Podcast host Alex Gabuev is joined by Liza Fokht, a journalist at BBC News Russian, and Joshua Yaffa, a contributing writer at The New Yorker and the author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia, to discuss the future of Putin's political regime following the demise of the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Just two months ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the infamous Wagner mercenary army, dominated global headlines after his short-lived mutiny against the Russian military and political leadership. Until recently, Prigozhin was considered a leading Russian politician, with some even believing he could rival President Vladimir Putin. Yet his highly suspicious death did not spark any outrage or visible consequences within Russia. What was behind the Prigozhin phenomenon? What does his untimely death mean for Russia’s political elites? And what will Putin’s regime look like now that Prigozhin is gone?
Alexander Gabuev. Welcome to the Carnegie Politika podcast. My name is Alexander Gabuev, I'm the host and director of Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. We're back from the summer break.
In Russia, the major name for this summer was Yevgeny Prigozhin. On June 23rd, he launched a mutiny and challenged Vladimir Putin's authority. His mercenaries from Wagner Group have stormed Rostov-on-Don and without much resistance, have taken control over the Southern command of the Russian army, the city where Russia uses its headquarters, military headquarters there to guide its military operation and war against Ukraine. The columns of armed Wagner mercenaries approached close and came pretty close to Moscow.
Two months after that Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a plane crash under very mysterious circumstances. We are still digesting and processing the whole Prigozhin saga. Helping to unpack this story, our two terrific guests, Elizaveta Fokht, who is corresponded with Russia BBC service.
Liza Fokht. Hi! Hi everyone.
Gabuev. And we have Joshua Yaffa, who is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and author of “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia” and has written a couple of stories about Wagner recently.
Joshua Yaffa. Thanks for having me!
Gabuev. Let me start with you, Josh.
I think that obsession with Prigozhin was all over the Russian media long before the mutiny and he emerged as a central figure in the Russian war effort, at least if you read major Western publications. Is it just a global/ Western phenomenon, this obsession with Prigozhin? What's so attractive and interesting about him?
Yaffa. I feel like there's not much mystery, at least to me, as to why the Prigozhin phenomenon became what it did and why it captivated readers in America and across the West. Let's just think about his biography. This guy who, fairly or not, was long called Putin's chef, I think it's more correct to say Putin's caterer or Putin's restaurateur. But someone who, at least according to the photo archive, was seen at various banquets with [the former President of the United States] George W. Bush, [the former President of France Jacque] Chirac, and so on.
I presume most Americans heard of him, maybe not even through Wagner, but for the Internet Research Agency, the so-called Troll farm in Saint Petersburg, which captured some fascination and attention in America, but of course, all whole lot of it in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election when there was this whole rabbit fascination discussion in the US about Russian interference.
One of the players in that Russian interference campaign was Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency. If you remember, one of their more infamous operations that came to light in the wake of the 2016 election, I believe, they organized a kind of fake, fake but real Black Lives Matter rally, somewhere I forget in which American city. But basically, Prigozhin’s [internet] trolls got real-life people to come out into the streets to protest. It was a few dozen people, at most kind of nothing, but at the same time, it was remarkable, that this all was organized, seemingly from an office building in Saint Petersburg. So that's already one interesting notch in Prigozhin’s biography.
And then you have Wagner, which, in the context of the war, as you said, at certain points, was the most visible, at least PR-savvy fighting force. In other moments, actually [it was] the most effective through absolutely brutal methods, merciless use of its own troops, let alone regard for human life on the Ukrainian or civilian side. Nonetheless, with the capture of places like Soledar and eventually Bakhmut, it looked like Wagner was also not just the most ghoulishly and macabre fightings, but part of the Russian overall fighting apparatus. But also, the one moving forward.
Prigozhin himself in that context, put out all these videos that you and Liza, of course, know about, I'm sure most listeners know about, criticizing the Russian general staff in extremely colorful, shall we say, terms.
