Yevgeny Prigozhin goes into exile but leaves behind a can of worms

The Wagner chief’s murky legacy gives Kremlin a compelling reason to clean the Augean stable. Whether that will happen or not, time will tell

June 28, 2023 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Yevgeny Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin

On Monday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation for the second time with the intention to bring the curtain down on the coup attempt by Wagner “founder” Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24. It was quintessentially a self-congratulatory speech — well-deserved, perhaps.

The speech had four principal elements. First, Putin took note right at the outset the “restraint, cohesion and patriotism” that the Russian people had shown, their “civic solidarity and “high consolidation,” and their “firm line… (in) taking an explicit position of supporting constitutional order.”

Putin forcefully contradicted the Western narrative that the coup attempt showed cracks in the house that he built since assuming power in 2000. French President Emmanuel Macron rubbed salt in the wound saying that the development revealed a “crack” existing “in the Russian camp, the fragility of both its army and its auxiliary forces, such as the Wagner Group.”

Second, Putin highlighted that the Russian leadership acted swiftly, decisively and effectively — “all necessary decisions to neutralize the emerged threat and protect the constitutional system, the life and security of our citizens were made instantly, from the very beginning of the events.”

Third, Putin went on to roundly condemn the “mutiny plotters” as people full of malignity and evil intentions. But he sidestepped their political agenda as such. After all, a coup is about the usurpation of political power. Presumably, the topic is far too sensitive to be in the public domain.

However, Putin touched the issue tangentially through an enigmatic conjecture as to how if the coup attempt had succeeded, “the enemies of Russia – the neo-Nazis in Kiev, their Western patrons and other national traitors” would have been the beneficiaries, “but they miscalculated.” [Emphasis added.]

Putin didn’t elaborate on any foreign involvement in Prigozhin’s coup attempt. However, the fact that he brought it up at all for a second time, especially of external forces having “miscalculated,” must be noted carefully.

Interestingly, when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about this in an interview with RT, he also parried and replied rather cryptically, “I work in a government ministry that is not engaged in gathering evidence of unlawful acts being committed, but we do have such agencies and, I assure you, they are already looking into it.”

But Lavrov commented on the media reports that Washington contemplated the lifting of existing sanctions against the Wagner PMC. “I do not believe that it is a change of approach by the US. It is just another confirmation that the US’ approach depends on what the US needs from a certain foreign actor at this specific stage, be it on the international arena in general, or in some specific country,” Lavrov said. Lavrov recalled that the US intelligence agencies were counting on the success of the coup on June 24.

Fourth, Putin explained the rationale behind his decision to differentiate “the majority of Wagner Group soldiers and commanders (who) are also Russian patriots, loyal to their people and their state.” Putin expressed “gratitude” for the right decision they took “not to engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped before reaching the point of no return.” He then offered to them the options of signing a contract with the Defense Ministry or other law enforcement or security agency or to “return home” — or even go to Belarus.

For the Russian public, this was perhaps the most keenly awaited part of Putin’s speech. Putin said: “I will keep my promise. Again, everyone is free to decide on their own, but I believe their choice will be that of Russian soldiers who realize they have made a tragic mistake.”

As in his first speech on Saturday, Putin did not mention Prigozhin by name. But Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov had disclosed on Monday that a criminal case against Prigozhin would be dropped.

So, what emerges is that Putin approved a general amnesty for those involved in the coup attempt and  virtually granted “safe passage” for Prigozhin and his followers to leave for Belarus, as quid pro quo for giving up the coup attempt, while at the same time, making a gracious offer to integrate the Wagner fighters into the Russian state organs or military in the fulness of time. The Russian public will accept this.

Evidently, Putin, who is sensitive to domestic public opinion, carefully weighed that there is a cult of celebrity about Wagner fighters for their courage, heroism, patriotism and loyalty. The saga of liberation of Bakhmut, a long-drawn-out war of attrition lasting several months, hollowed out the Ukrainian military and became a defining moment in the war. It is embedded in the Russian psyche.

