IN authoritarian systems, trust is a rare commodity, especially when political risks increase exponentially and mistrust becomes a survival mechanism.
Former New York Times journalist James Risen describes Russian president Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, commander and leader of the Wagner Group, as “dead men walking”. This is after Wagner, a predominantly Russian paramilitary organisation, rebelled against Putin’s government and temporarily took over the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don.
The uprising, which advanced to within 200km of Moscow, came amid rising tensions between the Russian defence ministry and Prigozhin.
As far as Risen is concerned, the lives of Putin and Prigozhin are in danger and they are probably also in a phase of self-destruction, embroiled in an existential war in which there can be no winners.
I spoke to Russian historian Irina Filatova, former professor at Moscow State University and currently emeritus professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, about her understanding of Putin's political position after the Wagner commander's march to Moscow.
Filatova was born in Murmansk and grew up in Oryol, just south of Moscow. She lived and studied in the Russian capital during the Soviet era, until 1992.
What do the people of Russia think about the war?
It is impossible to attribute a single opinion to the Russians. There are diverse and complex opinions and some of them are nationalistic in the sense that they want Russia to win the war. There is definitely a negative feeling towards the West, Western ideas of democracy and the essence of liberalism.
My Russian academic colleagues are deeply divided about the war. It would be very difficult to argue that support for the war is rural or urban, or even that it runs along socio-economic class lines. Even demographic generalisations are difficult. The war causes a fragmented opinion.
What is the relationship between Putin and the military, given that he served in the FSB (the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation)?
In Putin's speech after Prigozhin and the Wagner Group's alleged mutiny, he went completely out of his way to give credit to the national security structures for something they really didn't deserve. They were, as it were, absent during Wagner's occupation of Rostov-on-Don and the advance of Prigozhin's troops to less than 200km from Moscow.
Putin claimed the country was united behind the security services, which managed to prevent a coup. This has nothing to do with reality and is clearly an attempt by Putin to appease the siloviki (his securocrats) and the security forces. This is a very visible sign that Putin feels extremely insecure about the support he has in an area that is absolutely essential for his own political survival.
Putin is uncertain about his future?
There can be no other explanation for his deliberate misunderstanding of the mutiny and the involvement of the Russian national security structures.
How do you then understand the apparent popularity of and support for Prigozhin during his takeover of Rostov-on-Don and the military headquarters there?
Rostov-on-Don is not a small town in Russia: it has about a million inhabitants and it is the core of the military planning of the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin's support certainly has to do with the reality of his successes in Ukraine, but also with his bravado in taking on Putin. He is willing to articulate the opinion of some Russians about the Kremlin, the oligarchs and the siloviki.
Many Russians suspect that the war is motivated by the desire of some military commanders and the oligarchs to take possession of properties in Ukraine rather than the nationalist reasons that Putin presents for this military operation.
It is often claimed that if a popular uprising against Putin does not materialise, discord among the siloviki could lead to his downfall. Is this wishful thinking?
The word “siloviko" can be translated as power. It refers to all individuals and institutions dealing with the security of the state, including the army and the FSB.
Think about it in this way: Prigozhin and his troops move across the Russian border with Ukraine and the militarised border guard does nothing to prevent them. After that they occupy the headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and still there is no resistance.
Prigozhin enjoys a form of popularity, but it is also very likely that he moved so seamlessly because he had support in parts of the army and the FSB. Some of these officers may have had a grudge against Putin, but some are more likely to hold a grudge against defence minister Sergei Shoigu. They are all part of the siloviki.
Why does Prigozhin communicate with Putin via social media? Why can't he just pick up the phone and call the president? They know each other very well and Putin spends $1 billion annually on compensation and bonuses for the Wagner Group.
I don't think the Russian command structures allow for direct calls from Prigozhin to Putin, but Putin is certainly well informed about the problems Prigozhin is experiencing on the battlefield.
Is Prigozhin a political factor? An opinion poll reported in the media indicates that he received the second highest support (9%) as a potential future presidential candidate, compared to Putin's 62%.
I don't think it is currently possible to conduct a valid opinion poll in Russia. But if a public opinion poll were to be conducted now after the most recent events, it could produce an interesting result. It may just be possible that Prigozhin has now become a real political factor.
Putin never felt threatened by rivals in electoral politics, for example by the leader of the Russia of the Future Party, Alexei Navalny. Navalny simply ended up being locked up for nine years based on fabricated charges.
But Prigozhin is a different kind of opponent and certainly poses a serious political threat to Putin.
What type of ideology speaks to Prigozhin?
He is definitely a populist. His agenda calls for raw populism. His views are sometimes referred to as right-wing, but populism and right-wing views often correspond. However, I don't know if he is really right-wing.
At one stage, a pamphlet — allegedly from the pen of Prigozhin — was widely distributed in Russia. The nerve endings of populism and the concerns of the Russian citizenry were reflected in it in a very practical way. Populism is effective for the purposes of elections as well as of coups d'états.
Is there a measurable anti-Western sentiment among ordinary people in Russia? Putin makes ample use of anti-Western rhetoric.
Yes, this is a popular narrative, especially among the elites. But there is also a deep longing for the prosperity, technology and ease of life that the West offers.
The question is how to combine Russian nationalism with the quality of life offered by the Western system, because the Russians do not necessarily have an admiration for the West's ideas about democracy. In fact, the feeling that the West refuses to respect the Russians' right to exist is very strong.
They certainly think that the liberal-democratic model is not sustainable and that it is in fact unravelling. This idea that Russia is unique and should be distinguished from the West is very strong.
I find it interesting that Prigozhin trusts someone like President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, especially now that he has been sort of forced to defect to Belarus. How safe can he be in the shadow of Putin's greatest political ally?
Prigozhin is very aware that he is not safe in Belarus. I am not convinced that he will settle in Belarus. I don't know to what extent he has freedom of movement, but his life is definitely in danger as far as I'm concerned.
Western rhetoric sometimes refers to war exhaustion, where the citizenry no longer wish to send their children to war and the taxpayer no longer wants to fund wars. Almost everyone in Russia knows someone who has lost a family member in the war. Haven't the Russians reached this point?
There can be no doubt that the Russian public wishes an end to the war. Nobody wants to send their children to a war. But the Russian public want to see their army achieve victory over Ukraine — and by implication over the West. The probability of defeat in the war is not an option for Putin or the Russian population.
♦ VWB ♦
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