Russian Media Comments on Prigozhin’s Mutiny

Prigozhin: "There are 25,000 of us, and we're coming to bring order".

Prigozhin: “There are 25,000 of us, and we’re coming to bring order”.

By Slava Tsukerman

The one of the most popular Russian independent websites “Republic” wrote on June 28, sharing opinion of the majority of anti-Putin commentators:

“The mutiny by the mercenaries of the Wagner PMC and their handler Eugenie Prigozhin damaged the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin – he had to abandon his promise to punish the “traitor” and close the criminal case against him, and even Putin’s supporters laugh at the “emergency” address of the head of state. At the same time, the world saw that neither Russian society nor the elites were ready to defend the president’s authority in an emergency situation.”

Retired FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) General Eugenie Sevastianov said to correspondent of “Republic”, describing Prigozhin, as a Putin’s creation (Golem):

“The Golem left the subordination of its creator and in fact in one day showed that Putin had no mass support of the population. No one came out in defense of the ‘leader’. The streets of Moscow remained empty; there was not even a call for hundreds of thousands of people to come out on their own initiative to defend him, as was the case, for example, when Turkish rebels tried to overthrow Erdogan. There, people lay down under tanks and died, but they did not let the military near him. In Moscow we saw that not a single organized group of forces rose up to stop Wagner on their way to Moscow, they all went into hiding and scattered. So the state ran away not even in the proverbial three days, but in one night. So, yes, this is indeed a blatant demonstration of the ‘failed state’. It is a ‘failing state’, but this process can last a long time.”

As could be expected, government controlled media stated opposite:

On July 2, the biggest Russian news aggregator “Rambler” republished the article of the newspaper ”Vechernyaya Moskva”:

“The authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin has grown, and the situation with the rebellion of the founder of the Wagner PMC, Eugenie Prigozhin, shows this. About this on Sunday, July 2, the speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin said: ‘The difficult situation showed how high the authority of the president among civil society and the military’. Volodin stressed that no one – neither the military nor civil society – supported the rebellion, despite the opportunity to express their point of view. Society has proved its maturity by remaining loyal to the president. The Duma speaker also noted that June 23-24 went down in Russian history as ‘days of unity and consolidation of Russian society around the head of state,’ he wrote in his Telegram channel.”

The Russian independent media, represented today mostly by Internet, is full of the emotionally charged, contradicting to each other, comments on the events. Almost every one though agrees about one thing: nobody knows and understands the real meaning of the events. It is interesting, that very often Russian commentators use American press as the only reliable source of information about events in Russia.

Nevertheless some comments seem to be interesting.

Here are two comments published in the popular Russian independent website “Republic”.

First comment is made by the known journalist Dmitry Gubin. Gubin thinks that “the Prigozhin’s rebellion is merely an overture, a prelude to the transit of power. This transit is not aimed at changing the structure of Russia: it is aimed at eliminating the main threats to the elite arising from the war and sanctions. And the purpose of the Prigozhin’s rebellion was not to overthrow Putin, but to bring him to his senses and lead him to the decision not to run for another term.”

Gubin believes that Prigozhin couldn’t act without help of some top Russian authorities, secretly backing his actions. Gubin’s conclusion was made on the basis of “the comments of two old acquaintances, two businessmen, whose services were formerly readily used by top officials.”

“My commentators knew as much about the Prigozhin’s (de)march as I did. They based their analysis on the logic. After the first Prigozhin’s video, where he almost slapped Sergei Shoigu in the face, accusing him of corruption, unprofessionalism, and even of falsifying the reason for the war, they said, that this was not an improvisation, but a coordinated scheme. Why? Because Prigozhin is under the control of the FSB. In the country for a very long time, any figure of any significance is under the supervision of the FSB. Bugs, chauffeurs, assistants, colleagues – there are many methods. Everything is known about everyone. (That is why those who think that corruption is an indicator of the weakness of the system are foolish. Corruption is the most important element of control and management). Being neither suicidal nor an idiot, Prigozhin could record his videos, in their opinion, only being absolutely sure that there was a push from the very top: ‘Go for it!’

Second comment is given by the retired FSB general Eugenie Savostianov, whose interview we already quoted above:

“When the Wagnerites announced that they were going to seize some nuclear arsenals in the Voronezh region, it was probably at this point that the whole world began to speculate about what should be done to prevent this from happening, in connection with the Russian state or not. And yes, the whole world saw the collapse of the Russian statehood, Putin’s lack of real support, and the problem of nuclear arsenals.

