Russia, US exchange glances as Prigozhin heads for Moscow

The 2024 elections in Russia (in May) and the US (November) are generating comparable pressures, constraints and obligations for both leaderships

July 10, 2023 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Yevgeny Prigozhin return russia
Yevgeny Prigozhin

Renegade Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s defiance of the regime in Russia has apparently turned into a bulldog fight. The last we heard is that the oligarch is back in Russia and possibly heading for Moscow. The loquacious Russian commentators have fallen silent. 

This coincides, strangely, with a sensational disclosure by NBC News regarding Track-2 diplomacy between the Americans and Russians over the Ukraine war. The media leak in Washington coincided with a conciliatory Kremlin statement that Moscow is open to a prisoner exchange involving Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich. Russian authorities allowed the American ambassador to visit Gershkovich in the prison for the first time on Friday. 

The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has since responded that “we are prepared to do hard things in order to get our citizens home, including getting Evan home.” Prisoner exchanges traditionally created a “feel-good” sensation in the Russian-American relationship and provided setting for serious business to be transacted.

But Russian rhetoric remains hot. In the immediate downstream of Prigozhin’s actions, on June 27, an erstwhile Kremlin pundit Professor Sergey Karaganov, honorary chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, penned a provocative article titled A Difficult but Necessary Decision in Russia in Global Affairs arguing that the best way of forcing the West to back off will be for Moscow to restore the fear of atomic escalation! Karaganov has a dialectical mind, as anyone who has known him would testify. 

On the other hand, a week later, Ivan Timofeev, a rising star among Kremlin-linked foreign policy experts, stepped in to moderate Karaganov’s chilling words. In an article featured by Kremlin-funded RT, titled Why Russia and the US will never go back to the pre-2022 state of affairs, Timofeev recalled that if the present crisis in Russia-US relations culminated over time in today’s crisis, that is to be primarily attributed to“Vladimir Putin’s active diplomacy to build constructive relations with the US and the EU on all fronts” — which was predicated on his hope that “the area of the ex-USSR would remain a neutral field of cooperation.” Putin’s hope withered away as “it gradually became clear that there would be less and less inclusiveness (by the West) towards Russia.” 

However, what took the breath away is an article on July 2 in the Russian government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, titled The Era of Confrontation penned by none other than Dmitry Medvedev, former president and the deputy chairman of the Security Council (post-Soviet Politburo.) Medvedev is anything but a one-dimensional man, as his presidency and his amiable dealings with Western leaders showed. Medvedev concluded his essay as follows: 

“Indeed, we are ready to look for reasonable compromises, as the President of Russia has repeatedly said. They are possible, but with the understanding of several fundamental points. Firstly, our interests should be taken into account to the maximum extent: there should be no more anti-Russia in principle, otherwise everything will end very badly sooner or later. The Kiev Nazi regime must be annihilated… What will replace it, we do not know, as well as what will remain of the former Independent (Ukraine.) But the West will have to accept this.

“Secondly, all the hard-won results of the total confrontation should be consolidated in a new document such as the Helsinki Act (1975) … Thirdly, it is likely that a careful reassembly of the UN and other international organizations will be required. It is possible only with full respect for the rights of permanent members of the Security Council…”

The signal from Medvedev’s essay is that the Russian mood is swinging wildly. There seems to be pulls and counter-pulls by interest groups. The “X” factor today is how far the Prigozhin affair will impact the mood swing. (Sullivan gave an intriguing response when asked about it on Friday: “With respect to the question of whether the recent actions by Prigozhin and the fallout from that creates new openings or opportunities: I can’t say that I have perceived that directly, but, of course, this is a story that continues to be written day by day.  So we will have to see how things continue to play out in Moscow.”) 

Track-2 diplomacy 

According to the disclosure by NBC News, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met a group of former senior US national security officials in April in New York for several hours “with the aim of of laying the groundwork for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine.” 

The report said, “On the agenda were some of the thorniest issues in the war in Ukraine, like the fate of Russian-held territory that Ukraine may never be able to liberate and the search for an elusive diplomatic off-ramp that could be tolerable to both sides… the discussions have taken place with the knowledge of the Biden administration but not at its direction.”