That was the final element leading up to the mutiny itself that made Prigozhin such a character. Nobody else talked like this. I don't know what both of you think. I struggled to think of someone else, at least with such a platform. OK, maybe some randos on Telegram or something like that. But someone who had a certain political role (I think it's fair to say, [it] required a certain weight and significance inside the system), also talked in such profane, colorful, outrageous language about Russia's political leadership. I mean, he was in a category all to himself. And we remember everything else I just said about his biography and what led up to it. How do you not have a character who captures people's interest and imagination?
The thing about the Putin system, that it was good at, is denuding the political landscape of any alternative characters, people with personality. There's not a whole lot of personality in the Putin system. After 23 years of people becoming accustomed to the Putin system, being this kind of gray, faithless thing with bureaucrats and automatons, people devoid of their own agenda and personality, here comes the person with surplus personality. And I think he couldn't not grab attention and headlines for that reason.
Gabuev. Thanks! I think that's a very compelling case, but here is the paradox.
Liza, I remember that people were captivated by Prigozhin in Russia as well. Before the mutiny, many people I talked to were still in Moscow and talked to senior officials and went to all the fancy restaurants we've visited with our sources back in Moscow. People were also captivated by Prigozhin. They’d said, “Oh, that's a real challenge to Mr. Putin because nobody has this combination of money, media operation, and a fighting force. Prigozhin is unique.” There is probably one person remotely similar which is [Head of Chechen Republic] Ramzan Kadyrov but who has this regional power base in Chechnya, where Prigozhin is something unique.
But now two weeks into his death, my impression is that not that many people remember who that even was. That's water under the bridge. People saying, “Yeah, that happened, like, not impactful anymore. We have other things to worry about.” How can you explain that?
First of all, is it a correct assessment, or do you see something different? And if that's the case, is it the result of censorship, or what's happening here?
Fokht. I agree with your assessment that it does look like it never happened when you can imagine, even a couple of years back before the war, that an event like this would be something absolutely major. People would talk about it for days. I'm sure that this phenomenon has something to do with Prigozhin's figure, and bright and weird personality that Josh was just talking about, and I'll come back to it.
I think it's important to understand that with the war in Ukraine, the lifespan of any news is very short. Think about drone attacks in Moscow. We don't know who's behind that. Ukrainians publicly deny that they have anything to do with those constant drone attacks on the Russian capital. But I would imagine, as someone who was born in Moscow, that something like this (the Kremlin being attacked by drones) would be a major topic for any publication, regardless of its allegiance for days and weeks. And that's not what we see happening because there's just so much stuff happening right now with the war in Ukraine. I think that's partly the reason, but not the only one.
I think with Prigozhin there are two things.
Firstly, many people after this mutiny, after this uprising that he started when he publicly said after this very long public conflict with the Ministry of Defense that he was going after [Russia’s Minister of Defense] Sergei Shoigu and [Russia’s Chief of the General Staff] Valeriy Gerasimov—the two top military commanders behind Russia’s efforts to occupy Ukraine. Many people, including some sources close to the Kremlin, told me, “Well, he should be very careful when he drinks his tea.”
Many people just thought he had it coming. He betrayed Putin. Putin publicly called him a traitor. What happened next with this agreement, [it’s] another story. But we know that Putin in his speech a day after Prigozhin basically captured Rostov, said that he's a traitor (not specifically naming him, but everyone understood who he was talking about). Putin said that Prigozhin “stabbed Russia in the back.” There's this almost a stereotype (but not really) that there's one thing that Putin can never forgive, and it's betrayal. What Prigozhin did in the middle of this war, which is both from Russian and Western perspectives, is existential for Putin's regime, and the elites. Of course, it was a betrayal.
I think many people, when they saw the news about this plane crashing in Tver Oblast, people thought, “Well, this man had it coming. He tried to play this dangerous game, and this is what you get when you do something like that.” What's remarkable is that people's reaction is like... If you just think that in Putin's Russia, people think it's OK to assassinate your political opponents this way by... we don't know what happened to the plane; it's still under investigation. But people assume that the Russian government came for Prigozhin for what he did, and they think, “Well, this is something we should have expected”, which I think is remarkable, that people accept it as a new reality. Another stereotype is, the “new reality of Russia,” but it is, right?
