The Military — Political crisis in Russia and the PMC «Wagner», part 1

The political crises are shaking France and hang over Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, the USA… These crises are initiated by economic and energy problems, inflation and rapture of the world financial system, by falling living standards of the population and are pushed by inter-civilizational conflicts between the local population and millions of migrants. Before the “Prigozhin rebellion”, it seemed that unlike the West, Russia was able to avoid the crisis, despite the war in Ukraine and sanctions of the West.

After economic indicators fall in the first months of the war in Ukraine due to Western sanctions and move out of European and American corporations, the Russian economy began to develop at the fastest pace in the last fifteen years. Despite the fall in oil and gas revenues that led to depreciation of the ruble, Russian GDP from May 2022 to May 2023 grew by 5.4%, manufacturing production by 12.8%, and the inflation did not exceed 4%.

And yet, no matter how much the Kremlin would like to hide the real situation, it must be recognized that political crisis has begun and is actively unfolding in Russia.


                                                        Great game of clans for the Kremlin

            The crisis has not yet reached the level of exacerbation that brings social unrest. At this point, in Russia, there is no threat to the power of Vladimir Putin personally, who managed easily passed the test of the “Prigozhin rebellion” that never was directed against Putin personally, at least not directly, and not by Prigozhin.

And yet, the signal has been given and received: the political crisis in Russia has begun, and it will unfold, escalate and deepen, creating and intensifying threats to the Kremlin and Putin personally, although at this stage the crisis is limited to the layer of ruling political, financial and business elites, and clans that control the Armed Forces, special services and the military-industrial complex.

I have repeatedly used the image of Matryoshka, the Russian doll, to explain the system of organization and functioning of the state and society, including the Armed Forces and special services, in Russian civilization, and this image still gives the idea of the present crisis best of all:

Inside the large Doll that is represented by Building 1 of the Moscow Kremlin, the office of the President of the Russian Federation, there is another doll that represents the ruling elite that, in turn, comprised of other dols, elite clans. Each doll acts within the boundaries and limits defined by the Big Doll, but acts in its own interests, and it was between those dolls, representing clans, that struggle began, rising and splashing out, threatening the existence of the entire system, including the Big Doll of Russian statehood.

The crisis began much earlier, with the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine, but the Kremlin did not see the first symptoms of the crisis. “Prigozhin’s Rebellion” became exactly the manifestation that was impossible not to notice, and it came as signal that was impossible to ignore.  

“Prigozhin rebellion” signaled about structural crisis of the system based on the balance of clan interests, that is ensured and secured by the ruling group in the Kremlin, personally by Vladimir Putin, acting as Referee.

In the time of war, confrontation with the West and sanctions pressure, in the absence of ideology and with moral principles that remained since the criminal and bureaucratic lawlessness of the 1990s, the clan structure of the state system has ceased to be reliable support of state power.

In peaceful times, in the absence of major war, in coexistence with the West without open confrontation and sanctions, the existing system in Russia worked quite effectively in the interests of bureaucracy as a class. It ensured balance of interests of the clans that formed the ruling layer of Russia. However, this system turned out to be unable to protect and ensure the interests of the ruling clans, to maintain balance and stability of the state in times of tensions, growing threats of the intense war in Ukraine and unfolding hybrid war with the West. 

The present crisis differs significantly from the crises that Russia went through in the post-Soviet period. Unlike the crisis of the late 1980s, that ended with the collapse of the USSR, the crisis of 1993, that  established in Russia the dictatorship of the Yeltsin clan, so-called Family, and the crisis of the late 1990s, that was overcome through transferring power from Yeltsin to Putin, who managed to create the now existing system that ensured the power of one group while maintaining balance of interests of other clans of the ruling elite, now, the army, special services and the military-industrial complex are not just tools, but the most active actors in the political struggle.

Internal politics in Russia has become the Great Game. Politicians, parties, the media and business are now only tools, minor figures on the chess-board of the internal political Great Game, unfolding inside Russia, spreading to the other post-Soviet states and actively dragging in most of Eurasian countries.

