We hear very little from senior Russians speaking en clair, offering their true thoughts on events inside the country and their leader, Vladimir Putin.
That spell of silence was broken in March when a purported wiretapped discussion was posted on YouTube by an unknown source. It has caused much comment and (according to the Russian investigative website, Istories) an FSB investigation ahead of unspecified “action.”
The recording indicates a less-than-admiring view of Putin, who is described as Satan and as a lowlife, among other things. The exchanges between the music producer, Iosif Prigozhin (no relation to the Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin) and former senator of the Federation Council, the billionaire Farkhed Akhmedov, may of course be atypical for the Russian elite. But if they express anything close to a mainstream opinion among the wealthy and powerful, Russia’s most privileged people are frustrated, angry, and deeply worried about the future.
The 35-minute expletive-laced recording includes complaints over sanctions and fears about where Russia may be heading (one comment refers to a future fascist, military dictatorship.) But it’s also notable for what the men do not mention — Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, mass war crimes, the kidnapping of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children, and strategic military targeting of innocent civilians.
We should be clear; these elite figures are not closet democrats seeking a better future for Russia’s masses. They are self-interested individuals who have become rich through maneuvers in the shadows of Putin’s klepto-state. It’s fair to conclude that had Putin’s great gamble paid off, had Ukraine been captured Ukraine in three days or even a few months, these same men would have been discussing the division of the spoils in Ukraine.
According to the independent Russian-language outlet Meduza, the voice allegedly belonging to Prigozhin says Russia has already lost the war and that Putin “drove himself” into a “s***hole.”
“Speaking honestly, yeah, f***ing stop, get the Nobel Prize, and get the f*** out. Look, he gave the country away anyway, f***,” he says.
“They f***** us, our children, their future, their f***ing fates, you know?” says the voice attributed to Akhmedov. “Honestly, of course, they’re criminals. S***, what criminals,” the other voice answers.
One of the men says Putin “doesn’t give a f*** about anything. And he doesn’t give a f*** about the people. He’s f***ing Satan. Wimp .”
“How will we clean all this up later? Fascism will be here, a military dictatorship. You’ll see. That’s how it’s going to end,” a voice says, only for his interlocutor to agree.
“Look, they have teamed up — Igor Ivanovich, Sergei Viktorovich, and Zolotov [Rosneft head Igor Sechin, Rostec head Sergei Chemezov and Rosgvardia head Viktor Zolotov.] They blame everything on [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu. They call him a d******d — behind his back, of course — and they now have the task of tearing him the f*** down,” the voice supposedly belonging to Prigozhin says.
The leak fed into a debate about disunity between factions inside Russia. There has been chaos and disorganization on the battlefield, as Russia either failed to launch its much-anticipated offensive (or launched something so anemic no one noticed.) On the Telegram social media channel, fighting between Wagner’s Prigozhin, and Russia’s Defense Ministry continue even as the two try to capture Bakhmut, something they’ve failed to do for nine months. Events over the past few weeks have only emphasized the witch’s brew of trouble now forming.
Last fall, Russia suffered humiliating military defeats near Kharkiv and Kherson, and Putin’s inner circle began seeing the writing on the wall. A Meduza headline captured sentiment as a wave of pessimism began sweeping across Russia, “We’ve lost the real war.” A source close to businessmen in Putin’s inner circle said: “It’s started to dawn on people . . . people are starting to think about how to move forward, what position they’d like to take in the future, what bet to make, what hand to play.”
Meanwhile, Wagner’s Prigozhin and his military bloggers, have been publicly criticizing Russia’s Defense Ministry, with Prigozhin even accusing top military officials of treason over an ammunition shortage suffered by his mercenaries. And so it continued, with reports of Russia’s security services taking steps to contain Prigozhin and Wagner.
One week after the scandalous Prigozhin-Akhmedov recording, another event captured the headlines across Russian media. An extremist military propagandist, Maxim Fomin, better known as Vladlen Tatarsky, was assassinated in a café belonging to Yevgeny Prigozhin, apparently with an exploding bust of the milblogger. Russian police blamed Ukraine.
And if this wasn’t enough, the Kremlin was hit by a high-value defection. An officer in Putin’s secretive elite security service, the Federal Guard Service, Gleb Karakulov, gave an interview to Dossier Center disclosing his escape and exposing secrets about the Kremlin household and about Putin’s fears. “Our president has become a war criminal,” he said. “It’s time to end this war and stop being silent.” Karakulov worked on top-level Kremlin ciphers in Putin’s traveling detail. It is not known how much material, if any, he took when leaving the country.
To be clear, there are no signs that the wheels are coming off the Putin regime. It may continue to operate as previously and opposition may continue to be crushed. The Prigozhin-Akhmedov leak may simply be a Russian intelligence operation to warn the elite to button their lips. The Tatarsky assassination may likewise have been designed to tell noisy milbloggers that their days of free expression are over.
But if everything is good and well in Putinland, why do senior figures have to be warned, and potentially arrested, and hardliners killed?
It may be because the situation is worsening and becoming much more serious for the regime. The economy continues to sink. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin. Russia’s bloodied legions are failing to make progress against stubborn Ukrainian resistance.
There is now a familiar whiff of Soviet-era collapse when bombs and bullets ended rivalries and literally everything was up for grabs. With trillions at stake, we can expect to see much worse as the quiet whispers of who will replace Putin continues.
Olga Lautman is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the host of the Kremlin File podcast , and an analyst/researcher focusing on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.