Impact on SA (and Putin’s local fans) of ructions in Russia – Prof Irina Filatova

Irina Filatova is a Russian history and political science professor who moved to SA in 1992 to take up a post at the University of KZN – but remains closely in touch with her homeland and fellow Moscow University faculty and students. Author of half a dozen books, including acclaimed The Hidden Thread: Russia and SA in the Soviet Era (with Apollon Davidson), she is our go-to expert on all things Russian. Once again she delivers a riveting interview here, providing superb context on the ructions in Russia and what impact the weakening of Putin will have on his South African acolytes in the ANC, EFF and SACP. After the interview, the Prof noted that had she said any of this in her former homeland, she’d have broken many laws and probably been jailed. Lest we forget. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 01:22 – Prof Filatova on what happened in Russia over the weekend
  • 02:24 – On Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group
  • 04:44 – On the Wagner group in Africa
  • 06:00 – On the aftermath of the attempted coup by Prigozhin and if there was ever a threat of it being successful
  • 11:28 – On the reaction of the people in Russia to the events over the weekend
  • 12:14 – On how Putin’s authority has been weakened
  • 15:36 – On how the ANC’s alliance with Russia might be impacted by Putin’s weakening
  • 17:22 – On the future of the financial relationship between Russia and the ANC
  • 19:15 – On what South African’s should be wary of
  • 21:45 – On what’s next for Prigozhin
  • 23:13 – On how the US knew about the attempted coup before it happened
  • 23:44 – Ends

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The edited transcript of the interview:

Alec Hogg: There’s no better commentator in South Africa on Russian affairs than Professor Irina Filatova ex-Moscow University then KZN University, and she remains completely in touch with what’s happening in that part of the world. When we spoke two months ago, we were discussing the possible support for the ANC from Russia in the 2024 election, which is a matter of concern for many people in South Africa. We’ll find out today from Professor Filatova exactly what the recent events in Russia mean for South Africa. Thank you very much, Professor, for joining us again. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you, and today’s discussion is of particular importance. Over the weekend, I was captivated by the events unfolding in Russia involving an individual named Prigozhin from the Wagner Group. There were reports of attempted coups and more. Was it merely media spectacle, or was there a deeper significance to it all?

Irina Filatova: Well, I’m absolutely certain that there is more to it than meets the eye. The entire world was glued to their televisions, radios, or whatever medium they had access to, and there was a sense that there was more at play. I don’t believe that Prigozhin is a foolish man who suddenly lost his temper and decided to challenge the Kremlin. There must have been a multitude of factors contributing to these events. In fact, the Americans were aware that some military figures, such as General Sorovikin, had knowledge of what was about to unfold. So, indeed, there was…

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Alec Hogg: They had prior knowledge?

Irina Filatova: Yes, they were aware.

Alec Hogg: That’s quite concerning because there are various conspiracy theories floating around, suggesting that even the CIA might have been involved in Prigozhin’s actions. But perhaps let’s start from the beginning. Who is Prigozhin? Could you give us some background on him? And what exactly is the Wagner Group?

Irina Filatova: Prigozhin is indeed one of Putin’s oligarchs and a highly wealthy individual. He owns numerous companies, initially starting with a catering business. However, prior to that, he had a lengthy and controversial career, including involvement in criminal activities that led to his imprisonment. In the early 1990s, he ventured into the catering industry and established a fashionable restaurant in Saint Petersburg, which gained popularity among prominent figures, including an American president (although I don’t recall the specific details). Prigozhin’s success in this field revealed his aptitude and involvement in various other areas. Notably, he organized a troll factory, which allegedly interfered in the American elections. Additionally, he orchestrated interventions in Ukraine following the 2014 Maidan revolution, which Putin refers to as a coup. It is claimed that during these events, Prigozhin played a role in the emergence of the Wagner Company, a private military company.

Alec Hogg: And this military group, the Wagner Group, is also known to operate in Africa?

Irina Filatova: Yes, the Wagner Group operates in Syria as well as in Africa. Their operations in Africa have garnered significant attention, particularly in countries such as Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Sudan. There was an attempted operation in Mozambique, closer to the South African borders, but it ended in disaster for Wagner, at least for now. However, their activities in the Sahel region have been deemed successful, and there exists a vast network of connections and logistical ties between various countries, including Libya, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Sudan, and more.

Alec Hogg: So the Wagner Group is undoubtedly a formidable force. But was there ever a threat over the weekend that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group would attempt to storm Moscow and seize power from Putin?

Irina Filatova: Well, when we consider the seriousness of the situation, it becomes apparent that there must have been someone within the elite who supported and allied with Prigozhin. Perhaps there was even a group of individuals who initially aligned themselves with him but ultimately decided against supporting him at the last moment. I don’t believe that Prigozhin’s intention was to become president himself, but rather to frighten Putin to the extent that he would retreat and leave the capital.

Of course, this is speculative, and many other commentators have made similar conjectures. Another possibility is that Prigozhin acted independently and seized the opportunity when he saw no opposition from the population or the military. In this scenario, he may have intended to occupy the Kremlin and then faced the question of what to do next. However, the first version appears more plausible, suggesting that Prigozhin had allies who abandoned him at the last moment, leaving him isolated and necessitating his retreat.

It is interesting to note that there was practically no opposition, indicating that someone must have ordered the security forces not to oppose Prigozhin. Furthermore, the population seemed to welcome him with open arms. This must have been deeply unsettling for Putin. So, this is a crucial aspect to consider. Another intriguing aspect is Putin’s response. He remained silent for two days before speaking up after the situation had been resolved. Based on my understanding of Putin as a political figure, his speeches are usually well-prepared and targeted at a specific audience.

