Beyond Russia’s Façade of Stability and Normalcy
- EU and strategic partners,
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In this commentary, we will focus on the fate of Prigozhin, recognizing that as long as he remains alive, he will remain a significant political and military figure that the Kremlin should not underestimate.
Beyond Russia’s Façade of Stability and Normalcy
Prigozhin’s Rebellion and its Aftermath
On June 26, we briefly commented on Prigozhin’s rebellion.[i] Our message had two key points:
- While Prigozhin’s mutiny was brief, its impact is expected to endure. We anticipate the occurrence of aftershocks as Putin endeavors to reclaim his position as the ultimate leader within the power structure, a necessary step for his survival. Furthermore, we propose that Prigozhin’s role in both the military and political domains may not have reached a definitive conclusion.
- An unstable Russia is just as concerning as an aggressive Russia. In other words, no positive outcome emerges from Prigozhin’s rebellion, as it can only lead to a hardening of the regime or complete chaos.
In this commentary, we will focus on the fate of Prigozhin, recognizing that as long as he remains alive, he will remain a significant political and military figure that the Kremlin should not underestimate. We will refrain from revisiting his legacy as a war criminal or the reasons behind his fall from grace within the Kremlin, as these facts are well-known. Instead, indications suggest that his political cloud among the Russian people has increased over the last two-three months. We may illustrate this based on at least three sources:
- Between May 13 and May 16, 2023, which was 300 days before the presidential elections, Russian Field, an alternative polling platform in Russia, conducted a survey asking people about their preferred candidate if the presidential elections were to be held at that time. In response to an open question regarding their voting choice, 30 percent of the respondents chose Putin. Surprisingly, Prigozhin ranked second with 2 percent, although significantly behind Putin, but ahead of other candidates such as Navalny (1.8%) and Shoigu (0.4%).[ii]
- On June 5th, Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent polling agency, analyzed Prigozhin’s growing influence. According to Volkov, Prigozhin’s ratings among ordinary people have dramatically increased since his announcement on May 20th about the fall of Bakhmut. Despite being relatively unknown as a political figure at the beginning of 2023, Prigozhin had secured a place in the top ten list of trusted politicians among most Russians, ranking fifth. [iii]
In focus groups, respondents expressed their appreciation for Prigozhin’s stance against the Minister of Defense, and some even viewed him as a fighter against corruption due to his public criticism of the minister regarding the shortage of artillery shells. However, it is important to note that others, particularly those from the urban middle class, find the leader of Wagner “repulsive and frightening.”[iv]
- Most recently, on June 24th, IKAP (The Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia), a Ukrainian think tank, published the results of a survey regarding Russians’ attitudes towards Yevgeny Prigozhin. The survey revealed that a majority of Russians (61%) have a favorable view of Prigozhin, while only 13% expressed a negative attitude toward him. This increasing popularity can be attributed to his heightened visibility in the mass media. In December 2022, 41% of the population did not know him, but by June 2023, that number had decreased to 17%.
When asked about the reasons for their favorable view, the most significant factor cited by respondents was their belief that Prigozhin corrects the mistakes of the Ministry of Defense (53%). In comparison, 29% believed his feud with the Ministry of Defense stemmed from their incompetence. Additionally, 20% considered his public appearances as a manifestation of his political ambition.
Regarding Prigozhin’s political future, half of Russian society believes he has one, while 36% hold the opposite view.[v]
Assessment and Potential Observations
- As always, we must approach these polling observations with necessary caution. As mentioned in our previous writings,[vi] we are not primarily interested in absolute figures but in discerning trends or, as Russian political scientist Ekaterina Shulman puts it, “the long lines.”
- Despite the pyrrhic nature of the victory, the capture of Bakhmut has undeniably placed Prigozhin on the political map. Consequently, despite the human loss and destruction caused by the Wagner PMC, advancements on the frontline have positively influenced the attitudes of the Russian people. In this sense, our observations support the familiar thesis that a significant portion of the population supports the war. Ultimately, what to think about the fact that Prigozhin’s rising popularity is not significantly impacted by the unspeakable brutality associated with his actions?
- The people’s support for Prigozhin in his confrontation with the leadership of the defense ministry stems from their perception of him as a solution to the army’s inefficiency, incompetence, corruption, and poor leadership. This reveals two noteworthy aspects: (1) the population’s awareness of the structural issues plaguing the army, which have been painfully exposed during the war, and (2) the limited significance of the high institutional status of the army as an organization – despite being the second-highest-ranking institution in Russia after the presidential office. The Russian people take pride in an abstract concept rather than a concrete organization, an idea commonly referred to by Russian sociologists as the paradoxical man.[vii] In this phenomenon, values and beliefs are often upheld but not consistently translated into concrete (public) behavior.
- In this context, it is noteworthy to observe that even the liberal opposition of the Putin regime, such as Khodorkovsky or Kasparov, swiftly expressed their support for the Prigozhin rebellion. Perhaps this aligns with one of the cynical Machiavellian laws of power: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” However, serious questions arise regarding the potential outcome of such an anti-Putin coalition.
- We do not claim that Prigozhin currently poses an imminent or direct threat to Putin. However, we suggest that in a scenario where Russia reaches a revolutionary momentum, such as when Putin fails to promptly, clearly, and decisively reestablish his position as the decisive leader who can bring about change, or if the war continues without a clear resolution, Prigozhin may be considered as an alternative to Putin. This is particularly relevant in a context where Russian sociologists currently observe a rise in social tension beyond the façade of stability and normalcy. [viii]
- As long as Prigozhin remains active, even in the background of events in Belarus, he will continue to pose a political threat to the military leadership, if not to Putin himself. Within the regime’s logic, as long as Prigozhin is not eliminated, the Prigozhin story remains open-ended, and the fate of Vladimir Putin and Russia as a state remains uncertain.
Unfortunately, at present, there is little positive news emerging from Russia. We state this with a heavy heart, as it reflects deep concern for the fate of what was once optimistically referred to as the Common European House while acknowledging the sacrifices made by brave soldiers and the loss of innocent lives.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)