Another thing, I think that people don't actually know how to react to this. How do you react to this? Do you mourn Prigozhin? Again, Prigozhin is a traitor who put Russia in this difficult position with these troops marching on Moscow…
Gabuev. …some people obviously do. We have these impromptu memorials in some parts of Russia, at least Wagner-recruited.
Fokht. As Josh said, he [Prigozhin] was one of the few personalities who had his own supporters. People [were] thinking, “Oh, this guy is super brutal, but he's so effective. Look at him. He's not afraid of telling the truth.” That was his whole shtick: “I'm the one who's going to tell what's actually going on. Not like those lying generals,” etc.
But, publicly mourning him is something that you probably can do... in the face of what happened in June.
Do you cheer for his death? It is also weird because we don't really know why he died. I think we should mention all these conspiracy theories, saying that maybe he's not even dead. Honestly, I don't know another person on this planet whose death would cast, sometimes even reasonable doubts about what happened. I’m convinced that he's probably dead. But then you're like, “Wait, it's Prigozhin, anything can happen.” I think some people are confused, some people don't know what to say, and some people are like, “Ah, OK, well, you know, it happened. We don't need to talk about it anymore. He was there. He lost. And then he died. Paid the price.” I think it's interesting too.
I've been reporting extensively about Wagner and Prigozhin for the last 6-7 months and I don't even understand the purpose of my existence anymore. What are we going to do? What are we going to write about? Because you write about how… Every publication in the West and the independent Russian publication, many of them [are] in exile… We were all consumed by Prigozhin completely because of this unique approach that he had. He managed to do something that no one could, no one but him. And now the story ended so abruptly, you’re left with questions “What was it? Why did they even let this guy gain so much power, to be in control, to recruit prisoners,” etc. I think there's a lot of confusion.
Yaffa. I have a question that I want to put to both of you about Prigozhin’s image inside Russia and the reaction, or lack of reaction to his death, and/or how quickly people moved on from his death. I guess it's a question in the form of a hypothesis, which I'll try to turn into a question.
It seems like what is in play here is just a total, the near total detachment or disassociation, but with the degree to which even in the context of war, maybe actually, especially in the context of war, which is frightening, uncertain, scary, that most Russians, the vast majority of Russians (I don't know if you have your back-of-the-napkin estimates) have detached themselves from these issues, don't associate themselves with them, keep a distance, a psychic distance first and foremost.
Prigozhin did his thing—marched on Moscow—people were momentarily spooked but didn't invest a lot of their own mental or psychic energies and come to their conclusions. What do they think about the uprising? They didn't think much. Prigozhin’s plane is shot out of the sky—same reaction. We can go on and on about the ways in which the Russian public has learned over 23 years to disassociate itself from matters of state and anything remotely connected to the state. War and peace certainly is that. The Prigozhin phenomenon in that sense is kind of no different than even the war itself, which most people expend a lot of subconscious mental energy on keeping separate from however they define their own private, inner world.
Fokht. I think this is definitely what he was trying to do, which is why the elites hated him so much. He tried to involve people in those issues. He was the only public figure in Russia who was allowed... or maybe he wasn't allowed, but thought that he could curse at Sergei Shoigu, and give all those pretty dire assessments of where the war is going. This is the kind of conversation that is essentially banned right now in Russia.
Do you remember all the jokes about: “You can get a fine for just holding a “War and Peace” book?” But Prigozhin [was] mocking Shoigu’s family, mocking Russian generals… he got away with it every time. Nothing happens.
Another person is Ramzan Kadyrov, but if you notice, it almost felt like they united against Russian generals and the army, etc. But then Kadyrov at some point, almost went quiet. I assume because he was told: “Just don't go there, it's not a territory where we want you to go.”