That is why the present crisis in Russia should be designated and defined as military-political.

If Putin’s power is further weakened, the current crisis could lead to establishment of the regime with political and economic foundations determined and built by the clans representing Russia’s armed forces, the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies. For years, since the Gorbachev’s perestroika, those forces were hiding inside like smaller doll, but now they are coming out to create the Bog Doll of post-Putin Russia.

In conditions of the war that threatens the existence of state, power is taken by those who, on the one hand, can ensure victory in the war, most severely subdue and destroy rivals, and on the other hand, who take into account and reflect the interests and moods of the masses, and therefore, can provide stability of state, if people become involved in political struggle.

In today’s Russia, the army and special services have become such forces, and they seek to push bureaucracy, including the officials in the Ministry of Defense, away from power.

This is exactly what Prigozhin demanded by shouting “Give me Shoigu!”

This process may take time. However, the crisis will inevitably deepen and grow, because there are factors that contribute to aggravation of contradictions in the Russian elites and make the Great Game fiercer.

The Kremlin and Putin have no way to exclude all these factors for the time being.

In this article, I would like to dwell on some of these factors.


                                                 War is not the time for change of leader

Two factors have already been noted and actively discussed by political analysts in the Russian media, although the analysis, in my opinion, is rather superficial. These factors are war in Ukraine and choice of Putin’s successor.

It was the decision to start military special operation in Ukraine that immediately and contrary to the expectations and plans of the Kremlin began to develop into full-scale war, and the forthcoming choice of Putin’s successor, expected by all the elites, became the main impulses for sharp aggravation of the struggle between the clans that generated the present political crisis. The fact that these two factors turned out to be combined, superimposed on one another, greatly increased their impact.

The war proved not to be the time for change of leadership. That made Russian politics to look “surrealistic”, as some Russian analysts described it. However, behind any «surrealism» of politicians there are specific interests. Any political «surrealism» has explanation…

It is highly likely that Sergei Shoigu was included in the final list of the Russian politicians, who were selected by Putin for the final stage of appointing his successor, and the special operation in Ukraine was conceived by the clans supporting Shoigu as important stage to secure this appointment. These clans were behind the idea of conducting special military operation that was supposed to repeat the success of the special operation of annexation of Crimea in 2014, to become some kind of “victory parade” for Putin and Shoigu.

But for every action there is counteraction, and Russia was drawn from the «special operation» into the war precisely because there were forces that used the situation to block Shoigu, to frustrate plans for Putin to leave the Kremlin and force him to stay for a few more years, or replace Putin, bringing another candidate into the Kremlin, not Shoigu.

The fact that Shoigu was chosen as one of the candidates for the post of successor can be confirmed with certainty. That was stated by Russian independent media and telegram channels and that was the opinion of many Russian politicians and politicians close to the military. In the West, many analysts and observers of events in Russia also believed that Shoigu could and should be regarded as possible future ruler of Russia, moreover, as ruler acceptable to the West.

It was assumed by the West that representative of the Russian military leadership could become possible candidate to replace Putin in the Kremlin. The Western military Commanders have established reliable relations with the Russian Ministry of Defense, and Shoigu has shown himself as reliable contact that can be trusted.

Western dominant opinion boiled down to the fact that Putin is the most important, but also the weakest link in Russia. He is the only decision-making center, and only he can decide to accept defeat by Russia and termination of the war, and that is why it is necessary to put pressure on Putin from the outside and from the inside. He is able to make peace that each side will present as their victory, but in reality, that will be the defeat of Russia.

That peace can be achieved through escalation, pressure on Russia, raising stakes and threats until the moment when the military, first of all, the generals in the Ministry of Defense, and the special services understand that Russia cannot stand that presure, and force Putin to make peace. Pro-Western groups will support them.

This opinion was expressed before Prigozhin’s «rebellion», but now it became clear that this opinion does not correspond to the real situation in Russia. And the reason is not only in Prigozhin, who became an instrument in the struggle of clans within the Russian elites…

What was behind the “rebellion” of Prigozhin and the PMC Wagner? And how that “rebellion” was connected to selection of Putin’s successor?

