Interview With Konstantin Egger: “This Event Has Significantly Weakened Putin’s Grip on His Own System”
This article about Putin was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
After Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, ordered — and then called off — his forces to march on Moscow, RFE/RL’s Georgian Service spoke to Konstantin Eggert, an independent journalist and political analyst, about how this has significantly weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
Eggert provides regular commentary and analysis on Russian affairs for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, and was previously head of the BBC Russian Service’s Moscow bureau and hosted a program at the independent Russian television channel, Dozhd (Rain).
RFE/RL: What have we just seen? What are we witnessing?
Konstantin Eggert: It is very difficult to determine what we’ve seen; we have definitely seen something that looked like a real military rebellion against Putin, in spite of the fact that Putin was not directly mentioned. But it is clear that this undermined and continues to undermine the Putin system.
For some reason, Prigozhin [has told us] that he is stopping the advance of his mercenaries and he wants to avoid bloodshed, as if he didn’t understand that when he was speeding toward Moscow. And the intermediary seems to be [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka of all people. The question of what we’ve seen becomes really important and really unanswerable in some ways, because there are mechanisms here which we just don’t understand.
However, let me say one thing: This event has significantly weakened Putin’s grip on his own system. It has significantly weakened his ability to prosecute the war. It has created chaos among the millions of Russian civil servants on whose shoulders this regime stands…. I think that the Putin regime, as we knew it, is over, and something new is starting in Russia. Maybe, by the way, worse, although it’s difficult to imagine something worse, especially if you are Ukrainian. But I do not think we can presume anymore that Putin is in full control of the country and that he is really the master of his fate.
RFE/RL: Why would Prigozhin do all of this in the first place?
Eggert: At this moment, we don’t know. But the mere fact that at least on the surface of it, it was Lukashenka who stopped the advance on Moscow, means that, in the eyes of the Russian bureaucracy, Putin is no longer tops. He depends on Lukashenka to communicate with Prigozhin, and this means Putin — who was saying in the morning that Prigozhin was essentially a traitor — is now negotiating with this traitor [via] an intermediary who is supposed to be his junior partner.
There is no way to explain it [other] than to say that Putin was really afraid and he really needed a way out. And Prigozhin was also afraid, because although, let’s say 15,000 well-trained fighters is a force that could force its way into Moscow, I do not think it is enough to hold the city and to command the full control of the country.
I do suppose that all this means [is] that both sides understood [that] for now, [and] it is best for them to pretend that they have come to an agreement. But this elevates Prigozhin to the level of Putin. And this, of course, also hits Putin very hard.
We’re dealing with a new political reality. It doesn’t matter, in these circumstances, whether the rest of the country, the so-called ordinary people, whether they really understood what happened or not; a lot of them will continue to remain passive. But a lot of them, especially in the south of Russia, were very much disturbed by what happened.
Secondly, it is clear that those who Putin relied on running Russia, that means the local FSB (Federal Security Service) directors, policemen, heads of state corporations, people like that, they now know that Putin is no longer at least in full control. It’s not the end of the story.
RFE/RL: Can Putin sleep at night knowing that Prigozhin is out there? As long as he breathes, as long as he is alive, can Putin sleep at night?
Eggert: Everything you’ve seen so far looks [like] a better version of a Tom Clancy novel. I cannot imagine how Putin sleeps and whether he will continue to sleep, or whether he will resign, or whether Prigozhin will be eliminated. I think that Prigozhin understands that his chances of survival are probably not that high.
I suppose that an important element of all this is that we’ll be seeing what happens with the [Ukraine] war. I suppose that somehow it all has to do with the aggression against Ukraine. I think we’ll see very soon some kind of indication of what’s going to happen, because without some kind of decision on that, other things will be difficult.
RFE/RL: You say that cracks are showing in Putin’s system. There’s one particular aspect that was always brought up whenever people tried to explain the longevity of Putin and his system: that average Russians tolerated Putin for so long because of the premise that he brought stability. That, as bad as he was, at least things were stable in the country. This time, however, buildings are burning, not in Ukraine but in Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh. What will that do to Putin’s so-called stabilocracy?
Eggert: The situation in Russia, as far as society is concerned, is very simple. The society, the majority of it, was dormant. We haven’t seen, let’s say, a lot of pro-Prigozhin demonstrations. We haven’t seen any anti-Prigozhin demonstrations or anyone demonstrating in Moscow for Putin. We haven’t seen a lot of massive mutinies in the Russian Army. It is a society that will probably agree that OK, thank God the bloodshed was averted. So, we’ll try to go back to normal. “Narod bezmolvstvuet” — the people are silent — is the final line of Aleksandr Pushkin’s to my mind most important play, Boris Godunov, which is about the Time of Troubles in Russia in the early 17th century.
The fact that “the people are silent” is not relevant to the power struggle that will continue. This is no longer the regime we’ve seen before. Lots of people will be looking at Putin now from a different angle.We’ll be trying to understand what happened. This stability, at least as far as significant decision-makers in the country, is gone. And you will not be able to recuperate it. Because if this was a huge play staged by Putin, which I think is unlikely, then how can you trust the person that can play such tricks on you? If it wasn’t, then it’s clear that Putin had to basically scramble and save himself.
In both cases, I think we’ll see more cleavages inside the Russian system. Whatever happens, Putin has shortened his stay in the Kremlin, that is if he will stay in the Kremlin.
RFE/RL: Finally, a somewhat philosophical question, or a moral conundrum. In a nutshell, whatever Prigozhin’s real motivations might have been, it boils down to Russians killing other Russians because they disagree about how to kill Ukrainians. What does that say about modern Russia?
Eggert: It just adds to the picture: that of a very significant moral crisis inside society. A moral crisis that, I’m afraid, may lead to Russian society never being able to rise again and do something good about its own country. What’s happened definitely shows to us the depths of the moral crisis that Russian society is undergoing: It is not for Putin, it is not against Putin, it is OK to kill others as long as it basically doesn’t touch upon me that much. It is OK for armed gangs to capture the cities and then for them to retreat.
It is a society where citizens are in the minority. This means that whoever is in the Kremlin will be able to basically present society with any choice he or she chooses, and there is a very high chance that society will just accept it.
This is the main issue here. It’s not an issue so much of arms or demographics, as important as they are. It is an issue of a society that basically agrees to any order coming from above — some gladly, some grudgingly, some actually want to isolate themselves from reality and did it pretty successfully until recently.
Any change that may come in such circumstances will definitely come from intra-elite struggles rather than some kind of popular democratic revolution. This, to me, is probably the perspective we will be facing in the coming weeks and months.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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