I think some people will assess that this is the reason. Trying to breach this wall, and trying to talk to people about those political and military issues is the reason why in the end, the Ministry of Defense won in this conflict. The whole pretext for him capturing Rostov was this decision that all his fighters and all volunteers in general, including Wagner fighters, and mercenaries have to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. This whole experiment, at least in Putin's eyes, failed. I think that's one of the reasons why in the end everyone hated him so much. I think he was somewhat successful in breaching this wall, you're talking about.
Yaffa. That's my question. Is there more of an interest in this honest, if unpleasant, conversation about the war and the ugly truths about the war from the side of the Russian public? Or is there a demand for further disassociation from the war, ignoring this topic, separating from this topic, bearing your head in the sand as it were? And did Prigozhin manage to change any of those dynamics in one way or another?
Gabuev. My two points would be…
A) The conversation about the war is still pretty much suppressed. I think that people associate Prigozhin so much with the war effort now that discussing this is also a subject that's seen as very tricky. The high-level people who will put their phones away when they have a casual dinner and still wouldn't talk about politics, even removing anything that could remotely be a hosting device that can tap your conversation and bring it to the FSB, would be very careful in doing that.
B) There is the effect that you described, Josh. People want to build a very thick wall in their hats just to get detached from all of the terrors. Because otherwise, if this wall comes down, you need to face very unpleasant questions that you need to ask yourself, like, “How much am I part of that? What's happening? What's my involvement? What's my role? Am I guilty that Ukrainian children are dying?” Everything that remotely touches [upon] the war, triggers this reaction.
The way that the Russian psyche was, and it's probably part of human nature, but also part of the political context in Russia is that some of that energy is spent on humor and all of the crude, cynical jokes that people make. There are not that many good jokes, but there are some terrific memes. The fact that Prigozhin has namesake Joseph Prigozhin, the musical producer and there are so many memes around Prigozhin the producer being the mercenary boss and vice versa. I think that's where a lot of this energy channel and this is a way to discuss or touch upon some of these issues without alerting either the censorship or provoking a more serious conversation about the underlying dynamics, which is the war in Ukraine, something the most profound thing that's happening to Putin's Russia.
Fokht. On that note, I also want to add that I think that ordinary Russians are at least somewhat interested in people who do not hesitate to ask these questions. Look at the popularity of Igor Strelkov [also Igor Girkin]. He was the Head of the Defense Ministry at the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a man behind the MH17 crash, a war criminal, and someone who said that he was the one who pulled the trigger of war back in 2014. He was just like Prigozhin asking those questions about where Russia is going. He's 100 percent behind the war. He supports it. He just doesn't think that what Russia does in Ukraine, Russia does very effectively. And he has more followers than Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today, on Telegram. Even some Ukrainian publications kept quoting him when he would say something like “Russia is going to lose the war because they're doing this wrong and that wrong.”
Last month he was arrested on charges... I don't remember what his charges are exactly. But everyone assumed that he was arrested because of his criticism towards the army and the Kremlin. What happened after that? Nothing happened. His supporters didn't even really show up in front of the court, where his detention hearing was happening. I think people are interested, but when something happens to people who stand out, even if those people are villains, they say, “Ha, they probably had it coming. Yeah, this is what you should expect.” People are not ready to do anything about it, so I think the same applies to Prigozhin too.
Gabuev. The only person who galvanized some collective public action in his defense or whatever in the political realm was Alexei Navalny.
Fokht. That is true.
Gabuev. And again, the maximum rally on the day he was detained, the estimate would run for 30,000 people. I was watching it from my balcony and it's hard to assess how many people came. But for a city size of Moscow with a daytime population of 17-18 million, that's not much. Obviously, with the war came about, with all the repressive laws and the very smart nature that Putin's regime is using this demonstrative violence, cases of violence, where somebody is bitten up, or police brutality… It's spread in this echo chamber of Telegram, so people get the message.
Unlike in Stalin’s time, where you need to kill a lot of people in every single large population center to just instill fear and [make people believe that] the idea of protesting or trying to do something is counterproductive. There is nothing you can do against this brutal force. Now it's normal to do something to a couple of people and everybody gets the message.