The special operation in Ukraine has come up and was developed by the FSB, the Ministry of Defense and by General Staff, by Shoigu’s inner circle, and also by the GRU. However, those who were opposed to Shoigu could not have been unaware of this, and those who oppose Shoigu are the backbone of the army, the GRU and the FSB, not necessarily the top Command, but precisely the “backbone”.

This opposition to Shoigu included the elite officers who were dismissed by the “civilian” defense ministers, who, in violation of Russian centuries-old traditions, were appointed by Vladimir Putin: Ivanov, Serdyukov and Shoigu. Let me remind that Serdyukov alone fired 200 thousand army officers, the hard core of the Soviet Armed Forces, including those who later formed the PMC “Wagner” and formed its command staff.

The clans that are represented in the Presidential Administration and the Government and who are also participating in the struggle for the post of Putin’s successor, also could not have been unaware of the preparations for the special operation.

It must be assumed that anti-Shoigu groups within the Ministry of Defense, Intelligence and Counterintelligence, suspecting or knowing that the special operation in Ukraine was planned as «victory parade» for Shoigu and Putin, that this parade  presented by the Russian state media will raise Shoigu’s popularity to record level, and Putin most likely will appoint Shoigu his successor and will  transfer the Kremlin under the control of Shoigu, they did everything possible to interfere with these plans.

There are enough clans in the Russian elite, whose leaders do not even want to imagine what happens to them or the Russian army when the “civilian military parade lover” Shoigu start ruling in the Kremlin, and what he will do with the Russian Armed Forces in order to improve relations with Washington, or turn completely to Beijing. They are ready to stop Shoigu on his way to the Kremlin and to become the “Master”, as Russian leader is called inside the Moscow Kremlin according to old traditions…


                                                                 The Hybrid war that is inside

There is one more important point that should be noted down.

After few days since the special operation began and Russian troops went into Ukraine, it became clear that the Russian army was not ready for war. Neither Putin, nor Shoigu and Gerasimov, nor leaders in Washington, London, Brussels, Beijing and Delhi expected such a failure from the Kremlin, the FSB and the Russian army.

One fact was the most striking.

Foreign leaders and military commanders, including in the West, who were watching carefully the preparations for the war, knew that the Russian intelligence were well aware that Ukraine had been preparing for war with Russia for long time, that the command of the Ukrainian army knew about the upcoming special operation, that the “pro-Russian opposition” that the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense were relying upon in their plans, was not able to take power in Kiev and was not going to do this, but the leaders of pro-Russian opposition in Ukraine played their game, pulling billions of dollars for years out of Moscow, sharing money with their Moscow, Kiev, and possibly Western contacts, promoting their political and business interests in Russia, Ukraine, in Europe and the USA. The Russian special services knew about all that.

In the West, it was believed that the Russian special services had informed the Kremlin and the leadership of the Ministry of Defense about this, and therefore Russia accordingly prepared for the invasion. The West predicted bloody, but fairly quick victory for Russia. The West itself was preparing for that kind of war in Ukraine. The West did not count on a long and extremely cruel war and did not prepare for such an option.

However, the Kremlin, the Ministry of Defense and the Russian army turned out to be so unprepared for war that it became obvious that the information that the Russian special services had about readiness of the Ukrainian army, people and state for war, had not been brought to Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and possibly Patrushev (Security Council), Bortnikov (FSB) and Naryshkin (SVR).

The special operation became the war that was longer, more brutal and bloodier than expected…

After a while, everyone calmed down. Some attributed everything to “Russian stupidity” (as often happens when the West cannot find explanation for actions of Russians). However, there were few, who realized that some very complex and hidden game was being played in Russia.

It became clear that there are forces, groups and clans working hard and very active in Russia, that were interested in the war dragging on, confrontation with the West escalating to high, but controlled limit, in revival of the military-industrial complex and entire economy on new technological level, in destruction of the remnants of the Yeltsin-era elite groups and establishment of complete control over the former oligarchs and return of their wealth under the state control.

