Prigozhin’s connections complicate any purge plans by Putin
A photograph released by Russian state media showing President Vladimir Putin in Derbent in the southern region of Dagestan, Russia, on Wednesday.
By ANTON TROIANOVSKI
When President Vladimir Putin met with Russian media figures behind closed doors Tuesday, he presented himself as a leader, delving into Yevgeny Prigozhin’s business contracts with the Russian Defense ministry.
He also portrayed himself as being fully engaged throughout the 24-hour uprising last weekend by Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, according to newspaper editor Konstantin Remchukov, who attended the meeting.
“Putin said he didn’t sleep for a minute during the rebellion,” Remchukov said in a phone interview from Moscow. In the rebellion’s aftermath, he said, Putin appeared focused on the economic motives guiding Prigozhin: “He’s deep in the numbers of the Prigozhin contracts, the money flows.”
The focus on Prigozhin’s financial dealings allowed Putin to cast the short-lived mutiny as a personal grievance over money, setting up the potential for broader fallout among the upper echelons.
The Russian leader was signaling that even though he allowed Prigozhin and his fighters to receive sanctuary in neighboring Belarus, associates of the mercenary chieftain in government and elsewhere could still face consequences.
Several pro-war Russian blogs reported this week that authorities were investigating military service members with ties to Prigozhin, but those reports could not be independently confirmed.
Prigozhin has built a web of connections deep into Russia’s ruling elite, beginning when he ran high-end restaurants and catered banquets in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
Putin himself hinted at the depth of Prigozhin’s ties to the government in his public remarks Tuesday, saying Prigozhin, a catering magnate, had earned roughly $1 billion from military catering contracts in the past year, and that the government had spent another $1 billion to finance his mercenaries.
Remchukov said Putin returned to that theme in the closed-door meeting Tuesday evening, adding that it was evident Putin was “trying to learn the whole economic background” of Prigozhin’s financial arrangements with the government.
On Wednesday, Putin sought to show he was going back to business as usual. He flew to the southern Russian region of Dagestan to discuss domestic tourism, praising the expansion of the local brandy industry and, according to the Kremlin’s transcript, not mentioning the weekend’s uprising.
But back in Moscow, with the nature of Putin’s longer-term response to the rebellion a matter of guesswork, members of the Russian elite were still scrambling to demonstrate their loyalty and disavow past ties to Prigozhin.
“It’s a highly convoluted question” as to who should get punished for their ties to Prigozhin, said Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian parliament and a longtime pro-Kremlin political consultant.
Those targeted, he said in a phone interview, would not be those who were only “pictured with Prigozhin somewhere,” but those who “actively covered for him, actively continue to do this, and actively work against the policy of the president.”
Matveychev acknowledged working with Prigozhin and his internet “troll farm” about a decade ago, but said he stopped the partnership after concluding, in his view, that Prigozhin was a “mentally unstable person.”
The question of who gets punished for Prigozhin’s rebellion carries high stakes, especially because some of Prigozhin’s key allies and sympathizers are believed to be inside the military. Remchukov said there was intense speculation in Moscow about the fate of Sergei Surovikin, a senior general whom Prigozhin had praised publicly. The New York Times reported Tuesday that U.S. officials believe Surovikin knew about the rebellion in advance.
“I think they’re going to ask why he was quiet” and didn’t speak up against Prigozhin before the rebellion, Remchukov said of Surovikin. “Were there any interests, was there any connection?” On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the Times’ report “speculations’’ but did not deny the reporting or express any support for the general, who has not been heard from since appearing in a video last Friday night pleading with the rebels to stand down.
Prigozhin’s ties also extend well beyond the military. After a career spent in the shadows, Prigozhin turned himself into a public figure in the last year, casting himself as a tough-talking mercenary leader far more effective than the traditional military. He regularly castigated and belittled military leaders like Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister.
In the last year, pro-Kremlin figures seeking to prove their patriotic bona fides rushed for Prigozhin’s bandwagon.
The son of Peskov bragged that he had joined an artillery unit in Prigozhin’s Wagner group and earned a medal “for courage.” The head of a party in Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament, Sergei Mironov, posed with a sledgehammer decorated with the Wagner insignia — a pile of skulls, and a hand-drawn smiley face.
The sledgehammer last year became Prigozhin’s trademark after he endorsed its use in the gruesome execution of a Wagner fighter who had surrendered to Ukraine.
“Thank you to Yevgeny Prigozhin for the present,” Mironov wrote on Twitter in January. “This is a useful instrument.”
But by Tuesday, Mironov had refashioned himself into a bulwark against Prigozhin’s rebellion. He called for an investigation into what he claimed was a “line of VIPs — officials and civil servants” flocking to leave the country from the private jet terminal of Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport during Wagner’s abbreviated march toward Moscow on Saturday.
“This is a fifth column!” he wrote on social media, without naming names. “Traitors to the Motherland!”
There was also the question of who had spoken up for Putin while the rebellion was ongoing, and who stayed silent. One Moscow political analyst, Mikhail Vinogradov, published what he called an “oath rating” on the Telegram social network that cataloged, down to the minute, at what time on Saturday Russia’s more than 80 regional governors posted a message of support of Putin, if they did — and listed the 21 who posted no such messages at all.
Vinogradov said in an interview that it would be a mistake to draw serious conclusions from his rating, but Matveychev, the member of parliament, said he found the list revealing.
“I had a glance and drew conclusions,” Matveychev said, “that a person is, let’s say, unreliable and might act differently next time.”
Matveychev insisted that the aborted rebellion was a positive for Russia because its failure “strengthens the image of the authorities” and acts as a “vaccine” against future rebellions. And Remchukov, the newspaper editor, said that despite his prediction Sunday that Putin might not run for reelection next year because of the rebellion’s blow to his image, he has seen Moscow’s Kremlin-connected elite rally to Putin’s side as he seeks to telegraph strength.
“Putin is now totally focused on sending the message to the elites that ‘I can protect you,’” Remchukov said. “Now there will, I think, be some very energetic actions to show this, because his whole logic is to show that this was nothing but treason.”
But others saw Prigozhin’s challenge as a problem for Putin, especially as the war drags on and members of the elite look to blame each other for setbacks at the front.
“This is a signal that the system of governance is not handling the wartime stress well,” Vinogradov said. “Especially not in the last two months, when everyone was awaiting a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and preparing to turn on one another — and even the lack of that success didn’t change this at all.”