Let's talk a little bit and shift gears and talk about not Prigozhin's afterlife, but what comes next for Wagner. Because Wagner was not only a Russian phenomenon but was very palpable and impactful in various places around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. You, Josh, and your stellar reporting, which I encourage all of the listeners to go and read—it is a terrific account of Wagner—you document some of that.
What do you think and what do you hear, what's likely to happen to Prigozhin’s empire outside of Russia?
Yaffa. You're right to mention Africa specifically because by mid or late summer of this year, Wagner was most present and most important not in Ukraine but in Africa. By the end of May, the beginning of June essentially with the conclusion of the battle for Bakhmut, Prigozhin (we've talked about this in other ways as being kind of strange truth-teller), by all accounts, was telling the truth in the narrow sense that after Bakhmut, indeed most and soon, all of Wagner forces left not just the Bakhmut area, but Ukraine entirely. The reasons for that are so shrouded in some mystery. Was that his initiative? Was he forced to by the Defense Ministry? Was this part of a bigger wager leading up to the mutiny at the end of June? [We] don't know.
But the fact remains that Wagner stopped being a relevant fighting force in Ukraine at the beginning of the summer, so it didn't mean much one way or the other for Russia's hopes of what at the current moment defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensive, perhaps later on having its offensive potential, who knows. But Wagner wasn't an important player in the Ukraine war for some months now.
Where it was important and is important in some particular countries, almost exclusive way, if we talk about the Russian geopolitical footprint, is Africa. Syria, maybe to a lesser degree. There has been an ongoing for many years now, an official Russian military operation in Syria of varying size, scale, and so on. Nonetheless, there are officially announced Russian forces in Syria, and in many places in Africa. That's not the case. Wagner is the only [one] if we talk about fighting force on the ground, and that gives it incredible importance in places like the Central African Republic, which in The New Yorker piece that you referenced an American official called essentially a kind of proxy state, an entire country captured by Wagner, where Wagner, de-facto controls not only the military and security apparatus but the mining industry, timber extraction, the customs service, even propaganda efforts on French language radio stations in the country. It's a kind of soup-to-nuts operation that Wagner runs in the Central African Republic and would like to export that model to other countries with varying degrees of success. Among the more recent [is] Mali, where a number of generals that took power in a coup, seemed to have invited Wagner forces there to try “restore or ensure stability.” Of course, that stability often means working exclusively to keep a military junta in power and to control the flow of natural resources.
Nonetheless, for many African governments that can look like a good deal. Because Wagner has these entrenched relationships in these countries that are hard to show up and duplicate, undo, and/or redo, it means that they're much more needed than they are in Ukraine, where you have hundreds of thousands, if not more, of Russian troops of many different units. Most of whom answer to the Defense Ministry in a place like CAR, the opposite is true. You have a few hundred or a few thousand troops on the ground, nearly all of which, if not 100 percent of which are Wagner. What do you do with them?
I'm sure, to the extent I can be sure about anything, that over the last two months, as whoever in the Russian state, the Kremlin (and we're operating, I think from the obvious assumption here that the downing of Prigozhin’s aircraft was an operation that traces itself back to the Kremlin security services, [to] the Russian state apparatus at large in some degree), that whoever was thinking about this operation was thinking to the extent there was a complication or a sticking point. It was what to do about operations in Africa. “In Ukraine? Fine. We don't need them. We're not using them. But in Africa, how do we not lose this geopolitical footprint that we've established over the years?”
I think we're already seeing this play out and I'm hearing some from my sources around Wanger in Russian military circles that they'll be an effort, a multi-pronged effort, on the one hand, to subsume Wagner structures, to bring them into the Defense Ministry, to have other oligarchs, for example, Gennady Timchenko is frequently linked to another private military company Redut. Gennady Timchenko is a well-known oligarch and Putin crony of many years who made his money on the oil trade.
