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This is My Swamp: Prigozhin's Lesson for the West
When is it safer to betray Putin rather than support him & why this matters to our future.
If we lend credence to the speculation surrounding the downing of his plane, the fate of former Wagner PMC leader Yevgeny Prigozhin may not be as it initially appears and there is a chance of the ogre returning to his Kremlin swamp in the near future.
Examples of this include a cryptic poem displayed at Prigozhin’s grave hinting at the ambiguity of being dead or alive as well as his funeral being attended by what appears to look more like the wife of Prigozhin’s body double rather than that of Lyubov Prigozhina.
There’s also the “insider knowledge” of Dr Valery Solovey, a former professor at Moscow’s Institute of International Relations who speaks about Prigozhin’s body double being aboard the plane shot down by the personal sanction of president Vladmir Putin himself. This leaves the Wagner chief “alive, well, and free” as well as "preparing for revenge”.
And while none of these suspicions are as yet definitive, their spread underscores how strongly Prigozhin represents the potential for change within the Russian armed forces, and hopefully in the minds of the West who have still had a level of fear mixed in with the foolish hope of making peace.
Beyond Prigozhin, another dissenter within Putin’s ranks was Russian army general Sergey Surovikin who was recently sacked by Putin from his post as head of aerospace forces. In general, any symbols with some hint of change were either set aside like the above mentioned Surovikin, imprisoned like former FSB officer Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, or murdered like Prigozhin has allegedly been.
Of course, such bad outcomes mean that many potential change agents will shut up and obey, but this has to also be weighted against the likelihood of meeting the same Grim Reaper on the battlefield due to Russia’s military incompetence and growing losses, or getting one’s tongue cut for not licking Putin’s behind in as thorough of a manner.
That these aforementioned influential leaders within the Russian military chose to take their chances is already a sign that the motivation for doing so was stronger than to keep existing within Russia’s current Putinist framework.
Evidence of further dissent can be seen in the Wagner-run Telegram Channel “Grey Zone” (Not to be confused with Max Blumenthal’s pro-Russia far left rag) which labeled those who killed Prigozhin as “traitors'' though did not specify who these traitors are. That Ukrainians and other foreign enemy nations were not directly associated with such a distinction leaves a prominent target sign on the head of Putin and his government stooges.
Putin the Schoolyard Bully
More important than who Putin’s Kremlin goes after is the question of when? In the case of Prigozhin, it was only after the Wagner group was completely disarmed and separated that he was targeted for assassination. Were he to have been killed off before this dismantling, there would have been a good chance for his well equipped private army to advance into Moscow in a bout of vengeance.
The big takeaway here is that like a schoolyard bully, Putin is always ready to pick a fight with those unable to defend themselves. Ukraine falls into this paradigm as well due to Putin’s expectations of imminent surrender by a helpless former satellite of the once “glorious” Soviet Union and Russian Empire, but instead what they got were armed and motivated people ready to defend their country.
While Wagner is out of the picture for now, the real life Neo Nazis of the Rusich Group among those fighting against Ukraine are well armed enough themselves to bear fangs at Putin through Telegram on the day of Prigozhin’s plane crash: “Let this be a lesson for everyone. You always need to go to the end”
The Rusich Telegram went on to speak of various government betrayals, including how "the careers of two old degenerates cost more than the lives of 25 thousand Russian soldiers." They were, of course, pointing towards Putin loyalists: Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.
But one should not make the mistake of seeing these two human paperweights as having any personal agency since whatever decisions they make come directly from Putin himself.
Is Putin Stronger or Weaker?
And even though the larger Russian media apparatus is not as brave as the above examples, does this mean Putin is stronger after having avoided a Wagner coup attempt and allegedly killed its leader?
At first, Yevgeny Prigozhin showed that Putin is not the all powerful Czar many have imagined him to be and that you will face no repercussions from going against him. But afterwards, an apparent agreement between the two looked like the best remaining option as Prigozhin claimed loyalty to Putin while hanging all his problems with Russia’s military on the aforementioned “two old degenerates” Shoigu and Gerasimov.
In the case that the most dangerous rebel bends the knee, it saps the power of whatever justifications to mutiny that Prigozhin stated before as well as motivation to seek vengeance by the Wagnerites. Even more important is that such a truce showed any future Prigozhins that there is room to negotiate instead of a fight to the death against Putin himself.
Such a way out for powerful discontents is important for any dictatorship. Its legitimacy is held up by the force of arms instead of by free elections, but the same force has traditionally been applied to get rid of dictators as well. And in the minds of those closest to said arms, what reason would they have to support a dictator who gives them no exit strategy?
After this airplane crash, this may indeed be the question on the minds of those around Putin. From this moment on, any potential mutineer won’t have a change of heart as they know there’s no way out other than killing Putin before he kills them. Furthermore, if there was once an idea within Russia’s elite that Putin’s word was worth something, his word is now completely worthless.
Given such a scenario along with never quite knowing what will set the Czar pretender off, we may not be too far from the time that those remaining elites around Putin will judge their alliance with him as more dangerous than standing against him. And since Putin was unable to stop Prigozhin before this now worthless deal was reached, there is neither the threat of defeat nor potential of mercy to dissuade whoever decides to end this miserable dictatorship once and for all.
So it does not really matter whether Putin’s former chef is being cooked alive in Hell or delayed this one way trip through sacrificing a body double. Given Putin’s reaction to what could have been a resolved situation, we may not have seen the end of Prigozhin’s coup attempt just yet.
What can the West learn from Prigozhin?
That whatever guarantee Putin makes is now cheaper than the price of Russian oil sold to China means a re-evaluation for Western politicians who support negotiations in hopes of peace. Whatever so-called “peace treaty” is negotiated that gives Russia any Ukrainian land will last only as long as it takes for the former to learn from their past mistakes and regroup for the next offensive.
That hardly anyone in the Russian armed forces resisted Prigozhin’s march into Moscow, let alone the uninspired masses, shows us how much of a farce Putin’s grip on power really is within his own country. The same applies to his empty threats on the world stage that some officials have nevertheless taken quite seriously.
But now that his surrounding elite does not have the guarantee of an exit strategy should one of them challenge the direction of the war, this may be the reassurance that most in the West need to “go to the end” as the Rusich Group proclaimed.
Yet what may be the West's principal lesson from the Prigozhin incident is the impermanence of authoritarian stability. Dictatorships may project an image of unyielding strength, but they often rest on shaky foundations. As we have observed with the Prigozhin saga, the elite power struggles and infighting can rupture this façade, revealing vulnerabilities that the West can exploit.
This remains not just a lesson for dealing with Russia and China but a warning of what happens when unchecked tyranny in the form of a left or right wing authoritarian dictatorship gets established within the West itself. No matter how much we detest the other side, it is our flexibility from foundation to capstone that allows Western civilization (especially in the US) to keep the promise of actual liberty but it takes work on behalf of informed citizens to maintain such a structure.
The moment we fail in said maintenance, we can expect our own Prigozhin mutiny down the road, as by that point we will truly be in the bowels of a boggy swamp and unable to move under the muck of corruption and lawlessness that ogres like Prigozhin thrive in so well.