In this particular speech, he unintentionally exaggerated the significance of what had occurred. He spoke about the danger posed to the Russian state and the threat of civil war. In such circumstances, a politician who wants to demonstrate control would typically dismiss the events as insignificant, while emphasizing the tragedy of the lives lost due to Prigozhin’s troops and their acts of violence.

Putin’s speech suggested that he was attempting to create an impression that everything was under control and that the security services were united behind him. It seemed as if he did not want to alert them to his suspicions or concerns. Additionally, there was another speech in which he thanked the security services for opposing the attempted coup, despite indications that they did not actively oppose it. The exact nature of what transpired behind the scenes remains unclear, but it appears that Putin was trying to convey a sense of stability and deflect any blame from the security services.

As for the feedback from family and friends in Russia, they are unaware of the specifics. However, they expressed fear about several aspects, such as the possibility of Putin resorting to nuclear weapons when cornered. This fear was shared by people around the world. There is uncertainty about the future—whether there will be heightened security measures, potential closure of the country, and what lies ahead. Putin’s position has undoubtedly been weakened, and that is the general sentiment.

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Alec Hogg: When you mention that Putin is weakened, can you elaborate on how he has been affected?

Irina Filatova: It is evident that Putin faced a significant challenge to his power, and it is clear that he did not come out on top of the situation. Prigozhin was not stopped at the border, in Rostov-on-Don, or anywhere along the way, which is noteworthy. Additionally, when Putin finally addressed the mutiny, he promised severe punishment for those responsible, but nothing substantial followed. The person who orchestrated the entire event was released, and even the troops who participated, previously hailed as heroes, were labeled criminals but let go, with some even offered incorporation into the Russian army. This has left various factions dissatisfied. Those with more radical views on war and the heads of the army feel that Putin’s response is not radical enough and that he is unfairly punishing someone who contributed significantly to their victory. On the other hand, those who seek normalization and the avoidance of criminal elements within the army are also discontented because the law did not seem to apply to Prigozhin. The situation has resulted in widespread perception among Russians that Putin has been considerably weakened. His strength and position are in doubt.

Alec Hogg: Bringing the focus back to South Africa, given the ANC’s close relationship with Putin and considering his recent weakening, do you think this will impact the way they view their alliance with Russia?

Irina Filatova: Well, it’s difficult to say for certain at this point. There hasn’t been any specific commentary or statements from the ANC, EFF, or SACP regarding the events of the weekend. These parties have been staunch supporters of Putin and Russia in general, so it’s unclear how these events may have influenced their perception of the alliance. It’s possible that some individuals within these parties may begin to question their image of Russia as an anti-imperialist and progressive country, considering the recent developments. However, I haven’t come across any official statements to indicate a shift in their views. The only relevant announcement I’ve seen is Naledi Pandor’s declaration that the peace process will continue unaffected by the mutiny.

Alec Hogg: Given the concerns about Russian interference in the 2024 election and their support for the ANC, does the recent weakening of Putin’s position change the situation? Or is it unrelated to what occurred over the weekend?

Irina Filatova: It is too early to make a definitive judgment, but concerning events in West Africa, for instance, very little has changed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that operations in Africa will continue as before. These operations involve military actions in the Sahel and Sudan, as well as political support for various parties and governments. There is also an economic aspect to this support in terms of relations with several countries. If everything remains unchanged in West Africa, then support for the ANC will likely continue. I don’t see a reason for it to change.

Alec Hogg: Unless Putin has other priorities.

Irina Filatova: Yes, we cannot predict what will happen. There are numerous unknowns regarding the attempted coup or mutiny, as well as the near future. In Russian history, weakened rulers have rarely survived for long. However, so much is uncertain at this point. We’ll have to wait and observe the unfolding events.

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Alec Hogg: What should we be attentive to?

Irina Filatova: In terms of Russian politics, it may not be apparent or noticeable at first glance. There are subtle signs of internal divisions and power struggles beneath the surface. Pay attention to any significant changes in the top leadership positions. Prigozhin demanded the dismissal of Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of Staff Gerasimov, but they both remain in their posts. We’ll see what happens to General Suravikin and potentially others, although it’s unclear. Regarding African operations, developments in West Africa can serve as a useful indicator. The overall policy is likely to remain the same. Additionally, keep an eye on Wagner, as it is a complex entity with intricate connections. Dismantling it is no easy task. While it may be possible to disband the several thousand individuals associated with Prigozhin in Russia who organized or participated in the march to Moscow, dismantling the entire network of companies and operations is a different challenge. It’s possible that this recent event is merely another redistribution of property or an inter-oligarch conflict. However, none of this can be confirmed as factual at this point. They are only speculations.

Alec Hogg: Regarding Prigozhin, do you anticipate his departure from the scene now?

Irina Filatova: Well, I highly doubt that he will leave the scene. The details of any agreement or conditions are unknown to me. Currently, he is in Belarus, but we don’t know how long he will stay there, whether he is free or not, and how many troops may join him or his forces, as some were invited to Belarus. The future remains uncertain. If he is free to move as he pleases, he might choose to return to Donetsk or Donbass in Ukraine, where his main body of troops is located. Alternatively, he could take a break in Africa or reorganize his operations there. It’s simply unknown. However, it’s important to note that he is in significant danger. His safety is seriously compromised, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to disappear indefinitely.

Alec Hogg: Professor Filatova, as a final point, you mentioned earlier that the Americans had prior knowledge. How was that possible?

Irina Filatova: I have no information on that. I believe it was the New York Times that published the information, which then became public. It’s possible that the Americans have intelligence sources within Russian security, or they may have been forewarned by certain Russians or even by other parties. We simply don’t know the details of how it unfolded. That’s what was reported, but it’s also possible that the information could be inaccurate or misleading.

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