Wagner will be kind of sold for parts, a bit of it will go to other private military companies, a bit of it will go to the Defense Ministry, and maybe a bit of it will go to GRU—Russian Military Intelligence. What's left of Wagner and how those remnant parts can operate will be a big question.
To close this, answer your question about Wagner’s future. One thing that another US official told me (who's been monitoring Wagner for many years for this piece, [in] The New Yorker) is that there's a tradeoff between accountability and deniability. For many years, going back to Wagner's founding, the Kremlin seems to have favored deniability over accountability. It was better off to have this structure that’s a bit autonomous, sometimes can go off and do its own thing. For example, in Syria, in 2018 [Wagner] clashed with U.S. forces. [It] Seems to be something that was not planned by the Kremlin but took it by surprise. Nonetheless, there are more advantages than disadvantages in having this kind of freewheeling, deniable force.
Well, now the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction after the mutiny. There's now an interest in bringing Wagner into the more formal hierarchy of the state. But that means you lose deniability. That means you have to own Wagner operations. Is that something the Kremlin wants to do over the medium and long term? That may create further complications down the road. I think it's still very much an open question as to how… What we have come to know is Wagner, what that looks like in the months and years going forward.
Gabuev. Final question and parting thoughts, guys.
What does it mean? What have we learned about the stability of Putin's regime? I remember that many people were so obsessed with the mutiny, and they thought that this was it. This is the crack in Putin's armor. The clock starts to tick. And now this magnitude of incompetence man-made disaster, means that the system is doomed. Two months after that Prigozhin is dead. What have we learned and what do we think that whole saga means for the stability of the Putin regime, Liza?
Fokht. It’s really difficult for me to assess how stable this regime is because I'm not a political scientist like you, Sasha. I'm just a journalist. What I will say is that this whole thing shows you what country Russia is these days. This is such a telling story about how Russia operates, how it works, about its core principles.
I said it, and I'm going to say it again. For me, it's shocking that we have Evgeny Prigozhin, one of the top political and military figures in Russia over the last few years. Josh was talking about deniability, but we saw how over the last year, the government, the Kremlin, very cautiously, but started to... They went from denying it to owning it. “Yes, we have Prigozhin. Yes, we have Wagner. Look at how cool they are.” News agencies funded by the states [are] interviewing Prigozhin, [and] quoting his mercenaries.
This is something he could never have imagined two years ago. He became this very public figure and then fell out with the Kremlin, with the army in the first place. And then he apparently was assassinated and what in normal times would be considered a terror attack. A plane going out. There's not even an investigation. Everyone seems to be OK with it. I remember how Margarita Simonyan was on the day it happened or the day after it happened... I don't remember the exact word, but she said, “We're gonna have a lot of speculation about what happened to Prigozhin, but my opinion is that it happened because of the most obvious reason.” And you’re like, “What is the most obvious reason in your mind, Margarita Simonyan? That the Kremlin shot down the plane with their political opponent for his betrayal?”
It sounds absolutely insane if you think of that. But this is the reality in which Russia and Russians live right now. I don't think that you can call a regime where such things are happening very stable. But that's again up to you, Sasha. What do you think? I'm actually interested in your thoughts. Do you think it tells us anything about the stability of Putin and his regime? Did it make him stronger or weaker?
I don't know. I don't know what to make of it.
Gabuev. I will turn to Josh for his parting thoughts and then share my assessment that you want to.
Yaffa. I'm wary of talking about the imminent or already extant fragility of the Putin system. I haven't been a Putin watcher for the entirety of his 23 [years of] tenure, but long enough to have witnessed several points where the analyst and journalist community thought, “Aha, here is where the regime is showing its cracks.” And of course, Putin always managed to have the last laugh until he doesn't. That's the thing, right? It's like the Soviet Union. And to borrow the title of the great Alexei Yurchak book “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More.”
I think that's a nice summation of the late Soviet Union. Eventually, it would be the correct summation of the Putin system. It will manage to survive, survive, survive until one day it doesn't. That's not a very helpful or satisfying analysis. I'll try to make it a bit more specific.