With an eye on the domestic audience, perhaps, Jake Sullivan, while confirming Lavrov’s meeting in New York, added the caveat that the “meeting did not include participation from the United States government. The United States government did not pass messages through that meeting. The United States government did not seek to pursue diplomacy — direct, indirect, or otherwise — through that meeting, period.” 

Sullivan’s White House briefing on Friday ahead of Biden’s trip to Europe to attend the NATO summit (July 11-12) in Vilnius was discernibly “diplomatic” in both tone and content, its salience being that the summit will not “be a milestone, but Ukraine still has further steps it needs to take before membership in NATO.” 

On NATO giving security guarantees to Ukraine, Sullivan parried, “I don’t think Vilnius is going to be the place where we put the final storyline down.  It will continue to evolve as we go forward.” Essentially, Sullivan signaled that President Biden is yet to flesh  out a thought that he aired during a White House interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN on Friday (to be broadcast today.) 

From available details, Biden apparently made it clear that Ukraine is far from ready for NATO membership; nor is there any unanimity among NATO allies about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the family in the middle of a war. Biden pondered that even as Ukraine becomes qualified for NATO membership, which is a lengthy process in itself, one of the things that the US can do is to provide security to Ukraine to defend itself, as it does for Israel — ie., “if there is a peace agreement, if there’s a ceasefire, if there’s a peace agreement.”

The US is in a quandary, as the Ukrainian offensive on which so much hope was placed, failed to take off. The Russian military has successfully thwarted the Ukrainian attacks, inflicting very heavy casualties. At no point during the month-long offensive could the Ukrainian forces get anywhere near the layered Russian fortifications. Around 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died so far and a significant portion of the weaponry Kiev received from the West has been destroyed. 

Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops with huge quantities of armor have taken position just across the border with Ukraine, ready for a massive offensive. A big concentration of Russian troops near the northern Kharkov region is ominous. In effect, there is nothing stopping Moscow from vanquishing the Ukrainian military and creating new facts on the ground. 

That may explain the reassuring words of Sullivan at the press briefing: “The President has been very clear from the very beginning of this conflict about two things that have been unwavering. First, the United States is not going to war with Russia in Ukraine. And second, the United States is not providing weapons to Ukraine to attack Russia. We do not encourage or enable attacks on Russian territory from Ukraine… (these) “two fundamental precepts have been true from the start, they remain true today, and they will be true tomorrow as well.”

However, there is no consensus within the alliance about the way forward. Indeed, the despondency is showing, as recriminations amongst NATO allies are surfacing. Biden vetoed the candidacy of British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace as the next NATO secretary-general. The UK’s hawkish line causes uneasiness in Washington. (See Biden to walk diplomatic tightrope at NATO summit but it’s getting more complicated, Politico, July 8, 2023)

Elsewhere, embittered Ukrainian officials are complaining that they have been had. The US’ Baltic allies and Poland are in distress, too, while western Europe is descending into crisis. The turbulence in France may spread. 

For Biden personally also, the uncertainties are very acute, as his candidacy for re-election is not jelling in the domestic opinion and the Democratic Nomination Committee has an unenviable job of coordinating a strategy to establish a winning “party brand.” Clearly, Biden’s priority is somehow or the other to keep the proxy war going till November 2024. This means, Russia should not be allowed to win the war and put to sudden death the transatlantic alliance system; Ukraine should not lose the war lest an Afghanistan-like debacle ensues; and, most important, achieve all this without putting “boots on the ground” which the American people will never approve.  

Moscow senses that Jake Sullivan, being Biden’s de facto election manager, has a crucial role to ensure that the Ukraine war remains on an even keel. But then, the 2024 elections in Russia (in May) and the US (November) are generating comparable pressures, constraints and obligations for both leaderships. This should have been a good thing to happen ideally but that’s far from the case here. 

To be sure, Putin can hear the grating roar of public opinion in Russia demanding an all-out military push to end the war on Moscow’s terms. The attritional war has reached its logical end. This also happens to be a key demand by Prigozhin. 

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