“The Wagnerites could not have reached these arsenals without the intervention of the Russian state. Something could have come to them from the outside. The level of risk was related to the fact that the nuclear warheads would fall into the hands of obscure daredevils. Who know how they would dispose of them? It is not clear where they would take them, who they would give them to, or sell them to. And this is far more serious than any of the other consequences. I think all this was weighed up in Beijing, in Washington, in London, in Delhi, anywhere.”

None of Russian commentators seems capable to explain, why Prigozhin still stays unpunished by Putin.

Some, as quoted above Dmitry Gubin, believe that he is backed by powers more powerful than the Russian president.

There is even an opinion that Prigozhin has some dirt on Putin.

Almost nobody believes that Prigozhin fulfils a secret Putin’s plan. There are though exceptions.

Next comment is taken from FaceBook. It was made by a known Russian journalist, living in the US. Because it is taken from the journalist’s personal FB page, I don’t reveal his name:

“I don’t insist on anything. I would just like to make another hypothesis about the Prigozhin’s march-demarche-nightmare. Of course, it is difficult to assume that all this was done in coordination with Putin, in order to give the latter an opportunity to clamp down on the elites who have become less controllable, to tighten the regime. The reputational losses of both: Putin and the whole of Russia are too great, and it is too obvious that all is not so smooth with popular support. And the West, seeing the fidgety helplessness of the Kremlin mob, decides to give more weapons to the Ukrainians to finish them off…But…

“What if Putin and company are playing a very complicated multi-moves game, beginning with the transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus. Then Prigozhin’s protests begin, then goes his withdrawal from the front lines in Bakhmut, then hit-and-runs on the top army headquarters, then half-hearted insults to Putin himself, then goes this very march in which Putin and the camarilla agreed to a gambit conclusion – to ‘naturally’ move Prigozhin to Belorussia! Why?

“So that he and his goons could seize the nuclear weapons sent there in advance… And the trap slammed shut! Prigozhin is not a state, he is a criminal, Russia state can’t take responsibility for his actions… And all parties to the ‘conflict’ will be forced to halt hostilities immediately… And Russia would be left with what territory, that it had the chance to grab, Ukraine lost… Tell me: for the sake of this could Putin, a KGB bastard, do a little self-abasement? Because otherwise his and his entourage’s prospects are totally screwed up.”

On June 28, “Nash Dom”, the website of American immigrants from Russia, published the long article, answering the questions: what was going on in the corridors of power and among the Russian elite in the days of the mutiny; what did the authorities think of Prigozhin before the mutiny, and was there genuine unity around the authorities during it.

The journalists talked to their acquaintances in Putin’s inner circle, in the Kremlin, in the government, and in the state companies. Here are some quotes from that publication:

“Prigozhin has been publicly critical of the Defense Ministry since last fall, when the Russian army began to lose some of the territories it had seized in Ukraine. In the midst of the war, a man without a government post or official authority, but long acquainted with Putin, almost daily accused the previously untouchable military leadership of inefficiency. Why did Prigozhin allow himself so and why did not Putin reprimand him? We asked officials and state managers of various levels this question in early June, when the Wagnerites left the front, but Prigozhin continued to behave defiantly. No one had an exact answer. However, our most experienced interlocutors were sure that Putin did not sanction Prigozhin’s ‘raids” on the leadership of the Defense Ministry.

“Just three weeks ago, an employee of the presidential administration, involved in the work of the Security Council, said about the future rebel: ‘He fights effectively, and he has people dying there. He has the right to speak out, it’s an emotion. Why not? We have freedom of speech.’

The article quotes many persons praising Prigozhin’s organizational skills.

The head of one of Russia’s largest state-owned companies explained Prigozhin’s behavior:

“He’s definitely a man who’s not trivial or stupid. No matter how much money you have, you have to have brains still, and he has organized a huge job… Prigozhin has potentials for promotion, as he successfully carries out the assignments he is given. This is his personal ambition. Political, official, and in business”.

A high-ranking official, closely working with Putin, reasoned:

“Objectively, he is right in many ways. What I see coincides with his words – at least about the organization of work with the troops, logistical and managerial things,”

Another interlocutor close to the government pointed out:

“Many people in power may agree with the essence of Prigozhin’s claims, but few are sympathetic to him personally.”

The article indicates that government officials were forwarding videos of Prigozhin’s critical speeches to each other as a gimmick, free entertainment.

