Bershidsky: Wagner mutiny – Putin is weakened, but his system is not

In an opinion piece by Leonid Bershidsky, the recent mutiny attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary army is examined for its potential impact on both Vladimir Putin and the Russian system as a whole. Bershidsky argues that while Putin may have been personally weakened by the incident, the more significant question lies in whether the turbulence exposed vulnerabilities in the governing system. Drawing on the writings of political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, Bershidsky explores the notion of “System RF” – a fluid, agile, and unprincipled government structure that Putin merely personifies. Bershidsky raises concerns about the long-term stability of Russia should the system persist despite potential leadership changes.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

Putin Is Weakened.  His System Isn’t.: Leonid Bershidsky

By Leonid Bershidsky

Last week’s mutiny attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary army has undoubtedly weakened Vladimir Putin personally: He publicly promised a forceful response and a harsh punishment for the “traitors,” then accepted a compromise brokered by Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and allowed Prigozhin to leave the country unpunished, with pretty much his entire force.

The more important question, however, is whether the turbulence has weakened the system that runs Russia.

Alexey Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader who has never led a violent riot, wrote in a Twitter thread that he learned of Prigozhin’s escapade while on trial for a seemingly endless list of offenses against the government:

“And when, a minute later, they were telling me about the seizure of Rostov, the helicopters that had been shot down, and the armed column heading for Moscow to “kill that bastard Shoigu,” and the masked bailiffs were also listening and nodding, I kept expecting someone to suddenly yell “You got punk’d”! But no one did. Instead the prosecutor came in and we continued the trial in which I stand accused of forming an organization to overthrow President Putin by violent means.”

No wonder Prigozhin was calmly making arrangements to move to Belarus while Navalny faced yet more years and years behind bars for daring to speak up about the regime’s corruption — and not much more. Navalny is much more of a threat to the system than Prigozhin, even if the latter managed to do more damage to Putin personally in one tense day than the former in almost two decades of political activity.

Russia under Putin’s leadership is easy to see as a personalist dictatorship. The president has almost unlimited powers under Russia’s much-rewritten, much-abused constitution, and Putin’s place in the government system is so central that — at least ostensibly — even minor decisions cannot be made without his approval. That, however, is not how the system really works, as one of the regime’s top intellectual architects Gleb Pavlovsky kept repeating in his final years to anyone who would listen.

A political scientist and spin doctor who worked for the Kremlin during the early Putin years but ended up as a regime opponent, Pavlovsky died earlier this year. Yet his books about “System RF” (the initials stand for the Russian Federation), written in the 2010s, still provide perhaps the best existing explanation for what happened during the Wagner mutiny — and for the Ukraine invasion that led to it.

Putin the man, in Pavlovsky’s view, is little more than the “user of the Putin signature.” He is not a dictator because he runs a “fluid state” government rather than a rules-based one. He stays on top by dividing and ruling rather than by taking responsibility for decisions.

The system that elevated him to the top largely had been built under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. It is defined by agility, insolent risk-taking, greed for others’ resources and a need always to be a step ahead of adversaries, Pavlovsky wrote in 2015:

“System RF emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse as a highly mobile one. Now it is not restricted by ideology and it easily combines a lack of openness with a liberal approach to others’ assets. It doesn’t care if people flee it or read about it on the internet. It is highly resistant to protest that could have ruined the Soviet system. Its new foundation is that it’s omnivorously unprincipled, capable of taking initiative in breaking and discarding any norm.”

This mode of operation is in evidence in both the Ukraine invasion and the handling of Prigozhin’s machinations. Putin — or System RF, as Pavlovsky would have argued — radically broke rules in both cases, showing agility and flexibility above all, confounding expectations and always, even in extreme adversity,  trying to stay ahead of events. 

Russians in positions of power big and small have condoned this way of acting because they have adjusted to coexisting with the predatory system and acquired a stake in its continued existence. This support comes, however, with a caveat, according to Pavlovsky:

“It is useless to try to incite this coalition to protest against its own interests. But… someday it will betray the state: Just feed us and you can do what you like! In this sense the Putin majority, passive and conformist in its basic attitudes, will one day become apocalyptic for Russia. It has, after all, already proved that, to preserve its position and emotional balance, it’s willing to accept any tyrannical moves inside and outside the country.”

This all-important group of bureaucrats, managers, media personalities, law enforcers didn’t rise to Putin’s defense when his authority was threatened by Prigozhin’s fighters marching on Moscow. Officials, officers, even Kremlin propagandists merely watched from the sidelines. Had the Wagner founder not been offered a chance to avoid a bloody confrontation and make a fresh start in Lukashenko’s Belarus, it’s conceivable that the majority would have accepted Prigozhin — or, more likely, one of his establishment sponsors and allies — as the new leader, on the condition  that the system itself would function more or less as before.

The lack of military success in Ukraine and the obvious cracks in Russia’s domestic security — Lukashenko said on Tuesday that the Kremlin managed to assemble only a ragtag force of some 10,000 armed men, including cadets and cops, to defend Moscow against the Wagner raid — have made Putin replaceable. Pavlovsky’s â€ścoalition,” the backbone of “System RF,” is not violently opposed to a change at the top — but only if there’s a guarantee that it will continue to be “fed.”  Prigozhin — or any of his backers among generals and senior officials, now under a cloud of suspicion thanks to their indecision and Prigozhin’s devotion to his private interests and those of his mercenary commanders — would have provided such a guarantee because they are part of the system.

By contrast, someone like Navalny would be hugely disruptive in the “coalition’s” eyes. If such an outsider mustered the force necessary to storm the Kremlin and a few other buildings in Moscow — it’s clear now that Wagner, with up to 10,000 hardened fighters, actually had the capability — the system’s stakeholders at every level would risk ruin, whether as part of a lustration process or as victims of a serious effort at institution-building. That’s why Navalny is being tried for alleged plans to overthrow the regime — and Prigozhin will not stand trial for an actual attempt to do so with armed force (even if, in keeping with System RF’s nature, he may suddenly drop dead from extrajudicial causes).

It’s important to make a clear distinction between System RF and Putin, who merely personifies it now. If the personality changes but the system remains, any benefit to Ukraine and the West will be only temporary.

Read also:

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at [email protected]

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.