Did Putin mismanage Prigozhin affair?

Putin is not the bare-bodied bear-riding wild leader of a lawless land. He is, at his core, a bureaucrat with the constitution of a chess player

| Updated: 26 June, 2023 5:14 pm IST
Russian President Vladimir Putin

“But when you cross that ol’ Red River, hoss, that just don’t mean a thing; once you’re down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the King”, sang American country icon Waylon Jennings, taking a light dig at Willie Nelson – his old-time buddy and band member, and one of the most famous American singers. He wrote and performed this song as a friendly reminder to Willie about Bob Wills – widely hailed as the godfather of Texan Swing music.

With a global focus on the events that unfolded in Russia this Saturday, going late into the night and literally jamming Telegram channels, I found myself remembering the Waylon track as I settled down for my coffee on Sunday morning.

Willie Nelson – thought Waylon Jennings – was getting slightly cocky during his second innings. He already was an all-American star, an accomplished singer and songwriter. And even though Willie confessed that he had retired from the music scene, he was playing around those days in Austin, basking in his newfound adulation, behaving like he was the best musician that Texas ever had. So Waylon, who knew Willie to be a big fan of Bob Wills, wrote “It’s the home of Willie Nelson, the home of western swing; he’ll be the first to tell you, Bob Wills is still the king”. This was his friendly jibe to remind Willie about his roots and the real musical influence on his career.

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Could Vladimir Putin have handled the chaos that unfolded on the highway to Moscow better? I do not know. In hindsight, he probably could have. He could have addressed the Yevgeny Prigozhin “issue”, nipping it in the bud, as I keep hearing. With Prigozhin now exiled to Belarus and a number of loose ends hanging just like that, the opinion is that he messed up this one. Social Media is overflowing with speculations, memes and other jokes (some downright funny), while personal chats on WhatsApp or Telegram remain lined with the opinion that the crisis was a catastrophic blow to him; he will not survive this; he is a spent force.

The thing with hindsight is that it is always 20-20, as they say. I am quite sure that a lot of these comments and opinions are factual. True, the Prigozhin issue has been threatening to blow out of proportion for some time now (ever since he shared that first video displaying the bodies of his dead comrades). And Vladimir Putin, as the leader of an extremely complex entity like post-Soviet Russia, is expected to have a complete understanding of Prigozhin’s psyche; they go back a long way together, and he was one of the closest to him. Putin probably should have addressed this right away, irrespective of the ongoing war.

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I have three events in mind that might help me understand this from another angle. The first one is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the Russian billionaire. He made his fortune after the fall of the Berlin Wall and had a great run even when Putin was in power. This continued until he decided to ignore Putin-specified caveats. Putin became President in 2000 and, at the initial stages, laid down – especially to the oligarchs – the new way Russia was to move ahead.

Khodorkovsky chose to ignore that in 2001 by opening Open Russia (along the lines of Soros’ Open Society). He was arrested and jailed in 2003, his assets were frozen, and he was later exiled.

Putin took two years to respond to the Open Russia challenge – a time period that is too long by many standards, especially considering the rapid changes that were taking place in the new Russian landscape.

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The second one is the Chechen issue – one that Putin took to its destiny slowly and gradually over a period of about 8-9 years.

The third example is the present Ukraine War. The very first warning – to Russia – came in the shape of the atrocities perpetrated on the east Ukrainian, Russian-speaking population, immediately after the 2014 regime change. This went on for close to 8 years without a break, and the Ukrainian neo-Nazis murdered thousands until the Russian SMO began in 2022.

While the SMO is on, there have been several cases – the Angela Merkel disclosure about the real reason behind the Minsk Agreement, the blowing up of Nordstream pipelines, the attack on Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, the blowing up of Kakhovka dam, or drone attacks on the Kremlin, for example – that the media has shared so we have some idea. The one thing that emerges is the apparent indecisiveness and lack of agility of Vladimir Putin as an aggressive leader.

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Big Serge wrote an outstanding essay last year that is available on SubStack, in which he meticulously deconstructed the real Putin. Those of you who are interested can look it up. For those who want the gist, it is this: Putin is not the bare-bodied bear-riding wild leader of a lawless land. He is, at his core, a bureaucrat with the constitution of a chess player. He takes time; sometimes he takes a lot of time. And he makes his move once he is absolutely sure. This practice of his has served him well so far, and there is no reason why he would – especially at his age – want to change that now.

Prigozhin – it is being speculated – is another case of an oligarch gone to the West. Most of the Russian billionaires park their fortunes in Western institutions, which keeps them vulnerable or open (depending on the way one looks at it) to Western advances. If you follow the trajectory of the change of tone in Prigozhin’s communication, the assumption is that he was turned/activated just at the time the fabled Ukrainian counteroffensive was failing and NATO was getting desperate. It is a war out there, and NATO tried its best to do what it could.

Putin, on the other hand, responded in a way he thought best suited the situation. Fence sitters like us can wonder, but no one knows what will happen tomorrow. As of today, Prigozhin is off to Belarus, Wagner would probably be absorbed within the Russian Army (deservedly so), and like Bob Wills of Texas, Vladimir Putin remains the king in Russia.

Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own

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