Extraordinary events in Russia have led to a potential coup that petered out within 24 hours – but it has exposed Putin’s flank in Russia
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
His words from 1939 still appear to be valid, especially after the extraordinary events of the past few days which have left Westerners and Russians alike baffled.
Was the weekend of chaos a failed coup, or did the man once known as ‘Putin’s Chef’ just snap, condemning himself to exile?
More importantly, is Russian President Vladimir Putin losing his grip on power – and will this help Ukraine win the war?
The Detail speaks to Canterbury University associate professor of Russian history, Dr Evgeny Pavlov, about the founder and leader of the Wagner private military company, who has carried out Putin’s proxy wars in places including Africa, Syria and Crimea.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is known as a ‘career criminal’. He spent much of the 1990s in jail, and met Putin through his involvement in the shadowy St Petersburg restaurant trade, which was where he became known as ‘Putin’s Chef’.
Pavlov says Prigozhin’s a versatile guy – he’s also the man behind Russia’s “troll factory”, the Agency for Internet Research, which is believed to be behind the internet bots that influenced the 2016 US election, and before that, Brexit.
His strong relationship with Putin saw him lead the Wagner paramilitary group, but he kept a low profile, denying that he owned and controlled it until very recently.
Wagner became Putin’s way of heading off any coup attempts, because he virtually had an army up each sleeve, keeping each other in check.
As the war against Ukraine carried on beyond the anticipated three or four days, the masks were cast aside and Prigozhin became more and more irate about how he was being treated by Russia’s official army, claiming it was starving his fighters of ammunition and aiming missiles at them.
His rants on Telegram became more and more unhinged and violent, until he gathered up his forces and left Ukraine, heading into Russia.
The mercenaries – many of whom were criminals recruited to fight and used as cannon fodder – seized two major Russian cities, meeting no opposition. But then, instead of marching on the Kremlin, they turned back.
A deal was reached. Prigozhin has been allowed to retreat to Belarus, but Pavlov believes that won’t be the end of it.
“It’s a very bizarre story that is symptomatic of the decline of the Putin regime,” he says.
Prigozhin’s trigger is believed to be a decision by the Russian Defence Ministry to force private military personnel to sign contracts, which would have brought all fighters under the umbrella of the ministry.
He issued his call for rebellion.
Pavlov explains more in the podcast about the machinations of the move, and where this leaves Russia and its war in Ukraine.
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