Observations of an ex pat: Russian chickens

The Kremlin skies are turning black with the wings of chickens coming home to roost.

The Russian mutiny may have caught Putin and the rest of the world off guard, but its roots were there for all to see.

It is the direct result of hubris, decades of corruption, lies, autocracy and an over-reliance on uncontrolled non-state players.

Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin may have been exiled to Belarus but the problems raised by his largely unopposed march on Moscow are still there.

They start with the structure of the Russian military and government. Vladimir Putin has created a feudal edifice with a complex chain of command that rivals that of any medieval monarch.

If any of his nobles (aka oligarchs) looked as if they were accumulating too much power then he simply dismissed, exiled or murdered. Those who remained loyal were transformed from crooks and spies into billionaires.

This feudal structure extended to the military. The Wagner Group is not the only Russian private army. There are ten of them, including one which owes its loyalty to Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and a praetorian guard for President Putin.

The divided army is the main reason that Prigozhin could successfully occupy the major Russian military depot at Rostov-on-Don and march to within 120 miles of Moscow. There are unconfirmed reports that he had the support of General Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces at Rostov and in southern Ukraine and General Mikhail Mizintsev, better known as the “butcher of Mariupol.”

Surovikin is reported to be under arrest. The whereabouts of Mizintsev is unknown. Both men were praised by Prigozhin in his numerous social media rants along with Alexei Dyumin who must also now be under a cloud.

But the problems extend beyond the top brass. War creates opportunities for military promotion. It is estimated that 80 percent of the colonels and 70 percent of the majors have been created since February 2022, most of them by Surovikin and Mizintsev. As I am going to press, there are reports that the FSB (successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB) is conducting a full scale purge of the army.

Military loyalty is not Putin’s only problem. The loyalty of the government and oligarchical elite has also been called into question by the mutiny. On the Friday and Saturday of the Wagner uprising, airline and railway offices were inundated for tickets out of Moscow, a fact which was confirmed by none other than the Speaker of the Russian Duma (parliament), Vyacheslav Volodin.

On top of that, some of the oligarchs quickly boarded their private planes and flew either to St Petersburg or out of the country. These included construction billionaire Arkady Rotenberg and Vladimir Potatnin, said to be the wealthiest man in Russia. Also leaving the country was Denis Manturov, the Industry Minister. He flew to Turkey.

There are reports that on Monday, orders were issued to all government offices that they had to swear an oath of loyalty the Putin regime.

Perhaps most damaging to the Putin regime was the Russian public perception of their president and the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin had until last week managed to project himself as the man in complete control of events.

Then came the mutiny. A few weeks ago the Wagner Group were the heroes of the motherland who had captured Bakhmut. On Saturday they were traitors who had “stabbed Russia in the back” and a few hours later they were pardoned. The dizzying about turns exposed Putin as a weak liar.

Then there is the conduct of the war itself. Prigozhin has been instrumental in revealing the truth about the fighting. In a series of social media video rants in the weeks before his mutiny, the Wagner leader declared that the Ukraine War was not being fought against NATO. Furthermore it was not a “special military operation” but a full-scale invasion launched by a corrupt military elite for their own financial gain.

Who should the Russian believe, the much-praised military leader or the main who raised him to his exalted position?

That cracks are appearing in the Russian propaganda machine were quickly apparent. Most of the state-controlled media pointed to the quick end of the mutiny as proof that Putin retained an iron grip on the military. But not all of the normally sheep-like press agreed.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets queried the causes and effects with the headline: “Prigozhin Leaves, Problems Remain. Deep Political Problems Remain.” Its leading and well-informed columnist, Mikhail Rostovsky, went on to write: “The mutiny showed the world that Russia is vulnerable.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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9 Comments

  • Certainly all wars end with negotiations . And almost all negotiations involve compromises. Whether yor suggestions are viable compromises is in the hands of the negotiators but it would not surprise me if your ideas have not already been discussed in a smoke filled back room somewhere. But I think the trick is for the belligerents to reach a solution with the minimum of outside interference.that way it is more likely to succeed

  • @Mark – I think you meant Greece give Cyprus to Turkey rather than Crete, given in population terms it is as much Turkish as Greek.

  • @johnwaller – I participated in a very interesting PAF/LIBG webinar last week in which Edward Lucas, former Economist Bureau Chief in Moscow, was a participant. He convincingly demolished Putin’s ethno-nationalist view that all Russian speakers identify as Russians wherever they actually live. He went further and suggested that this was as misguided as Hitler’s view that all German speakers identified as Germans.

  • @John – You need to better research your sources to understand the spin.
    The applicability of the 1922 Schleswig plebiscite to Ukraine is clearly wrong, Ukraine including Crimea gained its independence from Russia in 1991 with Russia agreeing to the borders etc.
    If we allow your argument then Russia will be within its right (which you granted) to take back regions of Poland etc. where the Soviet’s relocated ethnic Russians to.
    It would also lend support to China’s method of territorial expansion, as demonstrated in spades in Tibet.

    BTW, Boris didn’t send the destroy through Russian-controlled waters, it was merely traversing the direct route between the Ukrainian port of Odesa and Georgia. (Although the referenced article does present a good argument about the threat a weak PM et al does present).

  • I have just returned from a trip to Japan and the flight finally allowed me some time to read Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russian and then took on the West”. Belton is a special correspondent for Reuters and the former long-serving Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. She has previously reported on Russia for Moscow Times and Businessweek, The Sunday Times describes the book as “an outstanding expose of Putin and his criminal pals”. Make no mistake. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is pure corruption and empire building by a criminal regime that has been intent on regaining control of the resources of the former Soviet Empire by any means at their disposal, fair or foul, from the outset of Putin’s reign.

  • Peter Hirst 10th Jul '23 - 1:43pm

    Time moves on. Putin will survive as long as his backers believe he is winning the war. History will thank the people of Ukraine for standing up to Russia. That is not a great help to them at the moment.

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