Why Did Putin Let Prigozhin Return To Pick Up His Guns -- and $100 Million?
Just when you thought that things had gotten as weird in Russia as they could be, this happens: Yevgeny Prigozhin, who instigated what amounted to a Russian-style January 6 coup-in-training and was charged with mutiny by the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) and exiled to Belarus for his troubles, returned on Tuesday to none other than the St. Petersburg office of the aforementioned FSB to collect some rifles and a pistol and oh, not incidentally, 10 billion rubles – about $100 million – the FSB had seized from him during the time he was apparently, or allegedly, or somehow anyway, “under investigation” for treason. A local news service in St. Petersburg, Fontanka, reported that the FSB had seized the 10 billion rubles from Prigozhin “during a raid on one of his vehicles,” The Daily Beast reported this morning. Got that? One of his vehicles.
To which you can only respond, WTF, right? Vladimir Putin is in charge over there, or so says a gaggle of Russia tea-leaf readers polled by The New Yorker this week, but how much in charge, and in charge of what, exactly? The FSB is supposed to be one of Putin’s main levers of power, which also includes the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Protective Service (FSO), and the Main Directorate of Special Programs of the President of the Russian Federation (GUSP).
Those last two conglomerated acronyms are basically Putin’s palace guard. The FSO is tasked with protecting several high-ranking Russian officials – read: Putin – as well as certain Russian governmental properties with a force of some 50,000 uniformed soldiers organized into four battalions, as well as several thousand plainclothes officers – basically a secret police force. The GUSP appears to be an administrative outfit with responsibilities that include special emergency facilities, conducting mobilization readiness training and preparation, and carrying out the supply of goods and services to protect the highest state authorities – read: Putin and those closest and most loyal to him.
So, with all of that going for him, especially with control of the FSB that brought the charges of treason and mutiny against Prigozhin under Putin’s orders, what the hell was Prigozhin doing traveling across the border of Belarus and waltzing into the FSB offices in St. Petersburg and demanding his guns and rubles back?
The New York Times headlined the situation in Russia this way: “Putin Focuses on His Survival, Scrambling to Coup-Proof Rule.” Yes, but…see above paragraph? Wasn’t all that supposed to have been taken care of already by all the FS’s and the GU’s and the various apparatchik-heavy palace guards? Apparently not, according to the Times, which reports that “[Putin] is rewarding loyalty among the ruling elite and showering his most important constituency — the men with guns — with cash. And, so far, he has avoided the sort of large-scale purge that other authoritarian leaders have carried out in response to coup attempts or rebellions, perhaps to avoid destabilizing his system further.”
Uh-huh. A few grafs in, and the Times is quoting a Russian political scientist they managed to get to talk, Ekaterina Schulmann, saying that Putin is “focused on his personal and political survival, and he’s ready for anything to accomplish that,” but…but…but “the system is too emaciated and fragile to indulge in any large-scale repressions.”
So, what’s Schulmann saying, anyway? First of all, nothing that’s going to see her paying an unwilling visit to an open window on the 20th floor of some building in Moscow, obviously. But if she’s Russian, and she’s a political scientist, and she’s willing to go so far as to say, “the system is too emaciated and fragile,” then something is up in Moscow, and it ain’t Putin’s poll numbers.
The New Yorker’s team of Russia experts includes Paul Clement, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, who ran down a scenario for a potential coup that would be focused around someone “from the second circle, from someone less in the public eye, someone we’d not heard of,” capable of bringing the aforementioned security services “on board because you’d need to physically arrest the President, and it was unlikely you could appeal to security hawks with an antiwar agenda.”
Which is kinda sorta making some sense when you consider the news that Putin’s FSB is handing over 10 billion rubles to Putin’s main opposition figure and allowing him to travel freely back and forth from the country to which the FSB itself “exiled” him. The other reason the whole coup thing is starting to sound like it’s more than a rattletrap contraption is what we have seen in the excruciatingly weak functioning of Putin’s army in Ukraine. If his security services are in the shape that his regular army forces are in, old Vladdy has got some shit to worry about, which he appears to be doing by “granting a 10.5 percent raise to soldiers, police officers and other security agency employees,” according to the Times.
Putting the situation in blunt terms, the Times reported about Putin’s response to Prigozhin’s uprising last month, “Mr. Putin made a compromise, allowing Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters to find shelter safely in Belarus even after they had shot down multiple Russian aircraft, seized a city of a million people and marched to within 125 miles of Moscow.”
Another Russia watcher I read somewhere last week pointed out something that’s probably as important as anything in this whole business: Authoritarian leaders don’t like to make compromises, because it makes them look weak. The other thing that makes Putin look weak in Russia right now is the way he’s throwing money at the problem. That very much isn’t what Russians have learned to expect over the last, say, hundred years of their history. Russian leaders don’t throw money; they build gulags. They don’t hand over 10 billion rubles to mutineers; they haul them off to Lubyanka and shackle them to a wall and use strange metal instruments to say very nasty things to them. Alexey Navalny, the last guy to stand up to Putin and call him out, is sitting in prison somewhere being denied medical care, food, and sleep, according to the New Yorker.
That, my friends, is more like it, Russia-style. The fact that Sergey Prigozhin isn’t in the cell next to him missing the soles of his feet with red welts all over his well-fed face is really all you need to know about Putin’s fading power.
That, and the fact that the nation of Ukraine, with a third of Russia’s population and three percent of Russia’s land mass, has pretty much shown Putin and Russia to be what we used to call a pitiful, helpless giant, tells us that one of Russia’s two P’s is on his way out. I leave it to your imagination which one.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.