However, the most important result of the war would be selection and appointment of new political leader of Russia, Master in the Kremlin, who will establish new elite consensus and balance of power in Russia in the post-Putin period. That new Master will create new Big Matryoshka of Russian statehood, based on new ideological basis and organizational principles. That Big Doll will cover and embrace the territory of the former Russian Empire and the USSR, the Russian civilization, putting end to fragmentation that proved to be harmful for all the peoples.

Moreover, at the very beginning of the war, there were signs, albeit indirect, that the actions of the anti-Shoigu group of clans in Russia, who were using the war in Ukraine in their own interests, became known to some clans in Ukraine, connected by professional, business, personal and ancestral relations.

It cannot be ruled out, or rather, it should be accepted as obvious that among them were military clans, including those who formed the backbone of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including the Main Intelligence Directorate. The Ukrainians were the second after the Russians largest and most influential group in the GRU and the KGB (FSB and SVR) of Soviet times (among them Litvinenko and Skripal, — just to remind the British readers — VM). Relationships have been maintained over the years…

It should also be assumed that exactly these relationships and connections can explain strange actions and methods of warfare used by both the Russian and the Ukrainian armed forces.

For example, the media, political and military analysts in Russia explain the lack of strikes on objects in Ukraine, including bridges, important logistics centers and transport hubs, scientific, industrial facilities, warehouse complexes, communication centers, as well as the control and decision taking centers. Out of 25 bridges over the Dnieper River, during 16 months of war, the Russians didn’t destroy even one bridge… That lack of strikes was explained by the absence of political decisions, that “Putin does not give the command”. So, it looks as if Putin does not give a lot of necessary commands to military, and nobody can do anything to change his mind…

How can one explain that during the entire sixteen months of the war, Russian troops failed to kill a single prominent political, statesman and military commander in Ukraine? Every time Zelensky or any other Ukraine top official visited the front line, Russian army took pause in shelling and attacking that particular place. For sixteen months there were only attacks on the third echelon of the Ukrainian military and below.

And all the attempts of the Ukrainian special services, no matter how intensely they were promoted and presented by the Ukrainian media, came down to petty sabotage, with the exception of attack on the Crimean bridge, but, as the Russian military and the media admitted, the Ukrainian special services played only supporting role in that attack. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate carried terrorist attacks against the Russian people, but only who occupied secondary positions in the Russian politics and did not belong to the ruling clans in Russia.

All this is explained by the “lack of political decisions”, but these explanations lay the blame on Putin and hide the interests of the Russian – Ukrainian political, business, as well as military clans that are waging war not only and not so much in the interests of their leadership and peoples, but mostly in their own interests that include changing regimes in their countries.

This applies not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine. It’s not just Putin’s time has come to retire. Nobody predicts long political future for Zelensky either…

It turned out that the course, methods and forms of the modern hybrid war that has been widely discussed for years by media and political analysts, are determined not only by leadership of confronting states, or commanders of their armies, but also by clans, groups and alliances of clans within the countries fighting these wars. Depending on the situation, the contradictions within the elites can exceed in their intensity and impact on the course of the war any external influences and «interests of big politics»…

However, there is another group of factors that are still out of the attention of the media or being just scratched on the surface by analysts, who don’t look beyond the tip of the iceberg that is visible to everyone. These factors are related to the sphere of international relations, the interrelations and intercrossing of interests of different countries and interstate unions, alliances and organizations. At the moment, these factors have increasing impact not only on the course of the war in Ukraine and the development of confrontation between Russia and the West, but also on the development of the internal political crisis in Russia.

At this moment, it’s time for me to move on to detailed analysis of the “Prigozhin rebellion”, to the history, present and possible future of the PMC Wagner, because that “rebellion” or “mutiny”, — as Putin called it in a hurry, under pressure, without understanding what was actually happening, once again substituted by his inner circle, — that “rebellion” manifested the influence of not only the factors that I wrote about above, but also those that reflect important processes and changes taking place in the sphere of international relations, that are supported by China, India and many other countries in Asia and Africa, and demand new role to be assigned to “Wagner”.

(To be continued)

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