Certainly, hiring or having your caterer-turned-Troll-farm-boss-turned-mercenary-leader [that] recruit tens of thousands of prisoners from your prisons and then send them off to war as cannon fodder. And then have that same person turn that army against you. That's not the hallmark of a stable well-oiled efficient autocracy. Something has gone wrong by definition when that happens. There is a rot that is clear at this point in the Putin system.
But the band-aids or (I'm mixing metaphors here, I don't know what you do with rot, how you cover it up) but it seems to be holding. From my limited conversations with people in Russia and around the elite, you both Sasha and Liza know more about this, I'm sure, but the immediate reaction to Prigozhin plane being shot out of the sky, [was that] people got the message loud and clear about where the red lines are [and] what to do. OK. There's even less ability [or] capacity to challenge the system. The idea that someone is going to mount mutiny 2.0, I think certainly has gone down. Until though, that person mounted mutiny 2.0 without stopping, with no half measures, not engaging in any negotiations with the Kremlin, and not turning around on the highway halfway to Moscow. That's the other lesson of this whole affair. If you're going to embark on something like this, you have to carry it all the way through to the end. Although I do think the odds of that have gone down given how now freaked out and scared… No one wants their plane to be the next one to fall out of the sky.
Short-term, more stable. Long term there is this rot that I don't think is fixable at its core, but that can go on [for] many years. For how many years exactly? We now turn to the authoritative political scientist Sasha Gabuev, who can bring us home.
Gabuev. Who is not a political scientist, by the way, and the last time I checked, my university degree was in Chinese history. But I worked as a Kremlin correspondent and watched this system to some extent.
I think that I largely agree with both of you and with you, Josh, that everybody got the message. The Prigozhin’s thing and he and Wagner were unique creatures, were for the need of plausible deniability. You created a thing that somewhat resembles the institution and power structures in Russia.
On paper, there are ministries, there are state-owned companies, that perform these functions. There is Gazprom, which is the state-run gas monopoly. There is Sberbank which is the largest commercial state-owned bank in Russia. There is a ministry for this and a ministry for that. At the same time, while this body performs certain state functions there are also cash machines for certain members of the elites who are there to line up their pockets. And that's how the system works with a lot of “there is a formal element but is also an informal element.”
Wagner on this scale between formal and informal is as informal as you can get. It's a machine that's created for the Russian state to say, “Oh no, sorry, this is that Wagner people, It's not us.”
The extra conditions of the Ukraine war, which are something extraordinary, brought this to the center. If the way to organize Russian life now is to wage war on Ukraine, then this most visible, efficient element here is also the centerpiece. And again, there is somebody who combines money, power, and the media empire. Prigozhin was perhaps somebody closest to challenge Putin, and now he's eliminated. Indeed, in the short and medium term, maybe that makes the system stable. Other elements that make the system somewhat stable: this repressive machine that's well-oiled, the apathy in the Russian society, for various reasons we discussed, and the superb team that runs the Russian Central Bank, the Minister of Finance, the people who know how to create a cash flow and spend it wisely. These are the secret pillars of the Putin regime's longevity.
At the same time, this rot is the boss himself. The boss starts to commit larger mistakes. The Ukrainian war was the largest to this point. The boss creates problems and then procrastinates. It was visible that something was off [by] the way Prigozhin criticized the Minister of Defense, but Putin didn't do anything about it. He thought that this was a very good way to balance the Ministry of Defense with this rambling power structure. And, “Oh it's a nice balance out there.” Until it was too late. And the remedy to fix Prigozhin's problem has backfired. And then tremendous effort was put into fixing it.
I think that the lesson I carry home is that fundamentally, there are still many elements that make it very stable. But the boss himself would be my major threat to this system. And with that, I am very grateful to have you today, Joshua Yaffa from The New Yorker and Liza Fokht from BBC Russian Service. We will have this conversation at some point later. Thank you!
Yaffa. Sounds good. My pleasure!
Fokht. My pleasure!