A lot of these officials agreed with what he was talking about a half-destroyed army, but they had no sympathy for him. “He’s a thug after all,” a source said.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” – “I have no idea.” – That was the typical exchange of messages with Russian officials and state managers on Friday (June 23), the night when Prigozhin announced he was marching on Rostov. Some did not respond at all. At the time, it was not entirely clear how serious the situation was. But already on Saturday (June 24) morning, one part of Prigozhin’s fighters seized the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense in Rostov, while another part moved on to Moscow. The main feeling on Saturday morning and afternoon among those in high and mid-level positions in the Russian ruling class was a lack of understanding of what is going on and how this is possible.

A high-ranking interlocutor close to the government responded to the “how is it going?” “No information is even brought to us internally”.

A federal official was perplexed.

A close acquaintance of one of the Russian oligarchs recalls, that as early as Friday evening, some civil servants state managers and their family members began booking tickets to leave Moscow. According to him:

“Everyone was feverishly looking for tickets, at least to St. Petersburg, since it is not easy to leave Russia because of the sanctions and available tickets for flights quickly ran out. Three days later, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin would de facto confirm that the frightened officials were leaving the country. The publication “Important Stories” reported, citing data from tracking services, that the business jets of oligarchs Arkady Rotenberg and Vladimir Potanin, as well as Industry Minister Denis Manturov left Russia on June 24. And the plane of Putin’s close friend Yury Kovalchuk’s son left Moscow for St. Petersburg. An acquaintance of Manturov’s confirms that the minister flew to Turkey because he ‘had planned this weekend for a long time.’

While some people were leaving Moscow, others were arming themselves. It would be an exaggeration to say that existential terror reigned in all Russian federal agencies and state companies, but whether out of a heightened sense of patriotism or concern that the security and law enforcement agencies would be unable to resist rioters, some state company directors issued weapons to their personnel.

Many officials and state managers had gone out of Moscow the day before, and they were not required to return to work immediately. For example, an employee of the presidential administration was tending to a garden at his dacha during the mutiny, while his colleague from the government office was out playing somewhere with his children. Among the civil servants, employees of the Kremlin political bloc had to work hard on Saturday. “We shot a video of the president’s support even before we got the call – we wanted to reassure people, first of all,” recalls the site’s correspondent’s acquaintance in the leadership of one of Russia’s regions. “We received no other instructions from the Kremlin”.

Another source close to the leadership of a region not far from Moscow says that the military did nothing until they were asked to do so by civilian officials: “They only put weapons depots and prisons under heavy guard when civilians suggested the bright idea to them. That is, there was no plan at all, although there were people in the units – not all of them had gone off to war.”

On Saturday night, Prigozhin turned his fighters back to the field camps, though he claimed they were 200 km to Moscow.

Speaking about the riot, all website’s interlocutors agree that Prigozhin has “lost his mind.”

“Sooner or later, a ‘novichok’ (a poison used to kill some Putin’s enemies) will have to come to him,” – a person familiar with Putin grimly sneered.

But almost more than Prigozhin’s riot itself, the Russian civilian elite was frustrated by the way Putin and his security forces and military behaved.

“I was very ashamed that this was possible in our country,” – says a senior executive official, adding that he feels worse than after the war began. “Yes, the rebellion of Prigozhin is a betrayal, but how is it that they ended up in the peaceful city of Rostov without any resistance? This Shoigu, who ran away from Rostov, if he has fucked up everything to such an extent, he should just shoot himself, if he has any honor,” he says indignantly. “These Prigozhinists should have been destroyed on the way from Rostov, to cover them with volley fire, so that no one would have had any trouble – it is the duty of the state. And instead they let them off the hook and let them go to Belarus!”

“And what’s more, there’s no one there – Putin, Shoigu, everyone has disappeared from sight,” – says another of the interlocutors, close to the government, angrily.

“Everyone in the elite realized that Putin had lost control over Prigozhin and the situation in general. This will be well remembered,” – said Alexandra Prokopenko, a visiting expert at Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin (home to the world’s leading experts on Russia and the wider region), who researches the Russian elite.

Meanwhile on July 3, the website “Novaya Gazeta Evropa” reminded to readers that “The US Institute for the Study of War suggested in late March 2023 that Prigozhin might use his media profile to run for president in 2024.”

The website reports the news:

“An unknown Russian state body has been blocking websites that are promoting “the new leader of the new Russia” Eugenie Prigozhin, as per Roskomsoboda.

“The project reports a total of 7 websites of the p2024 domain were blocked since June 28. It is unknown what decision is used to block the sites. However, the orders to block those were issued on June 27. All the blocked websites are identical and promote Prigozhin as a candidate for the 2024 presidential election in Russia.

“Be ready to support Prigozhin in order to save Russia. He is the new leader of the new Russia,” the websites read.

Updated: July 4, 2023 — 5:51 pm