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Prigozhin erupts: Has a Russian succession struggle begun?

Prigozhin erupts: Has a Russian succession struggle begun?

The Wagner chief's furious attack on elites and the war could portend turmoil with potential to extend well beyond Moscow.

Analysis | Europe

Is the post-Putin era in Russia at hand? Probably not yet, barring an unlikely collapse of Russian forces in Ukraine. But a furious public attack on Russia’s entire war effort and its elites by Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the private Russian militia group “Wagner,” is a sign that some Russian factions are beginning to position themselves for a struggle over who might succeed the Kremlin leader. 

Should the struggle end in fighting, Prigozhin, as the commander of a private army, may be in a strong position. Wagner has also just gained new prestige after taking the lead in the bloody and long-drawn-out, but ultimately successful battle for the town of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin has long been critical of Russia’s military leadership, complaining publicly about its incompetence and corruption, and contrasting its purported passivity and incompetence to what he portrays as Wagner’s patriotism and bravery in defending the motherland’s interests in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond. 

But his recent interview on the internet channel Telegram marks a drastic escalation and extension of his long-standing attacks on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the high military command. He is now attacking the entire conduct of the war in Ukraine and declaring its results to date to have been a disastrous failure. This comes very close to a direct attack on Putin, even if he does not criticize the Russian leader by name, and declares: “My political credo is: I love my homeland, I obey Putin, I don’t care about Shoigu, we will continue to fight [in Ukraine].”

In Prigozhin’s words:

“The Special Military Operation was launched for the sake of ‘denazification,’ and we have made Ukraine a nation that is known throughout the world. They now look like the Greeks or Romans of ancient times. As for [our demand for] ’demilitarization’ of Ukraine: if at the beginning of the SCO the Ukrainians had maybe 500 tanks, now they have five thousand of them. If then they had 20 thousand skillful fighters, now they have 400 thousand. So how did we demilitarize it? It turns out that it was we, on the contrary, who the hell knows how, who have militarized Ukraine.”

Condemning Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, by name, Prigozhin repeated his previous calls for their replacement:

“The main problem is in Shoigu and Gerasimov. These are two people who, by their decisions, blocked everything for us, despite the President's statement that there are enough shells. If today [General Mikhail] Mizintsev [now serving with Wagner] becomes Minister of Defense, and [former commander in Ukraine General Sergei] Surovikin becomes Chief of the General Staff, then this would be a normal structure.”

Prigozhin’s attack on Shoigu and Gerasimov is not new. What is new is now extending this into a ferocious criticism of the Russian elites in general. He said that the children of the elites are “shaking their tails on beaches” while the children of ordinary Russian families are dying. 

“This bifurcation [of society into rich and poor] can end as in 1917 with a revolution, when first the soldiers stand up, and after that their loved ones stand up…. The fatness of the children of the elite will end with people lifting them on pitchforks. I recommend to the elite of the Russian Federation: ‘You sons of bitches, gather your kids, send them to war, and when you go to their funerals, then people will say, now everything is fair.’”

In taking this line, Prigozhin appears to be seeking the anti-corruption mantle of Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure imprisoned in Russia since 2021. Unlike Navalny, who has attempted to combine his populist appeal with strong support from the United States and Europe, Prigozhin is targeting elite corruption from the standpoint of the nationalist right. He seems to calculate, unlike many people promoting Navalny and "democratization" in general, that you must run for president of Russia with Russian, not American, support.

In this way, Prigozhin is echoing in some ways the approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran in his successful bid for the presidency in 2005 when he campaigned against elite corruption on the basis of nationalist populism and military veterans from the Iran-Iraq War who felt that their sacrifices had never been properly rewarded. 

It is hard to avoid the impression from all this that Prigozhin may be positioning himself to try to succeed Putin as president. This is a colossal risk to take, if Putin decides instead to get rid of Prigozhin. Why is he taking it?

One element probably is genuine fury on the part of Prigozhin and his soldiers at the way in which their lives have been thrown away by the incompetence, jealousy and hostility to Wagner of the leaders of the Defense Ministry and the High Command, including perhaps deliberately sacrificing them in the bloody struggle of attrition for Bakhmut, in order to weaken them as a force. It is hard to imagine Prigozhin reading the Bible, but he might want to look up Samuel 2,11: “Ye shall set Uriah the Hittite in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him that he may be smitten and die.”

It may also be, however, that the internal troubles of the Putin regime, after more than a year of failures in Ukraine, may be much deeper than they appear on the surface. Perhaps Putin may even be considering not running in the presidential elections scheduled for March 2024, and (like Yeltsin when he handed the office over to Putin in 1999) stepping down in favor of a chosen successor.

If so, given the deep and open hostility that has grown up between Prigozhin and other elements of Putin's circle, Prigozhin would find himself in deadly personal danger should Putin hand over the presidency to Shoigu or Patrushev. Like Richard III on the death of his brother King Edward, he may feel that he has no option but to strike first by gathering as much popular support as possible through appeals to very widespread public resentment at official corruption and growing disquiet about the situation in Ukraine (disquiet that does not want surrender, but is deeply unhappy with how the war has been conducted).

If this analysis is correct, then Russia could be headed towards serious turmoil. While many in the West would welcome such a development, we should also be aware of the severe risks and dangers that would come from the disintegration of the Russian state. Not only would this threaten immense dangers for the world, including Russian loss of control of its nuclear weapons and a new refugee crisis, but China would almost certainly feel compelled to step in to hold the state together. If the result of Russia’s partial collapse was to bring China to the eastern borders of Europe, that would hardly be to the advantage of the West.

And if the choice of successor to Putin really becomes that between President Prigozhin and President Patrushev, would either of these be any improvement on Putin himself? As an old Russian joke about the difference between an optimist and a pessimist should remind us, however bad things are in Russia, they can always get worse.

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