Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to tame the heirs of the fierce Yevgeny Prigozhin and cover up the tracks of his mercenaries. The integration into the Army and the geographical dispersion of the Wagners are elements of a control strategy that also includes an oath (of fidelity to the homeland and defense of independence and the constitution) mandatory by decree since last Friday for all participants in the “special military operation” (a euphemism for the war against Ukraine).
However, before vanishing, Wagner could have planted a field of mines that could explode unexpectedly in the future. Prigozhin’s organization connects well with a part of Russian society, as indicated by the enthusiasm on the streets before the riot last June and as shown today by the emotional tributes received by the high command who perished on August 24.
In different cities of the country, in memory of Prigozhin and his family, the Russians deposit flowers, candles, musical instruments and also mallets. The mallet is one of the Wagner symbols and the tool that they used in a demonstrative way to warn how they punish those they consider traitors or enemies.
In March 2024, presidential elections are held in Russia and the Kremlin considers these elections as a plebiscite on Putin’s presidency. “Our presidential elections are not quite a democracy, but rather an expensive bureaucracy. Putin will be elected next year with more than 90% of the vote,” Dmitri Peskov, presidential press spokesman, told The New York Times.
Later, Peskov claimed that he had been misread. “The level of consolidation in society around the president is unprecedented and already today it can be said for sure that if Putin runs, he will be elected with a huge advantage, there is no doubt,” he said.
The percentage of 90% mentioned by Putin’s spokesman is an indicative “bar” for the Central Election Commission, in the opinion of the Russian liberal politician Lev Schlosberg. According to the RBK news service, the Kremlin has given an order to increase support for Putin in the 2024 elections compared to 2018, when he obtained just over 76% of the vote.
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Putin’s regime has already decimated the Russian liberal spectrum in a methodical process that includes sentencing its leaders and activists to long prison terms. Now, the attention of the regime has focused on the camp of the “patriots”, that is, the people who believed they could act on their own, precisely because of their credentials similar to Putin’s imperial and militaristic model. Prigozhin has perished and Colonel Igor Girkin (alias Strelkov) has been jailed on charges of extremism. The soldier is the founder of a “Club of Angry Patriots”, which brings together nationalist figures such as the writer Zajar Prelepin and radicals such as Pavel Gúbarev, a separatist leader from Donbas, who declared himself willing to kill millions of “demonic” Ukrainians.
From the dungeon, Strelkov has opined that Prigozhin has been the victim of an operation to get rid of “key witnesses”. According to him, his death is “proof” that Russia is plunged into a “time of confusion.” “Prigozhin should have been tried, and not eliminated, and now he can no longer testify. We go back to the feverish nineties and this is very dangerous”, said the colonel. Strelkov or another of his ideological spectrum leaders is unlikely to be able to overshadow Putin today, but the Russian leader is a control freak and, in Schlosberg’s words, has to succeed “like a messiah.”
Prigozhin was a criminal, but a charismatic and colorful character who shouted what others thought. His mutiny, however, went too far. The system that Putin leads could not try Prigozhin in court and in accordance with the law, simply because the institutional framework in Russia is largely decorative and what counts is the will of the top leader. Prigozhin had to disappear if Putin wanted to continue being respected by the army commanders and by those who might have been irritated by the impunity of the mutineers who on June 24 killed several military pilots by shooting at the helicopters and army planes that followed them. .
The conflicts between the Army and Wagner go back a long way. In Syria, in February 2018, Russian military commanders ignored a unit of Wagner mercenaries advancing towards a refinery in the Deir Ez Zor area and allowed the Americans to shoot them from the air. According to Prigozhin, the Russian military command reneged on its promise to provide air cover for the Wagners and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu did not want to give him any explanation.
Is Putin stronger or weaker after the air show that ended Prigozhin’s life? In the short term, the president seems to emerge stronger, whatever his personal role in the matter may have been; but in the medium and long term, the outcome of this adventure may accentuate the degradation of the regime and have an echo in society and in the Army, a part of which was in tune with the sinister Kremlin cook.
Fear is already a factor installed in Russia’s political and economic elite and it is therefore difficult for Prigozhin’s death to increase fears in these circles, according to a source from these sectors that are privileged and hostages at the same time. .
The degradation of the regime does not mean that it is going to collapse now, as some predict in the West, because in Russia the processes that last for tens of years can see their outcome in a matter of months or days. And if the regime were to collapse, it would not necessarily produce a more open-minded or flexible interlocutor than Putin, since he could be worse off and his replacement could be even more willing than him to use the atomic weapon as a “gaul.”
Among Russian intellectuals it is fashionable today to analyze concrete models of political change based on non-violent transitions or transitions promoted “from above”. Regardless of their similarity or applicability, the end of the Franco regime in Spain in 1975 and the Carnation Revolution in Portugal a year earlier are today the subject of interesting debates, although the keys to the fate of Putin, and by extension of Russia, are especially on the Ukrainian battlefield.
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