The Kremlin storyline going forward reads like a Russian production of Succession, a drama in which the bodies are riddled with bullets instead of barbs, a fitting conclusion to Putin’s reign of chaos, with viewers left hanging to discover which member of the inner circle becomes the Kremlin’s Tom Wambsgans.
Prigozhin announced Saturday night that he was standing down. His apparent coup attempt at an end. Believe that at your peril.
Brian Cox, who played Succession patriarch Logan Roy, told me during one of his trips to Moscow in the 1980s that he’d always been drawn to the mysteries of Russian culture. “I imagined a largeness, a grandeur,” the actor explained and yet, when he got closer, he discovered that the reality was “mundane and prosaic.”
There’s always sleight of hand in Russia. You can never quite believe what you hear.
The past 24 hours, however, have revealed a huge amount about the battle for power in Moscow.
My Kremlin source was puffing on a cigarette, the Signal connection between Paris and Moscow so crisp that I could hear the tobacco crunching between his lips. His life, too, has been dreary and banal.
“There’s something concrete going on,” Trushika said flatly. “Too many accidents in different parts of Russia over the past few months, way too many. Unexplained fires, explosions, lots of unreported serious disturbances, and now Putin is frightened his rat Prigozhin is preparing to march on Moscow.”
I asked: “From where you sit, from what you’re seeing, would it be mistaken for me to describe Putin as more terrified now than he’s ever been before?”
There was a short silence as Trushika exhaled his smoke at the other end of the line. “The existence of an organized resistance movement against Putin within the military has always been speculative,” the veteran apparatchik added in a blurred and throaty whisper.” It’s now accurate to say it is no longer speculation.”
Putin regularly cites Russian history in his speeches with twisted romantic flourish but the sweeping cinematic extravaganzas audiences witnessed in Dr. Zhivago are long gone, replaced by gritty film noir. This is a cheap crime movie with squeamish attitudes and motivations in which the only reality more macabre than Putin’s 16-month effort to eradicate Ukraine is decoding the ghoulish and—perhaps staged—quarrels between Putin and Prigozhin.
Still, watch Putin’s lifeless five-minute Saturday speech to the nation as if you were in a movie theater. His eyes are coal tar, dull and lightless; his lips crumpled and scratching at each other. Then look at any of Prigozhin’s many cameo appearances alongside his leading man, and remember he once choked a woman and stole her earrings and shoes, and spent a decade behind bars for armed robbery, burglary, fraud. He’s also had people executed with a sledgehammer.
And only then ask if Prigozhin’s ongoing gang war Putin described as an “armed mutiny” augurs an end to the butchery in Ukraine, or is it yet just another episode in the day-in-the-life of the indisputable Kremlin crime boss and his warring cronies?
“Think nothing of it, think everything of it,” a Russian military intelligence analyst in Washington said shortly after Putin accused his former marionette Prigozhin of treason on Saturday morning.
The Kremlin watcher’s voice is stiff and tired. He and his agency’s colleagues have been here too many times before.
“There’s complete fear and confusion throughout Russia,” he explained. “There’s also no accurate way to measure the extent of the anger, discontent or armed the resistance against Putin.”
Prigozhin announced that he was standing his men down from their march on Moscow after negotiations with Putin’s comrade Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. It is unclear what Prigozhin was offered but Moscow speculation abounds about the futures of Valery Gerasimov, the head of the armed forces, and Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, both of whom have been the frequent targets of Prigozhin’s outbursts.
Russian strategic analyst Velina Tchakarova at For A Conscious Experience, a think tank, insists that all the fuss was a political stunt. “This is not a coup by Prigozhin,” says the FACE boss. “This is an inner war between the St. Petersburg gang of Putin and the Moscow gang of Gerasimov and Shoigu. This is the beginning of Putin’s election campaign to get re-elected on March 17, 2024.”
Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital and head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, said that there are no good guys in this fight. “Putin is a mass murderer and Prigozhin is also a mass murderer” Browder said.
Minute-to-minute coverage of the ersatz Russian revolution on Twitter, Telegram and other social media platforms hit us in the face like a fusillade of spitballs doing 90 miles an hour. The tales were enthralling, exhausting and, as one Western intelligence operative advises, ultimately babble on stilts until Putin’s entire beastly cast is slaughtered or arrives in the Hague for interrogation in front of the International War Crimes Tribunal.
For now he says the only legitimate information on what might happen next will come from spy satellites monitoring Russian troop movements. “We really have to wait to see if they start shooting each other before we can make any realistic, cogent analysis,” he says.
Back in Moscow, Trushika’s breathing is deep. He says Moscow mayor and Putin toady Sergei Sobranin has issued an emergency order making Monday a no-work day. Military helicopters remain in the air. Roads leading into the capital are pocked with roadblocks. Armored vehicles continue to patrol the streets, despite Prigozhin’s promise to stop the movement of his troops and, according to reports, de-escalate the crisis. But the story is not over yet.
“No one is certain who they’ll kill next,” Trushika says.
This is Russia.