Meelis Oidsalu: Why did Prigozhin quit?

Meelis Oidsalu.
Meelis Oidsalu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Several explanations have been proposed for why Yevgeny Prigozhin decided to halt his march on Moscow. One is that others were involved and the Wagner boss was counting on more support. Another is that Prigozhin got what he was after.

The Russian leadership and Yevgeny Prigozhin seemed to find a compromise on Saturday. It is another matter whether the deals – amnesty and free passage to Africa for Wagner soldiers and a ticket to Belarus for Prigozhin – will actually hold.

Prigozhin likely realizes that he can trust no deal with Vladimir Putin. Perhaps he also considers the peace temporary. While even a week constitutes a long time for Prigozhin in the current situation, he needs a credible contingency plan if he is to survive.

The deal likely happened because Putin needed it more than Prigozhin. The situation was extremely time-critical for the former, also because civil war behind the Russian lines in Ukraine would have effectively paralyzed activity on the front. Uncertainty would have grown exponentially also at home had the confusion lingered for a few more weeks in Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh or the suburbs of Moscow. A ruler is always more vulnerable to uncertainty than their challenger.

Wagner found taking Rostov-on-Don – home to Russia's southern military command and where they probably expected to find the military's top brass – too easy, and even though there was war between the Russian Air Force and Wagner units equipped with anti-aircraft weapons on the way to Moscow, Putin likely did not relish the idea of meeting Wagner in urban combat, which is their specialty.

Several explanations have been proposed for why Yevgeny Prigozhin decided to halt his march on Moscow. One is that others were involved and the Wagner boss was counting on more support. Perhaps he was promised something and those promises fell through. Some Russian army units allegedly went over to Wagner's side or allowed themselves to be taken prisoner in Ukraine. Or perhaps there was some other agreement or factor that did not meet Prigozhin's expectations. We might never know. While Wagner might have been able to hold Rostov and Voronezh, it is decidedly less likely in the case of Moscow.

The other possibility is that Prigozhin did achieve his goal of forcing competing boyars Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to retreat or be removed.

Railing against the Russian armed forces and threatening to leave Ukraine had proven effective in the past and got Putin's attention. Realizing he might soon be removed, Prigozhin took up arms and fought a battle against the Russian Air Force on his way to Moscow, which cost the latter more than the last couple of weeks in Ukraine.

Perhaps he naively thought that the losses he would inflict on the Russian armed forces would count as revenge for the Russian missiles that hit Wagner troops in the Kremlin's reckoning. That he would once again get Putin's attention by going bad and secure confirmation that he will get to keep his private army the fighters of which have a place in the heart of Russians both because of their international visibility and what they've achieved in Ukraine.

In a way, Prigozhin is the most honest manifestation of what the Kremlin regime really is – a criminal organization. While it is suggested that the security services people, who included Putin, and Wagner mercenaries couldn't be any more different culturally, the Russian state nevertheless operates like a gang of thugs.

The Kremlin has also been developing a kind of death cult under the auspices of honoring the Great Patriotic War, with Wagner troops serving as its priests. The Russian armed forces as seen at the May 9 parade lack spiritual power because they have no victories. But Wagner is active in Syria, Africa and Ukraine all of which is accompanied by crafty social media coverage. They are feared and Wagner units have turned cruelty into a show that is feeding the fading myth of Russia's imperial greatness.

Russians look for confirmation of their greatness in the fear in others' eyes and Wagner has systematically worked on creating a cult of fear in social media where Russian agencies betting on television and official channels have fallen flat. This also explains Wagner's considerable popularity even though the Russian state-controlled television tends to avoid mentioning them. In this view, Putin comes off as a tired technocrat when compared to Prigozhin and there are still people working at the Kremlin with an eye for such things.

Perhaps one part of the Saturday deal was that Prigozhin will have to do more in Africa or Ukraine to prove his loyalty. Whether he will have any troops left by then is another matter.

It is clear that any deal being made will rather not hold for Yevgeny Prigozhin. He will have to come up with a way of keeping a semblance of a credible position of power. If his private army falls apart without leaving him with enough loyal soldiers, that will likely be it for Prigozhin. He will be removed if not immediately, then within a few months. But he might go on living for some time if he manages to keep his army together and do something important in Africa or Ukraine.

For Vladimir Putin, these events constituted a loss of face in the international arena, in front of the people and among oligarchs.

The first two are easier. Ukraine events have left Russia's international reputation in tatters as it is and its recent allies will probably ramp up their support for the Kremlin and simply charge more for it. The Russian people are sitting in front of their TV sets knitting or drinking vodka one way or the other and will listen to whoever holds the power, even if the ruler is not popular.

The Russian political system has been tuned so that unpopularity might not have consequences. Therefore, Vladimir Putin's biggest challenge will likely be dealing with his boyars. Putin has lost the monopoly on violence and if he fails to show the same level of decisiveness that Erdogan used against the Gulenists in Turkey in 2016, he will no longer be able to protect his boyars, including from one another.

What happened was that two boyars used tanks and fighter jets to duke it out. Prigozhin's mutiny was that of a boyar against his Czar. The other boyars likely make for Putin's key audience for the moment when it comes to solving this crisis. They will come after him next if he cannot ensure the stability of the system.

Putin has until recently relied on divide and conquer tactics, letting his oligarchs create private armies (Kadyrovans, Wagner, even Gazprom has its own army) and now faces a choice whether he should disarm his boyars or allow them to keep creating and growing private armies in a new reality where the Czar no longer offers them protection. The latter development would culminate in clan warfare after Putin's death at the latest, putting us back in the 1990s when the domestic situation in Russia was fluid to say the least, while war raged in Chechnya. If the Russians cannot even defend their command center, how effective can their intervention really be in other border regions?

Recent events will likely not find their culmination for a few months but even so... Russian statehood has seen a cyclical development. Decades of empire-building give way to temporary or more permanent periods of anarchy and dissolution. Russia is far removed from imperial glory today and we have entered another phase of near-anarchy, which will only become more intense with Putin's death.

He has not seen to a peaceful transfer of authority to a credible successor for both the people and the international public. This is likely another aspect people in the Kremlin are pondering after Prigozhin's munity. It is a different matter whether this topic can even be discussed without it resulting in charges of treason at this time.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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