Russian socialist Ilya Matveev discusses the fallout of the recent armed rebellion led by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, with Green Left's Federico Fuentes.
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Could you tell us a bit about Prigozhin, Wagner and the role they played within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political project.
Wagner is a private military company (PMC) that shares some of the features exhibited by PMCs based in developed nations. In the United Kingdom, PMCs have been used for all kinds of reckless adventures and covert operations, especially in Africa but also in the Middle East. The United States has also used PMCs, such as Blackwater, for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
[Wagner's] activities in Africa are quite similar to those of other PMCs — a kind of combination of adventure capitalism and covert operations for the benefit of Russia’s geopolitical interests. And when the war in Ukraine started and Russia faced the same problem that the US had in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin turned to Wagner to supply somewhere between 40–50,000 soldiers — almost a third of the force that invaded Ukraine.
But Wagner also has its own unique characteristics. For example, no other PMC has organised a campaign of recruiting prisoners with the promise of a presidential pardon if they complete their contract.
And Prigozhin himself is also quite a unique character. Wagner is only one of his ventures; Prigozhin’s empire is actually pretty big. It includes a troll factory that uses social media networks to try to shift public opinion; a gigantic media network composed largely of extremely bad quality tabloids that run attack campaigns against Putin’s opponents; and a lot of real estate properties.
Prigozhin’s activities were financed through corrupt government contracts. [Russian dissident Alexei] Navalny and his team revealed that Prigozhin was given contracts to supply food to thousands of schools and military barracks that funded his activities.
We can view Wagner as something like a PMC squared: it does everything that other PMCs do, but double. It involves corrupt government contracts, but on a dramatic scale. It carries out covert government operations, but much more intensely than other PMCs. And all of this rested on the personal relationship between Putin and Prigozhin, which operated outside any kind of legal framework or regulations.
In the end, we saw just how far Prigozhin’s troops were willing to follow him during the attempted coup d’etat. They had a very sophisticated and well-prepared plan that involved capturing Rostov-on-Don, a huge Russian city and a key military centre from where the war in Ukraine is commanded. They captured the whole city and had a plan to continue marching towards Moscow.
Why do you refer to the recent events as an attempted coup d’etat? Generally, a coup involves the country’s armed forces.
Prigozhin himself said this was not a coup attempt because he only wanted to remove [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu and [Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Valery] Gerasimov. But that is not really much better: when you are directly attacking the defence minister and Chief of General Staff, it is somewhat laughable to say that what you are doing is not a coup simply because you are not attacking Putin.
In terms of support from the military, Prigozhin has his own military — that is the important caveat here. It is true that coups are usually organised by the military, but then Wagner is a large heavily-armed military force. Wagner even has its own military aviation. In this sense, it was a serious coup attempt by a very cohesive military force.
But returning to the issue of support within the military, it is clear that some of the things Prigozhin said before the coup attempt were just common sense: that the Russian military leadership had proven itself to be inept; that they lost so many soldiers due to bad planning; that they were all corrupt; that no one had been held accountable.
Because of this, a lot of military generals were not sure how to respond. On the one hand, staging a coup during a war is very stupid: you cannot say you are a patriot if you stage a mutiny amid a war. On the other hand, what Prigozhin was saying was true.
It is clear that army commanders were reluctant to act. I think they were hedging their bets; they did not exactly understand how strong or weak Putin’s position was and thought that maybe they should let things slide, that maybe there needed to be some kind of new government.
That is why Putin now finds himself in a very bad situation.
Assessing these events, you wrote that “Putin’s ‘strengthening of the state’ was in many ways a strengthening of the regime at the expense of the state”. What did you mean by this?
There is a certain paradox here because Putin is a self-avowed statist who has repeatedly said that a strong state should be restored because it always played a positive role in Russia’s development.
But if you look at what he has actually done, he was not really building a strong state at all. A strong state requires a strong bureaucracy that is meritocratic, competent, professional and free of corruption. Corruption is the opposite of a strong state: corruption means the privatisation of the state by corrupt public officials.
The question is how could Putin repeat this rhetoric about needing a strong state and, at the same time, allow so much corruption. What I explain in a recent article is that the manner in which Putin has organised his state is all based on informal relationships.
He simply hands over powers to trusted associates rather than strengthening formal state bodies or institutions. The relationship Putin had with Prigozhin was along these lines.
The people whom he entrusts with these huge powers all speak as though they are state-minded people too, but there is no state to speak of because it is just a bunch of people doing their own things: there is no state in the sense of legal procedures
All this was exposed by Prigozhin: he revealed that Putin’s state is actually just a bunch of people, each controlling their own fiefdom, and all those fiefdoms come together because Putin is watching over everyone, attempting to combine agendas.
This system of patronage enables Putin to reward his clients and, in return, they give him their loyalty. But it is bad for the state as a formal legal institution.
The relationship between these two is not one of mutual development. At a certain point, a strong regime actually makes the state weaker. In Russia’s case, we are seeing how Putin’s strong political regime — which is very capable of maintaining his rule — is degrading the state in a systematic manner.
One thing I would add is that, even before the recent events, I understood things were going in this direction, but I never thought that the state was just so flimsy. I also thought Putin’s own personal power would be enough to hold all this together, but we are now seeing that all this can crack very easily.
Without asking you to predict the future, what are the most likely outcomes of all this?
Putin has come out of this weakened because everyone saw his vulnerability; it became public knowledge. You cannot dance your way around the fact that there was an armed mutiny involving columns of heavily armed troops that almost got to Moscow.
My general diagnosis is that the system Putin built was capable of reproducing his own personal power at any cost. Then, when he invaded Ukraine, he created a new goal for this system: to conquer a large European country with a huge military.
But it turns out the system he built is too weak to do that. First, his army turned out to be much weaker than many expected. Second, he turned out to be politically weaker than expected due to his system being based on informal relationships rather than strong state structures.
The system worked to reproduce his own power, but it does not work when confronted with very tough situations, such as this war, which has been absolutely dramatic for the Russian state and society. This means the situation is very chaotic and uncertain, and the level of uncertainty has only increased due to recent events.
When Putin started this war, it seemed Putin’s power was really solid, because there were no defections. Now we see that, underneath this surface, there are clans and patronage networks ready to attack each other when the opportunity arises.
Paradoxically, in Putin’s mind, he believed that by going to war he was not just “saving the country” but also saving himself. He thought that if he won the war he would be safe from the regime change activities of the West.
But the opposite turned out to be true. Today, he is as vulnerable as ever to being deposed. But it is not the West that is generating the threat; it is his own system generating it. Putin failed to understand that his greatest vulnerability lays within and that, by starting the war, his vulnerability would only increase, not the other way around.
[A much longer version of this interview can be read at links.org.au.]