Prigozhin/Wagner encapsulated in that march exposed all of Putin's warts, except that the simple Prigozhin couldn't do a closure and was forced to accept a negotiated settlement, allowing Putin some wiggle room. With the shady help of Putin's other loyalist president, Lukashenko of Belarus, Prigozhin has been had; perhaps he was tricked into accepting a deal: 1) full immunity from charges and amnesty for Wagner fighters who joined the June 23-24 march; 2) a possibility for Prigozhin and Wagner's return to Africa; and 3) a promise to replace people at the Ministry of Defense — principally Gen. Sergei Shoigu. All these a vengeful Putin reneged on.

Wagner as a conglomerate

My last article depicted the Prigozhin/Wagner adventure as a business deal gone bad. With Prigozhin's difficulties in Ukraine, one of the demands was for Wagner to draw down its forces in Ukraine, cut its losses — as any good businessman does when faced with reversals — and relocate back to Africa and the Middle East, where Prigozhin may have the bulk of his wealth. But with what transpired and the sensitivity of Wagner as Russia's dubious instrument of foreign policy, there was no way Putin would allow Prigozhin to play a role. His exile in Belarus, if true, may be permanent — and there, permanently terminated.

Putin's revenge, to salvage whatever is left of his tattered aura, will have to be swift, total and deadly. A purge of Wagner supporters and Prigozhin's people is reportedly underway. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russia's military operations in Ukraine, has reportedly been arrested and detained. Surovikin is a highly decorated veteran of Russia's wars in Chechnya and Syria and has a reputation for ruthlessness in Ukraine, earning him the sobriquet "General Armageddon." Putin's long arm of reprisal has netted Wagner chiefs in Syria, now detained by Russian military police.

Unconfirmed reports are now filtering in that some of those Wagner leaders have been summarily executed; others recalled from overseas are facing a bleak future in the motherland.

An entr'acte

With this fiasco, the weak and pathetic Putin becomes doubly dangerous, as this wounded man in the next few intervals will have to compensate for his effeminate response to an open defiance by a subaltern — before the eyes of the world, but more humiliatingly, among the Kremlin's Brutuses, Cascas and Cassiuses, now sharpening their daggers, emboldened by the vulnerability of a wounded gladiator.

In a totalitarian setting, leadership and regime change are seldom gentleman's sports. And Putin's is no longer just the game in town. We have on the periphery less powerful men than Putin; nonetheless, their collective interests may no longer align with those of Russia's strongman. Their concerted or individual action before an enfeebled despot, burdened by a war in Ukraine, may be what is needed to topple him. In the next few months, more reversals will happen in the Ukraine theater, perhaps compelling Putin to cut Russia's losses — to survive. But his days may be numbered. It is no longer a win-win for him, and Ukraine will continue to be Russia's graveyard — and perhaps his, too. Either way, he is a dead man walking.

Speculations

Looking back to December 1991, Gorbachev, an ally of Yeltsin, resigned the presidency of the Soviet Union, precipitating the dissolution of the USSR and the incipiency of Russia under Boris Yeltsin. It was not a bloody regime change. This could be a template for the four factions dominant in the Kremlin. One may emerge — bloodlessly to replace Putin.

To be continued on July 19, 2023000
Read 343 times Last modified on Friday, 14 July 2023 21:44
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