Equally, a significant section of Russian opinion is in empathy with a thought process aired in public in the recent months — not only from Wagner ranks — that the Kremlin is dragging out the war. Evidently, Kremlin decided that it is prudent not to prosecute Prigozhin for sedition.

A can of worms 

The assurance held out by Putin publicly on Monday night would have reassured Prigozhin. At any rate, he flew out of Russia Tuesday morning by his private jet and landed in Minsk at 11.30 am.

Now comes a new twist to the tale. At 3.00 pm Moscow time on Tuesday, Putin gave yet another speech at a meeting in the Kremlin with military personnel apparently to express his “gratitude” to those who were on duty on the fateful days of the coup attempt.

Putin assured the select audience that “everything will be done to support the families of our fallen comrades,” etc.  Then, Putin concluded his speech with an abrupt digression into one of Russia’s best kept public secret — namely, that Wagner company is a progeny of the Russian state.

He said, “those who served and worked for this company, Wagner, were respected in Russia. At the same time, I would like to point out, and I want everyone to be aware of the fact that all of the funding the Wagner Group received came from the state. It got all its funding from us, from the Defense Ministry, from the state budget.

“Between May 2022 and May 2023 alone, the Wagner Group received 86,262 million rubles (approx. $1 billion) from the state to pay military salaries and bonuses… But while the state covered all of the Wagner Group’s funding needs, the company’s owner, Concord, received from the state, or should I say earned, 80 billion rubles ($940 million) through Voentorg as the army’s food and canteen provider. The state covered all its funding needs, while part of the group – I mean Concord – made 80 billion rubles, all at the same time. I do hope that no one stole anything in the process or, at least, did not steal a lot. It goes without saying that we will look into all of this.”

This would be a nasty surprise to Prigozhin in Belarus — Russian authorities are probing him on the charge of financial irregularities by his corporate business house!

This will hit Prigozhin where it hurts, for his mother Violetta Prigozhina has been the listed as owner of Concord Catering. Possibly, the vast business empire that the oligarch built thanks to state patronage — Concord Management and Consulting (construction and real estate development), LLC Megaline (which monopolized hogged most capital construction contracts for the Russian military in 2016) and so on — can also be put under scanner.

This will not be the first time that the Kremlin punished an errant oligarch who strayed into the shark-infested waters of politics. Prigozhin would know that he will have some important choices to make in the coming months — and, possibly, for the rest of his life.

Of course, Prigozhin’s future moves will be watched keenly not only in Moscow but the Western capitals as well who are far from convinced that the last word has been spoken on the dramatic events.

Against this sordid backdrop, the big question is: Wasn’t Prigozhin’s coup attempt largely a crisis that was waiting to happen? The heart of the matter is, scams follow Russian oligarchs like their shadows, and Prigozhin is no exception. And Russian authorities cannot wash their hands off this shameful reality.

For, after creating the Wagner as a company of private military contractors — similar to Aegis, the British private security and private military company, or Academi, which works heavily with the US military as well as the CIA — the Russian defense and security establishment simply handed over its infant to a powerful oligarch to make a fortune out of it (and possibly share part of the loot with his mentors), whose actual expertise lies in catering business and real estate development!

In comparison, Aegis was led by a former British Army officer, while the founder of Academi (formerly Blackwater), probably the most well-known of all private military companies in America, is a former Navy SEAL officer.

When national security and defense contracts get mired in sleaze and crony capitalism, it is a sign of decadence. If the US is no longer winning its hybrid wars — be it in Afghanistan or Iraq, in the Caribbean or in Africa — the root problem is the hydra-headed corruption spreading its tentacles across the ruling elite all the way to the Pentagon, the Congress and the White House. Now, one can endlessly argue that such malaise is endemic to capitalism, but that is neither here nor there.

Inevitably, Wagner under Prigozhin was going down the same path as the US’ private military contractors — about whom the famous whistleblower Edward Snowden who lives in Moscow has candidly written in his book Permanent Record. Therefore, fortuitously, Prigozhin’s legacy gives the Kremlin a compelling reason to clean the Augean stable. Whether that will happen or not, time will tell.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.