Ivan Fomin: Don’t Send a Spy to Do a Soldier’s Job

While Prigozhin’s mutiny ultimately failed, it revealed one of Vladimir Putin’s core weaknesses: he is a secret service man running a “special military operation,” rather than a military commander leading a genuine war effort.

Lacking the courage of his convictions, he appears half-hearted in everything he does: partial mobilization, partial militarization, and partial Stalinization. His war is not quite a war; his casus belli is more excuse than justification. He hides the extraordinary but inconvenient truths of war behind the illusion of business as usual.

As mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s revolt and his growing popularity made clear, however, there is a sizeable group of Russians for whom Putin’s prevarication is unacceptable. These people demand a more unambiguous stance. They support the total mobilization of Russian society and the army, the militarization of the economy, and the “nationalization” of the country’s elites. This tension existed prior to the events of June 23-24, but if reports are confirmed that Prigozhin’s men were able to freely pass through roadblocks erected in their path, if they were indeed able to recruit to their cause the Russian soldiers sent to stop them, and if they were welcomed as heroes by civilians, Putin may be forced to alter his messaging to accommodate this constituency. The result may be a kind of “Prigozhinization” of Putin, imbuing the president with even more aggressive rhetoric and a clearer mandate for mobilization.

Such a transformation would not be without risk for Putin. Hardcore supporters of the war are still a minority in Russia. Moreover, it is far from clear that Russia’s elites would prefer a Prigozhinized Putin. While they may not openly revolt, it would nonetheless reduce compliance and create friction between factions within the elite.

Full-scale mobilization and the militarization of every aspect of the Russian economy and society runs counter to the interests of important groups within the elite. Moreover, Putin politically cannot afford to adopt Prigozhin’s populist, anti-elite discourse. As a result, even Putin’s eventual Prigozhinization is likely to be half-hearted.

Ivan Fomin, Democracy Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

Milana Mazaeva: Avoiding the Third Chechen War

When Evgeny Prigozhin launched his mutiny, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov did something he rarely does: he remained silent. Usually, Kadyrov is among the first to comment on major events, filling the social media ether with voluminous patriotic and militant videos.

When he finally did speak, things got even stranger: his announcement that he would dispatch Chechen troops to take on Wagner in Rostov-on-Don seemed calculated to cause more problems than it would solve. Sending ethnic Chechens – who are still perceived as enemies in most regions of Russia, and particularly in the south – to take on ethnic Russians would likely not have found many sympathizers in a Russian-speaking city like Rostov. Had Kadyrov’s troops entered Rostov, it would have turned Prigozhin into a folk hero, defending the residents of one of Russia’s largest cities against the invading Chechens.

If anything, the fact that Kadyrov’s troops have been fighting in the war against Ukraine only served to worsen relations between Chechens and Russians in the Russian military. To wit, a member of one of the Russian airborne divisions appealed to Wagner in a video on 23 or 24 June, saying, “Know that we are with you. We are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in this fight, a just fight against the arrogant monsters and their henchmen — Kadyrov’s supporters, TikTokers (a disparaging nickname given to members of the Chechen branch of the Rosgvardia during the war in Ukraine for frequent social media boasts about supposed achievements on the front lines), who think they can come to our land and dictate their own rules here.”

The mutual dislike, which has never faded since the two Chechen wars, runs both ways. Chechens still perceive Russian military personnel as people who brought war to their land, and Russian military personnel cannot come to terms with the power, impunity, and material investments that the Chechen leadership has received, despite losing the war against Russia. There is no doubt that if armed Chechens and Russians stood against each other, they would not hesitate for long. This potential clash with Kadyrov’s troops is what, in my opinion, Priogzhin had in mind in his June 24 audio message: “Now is the moment when blood may be shed. Therefore, understanding the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood may be shed on one side, we are deploying our columns.” Russian blood, he said, was on one side – his side.

The fact that Chechen and Wagner fighters did not, in fact, come to blows in Rostov is good news for Putin.

Milana Mazeva, Democracy Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

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Elina Beketova: All’s Not Quiet on the Eastern Front

Whatever Wagner and the Russian military brass might disagree about, their mission in Ukraine appears to share common ground. Despite the internal standoff in Russia, Russian troops continued to attack Ukrainian cities and villages. On June 23-24, Kyiv suffered a very intense bombardment —  debris hit a 25-story residential building, killing three people and injuring 14. Russian missiles struck Dnipro, injuring eight people, including two children. Kharkiv was attacked by S-300 missiles, damaging the industrial area, 10 cars, and a gas pipe. 

The Russian-appointed governors of occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, as well as Crimea, wrote similar messages on their Telegram channels proclaiming that their regions “were with the President of Russia.” The Russia-appointed Pushilin from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic recorded a video calling for everyone to unite around their commander-in-chief.

Nonetheless, there were visible wobbles in some regions. In the temporarily occupied city Mariupol of the Donetsk region, residents rushed to withdraw money, only to find that most of the ATMs were not working. As Ukraine’s Mariupol City Council reported, people were panic buying goods in grocery stores, payment was accepted only in cash, and long queues were reported at gas stations. In Crimea, people reported that they had problems accessing the internet. 

Elina Beketova, Democracy Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

Pavel Luzin: Unintended Consequences

Intentionally or otherwise, Wagner boss Evgeny Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, and their mercenaries became “icebreakers” for political change in Russia. What began as an inter-agency confrontation has set off what will be a long-running struggle for “Putin’s heritage,” for “Putinism without Putin,” and/or for “post-war/post-Putin Russia.”

Russia’s law enforcement agencies appeared surprisingly inert. Either they lost the ability to act and execute their duty without clear orders, or they were unsure whether their efforts were required. But while the FSB and Rosgvardia, the national gendarmerie, opened criminal cases against the mutineers, the police almost disappeared. Indeed, we still don’t have a full accounting of who did what and where during the insurrection.

For example, we don’t know what Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, and Rosgvardia boss Viktor Zolotov did or didn’t do. By contrast, we witnessed the strange behavior of Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin, who bit his tongue while the governors of neighboring regions spoke out. He was also rumored to have participated in negotiations with Prigozhin, and maybe with Utkin.

And we still don’t know what came of the discussions, caught on video, between Prigozhin, Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Vladimir Alexeev, or what bargaining mandate the latter two may or may not have had. Indeed, the information vacuum was nearly complete, as on-the-ground correspondents of state-owned media agencies were conspicuously absent. None of this resembles the kind of demonstrative unity and coordination you’d expect to see from a regime project in fighting off a mutiny.

On a separate note, for the second time in a month, one of Russia’s 12 main nuclear weapons facilities found itself in a battle zone — a fact that will not have gone unnoticed among NATO security planners. This raises the question of whether NATO has contingency plans for a loss of Russian official control over a segment of its nuclear arsenal, and the ability of NATO policymakers to rely on the good will of Russia’s “post-Putin” leadership, whenever and however that leadership may emerge.

Pavel Luzin, Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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