|Why did Putin pick a fight with one of the most powerful members of the|
SILOVIKI: "Chef" Prigozhin? (left).
SHADOWY DEEP STATE CONTROLS RUSSIA AND PUTIN
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GUEST BLOG / By Josh Meyer, a veteran USA TODAY correspondent focusing on domestic, national and global security issues, including terrorism, cybersecurity and transnational criminal organizations
A mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin came to a swift end Saturday, but it raised new questions about his grip on power and is expected to intensify pressure within Russia over the unpopular Ukraine war.
"I think you've seen cracks emerge that weren't there before," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN's "State of the Union" program Sunday.
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Most recently, as the Wagner group mercenaries advanced toward Moscow, Putin had vowed a harsh penalty for Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the paramilitary force that has been fighting alongside Russia's regular army in Ukraine.
But after Prigozhin abruptly ended the rebellion, the Kremlin said he would not be prosecuted and would instead leave for Belarus.
Not yet answered is who proposed the deal?
Prigozhin, once known as "Putin's chef," is a former restaurant owner who accumulated power and influence as a friend and close ally of the Russian president.
But Prigozhin has been increasingly critical of Russia's military, accusing its leadership of incompetence and suggesting that too many young Russian soldiers had become cannon fodder in the war in Ukraine.
“There are a lot of people in Russia who are unhappy with Putin and agree with Prigozhin,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former top Russia official at the Department of Defense.
Russia's real powerbrokers
Although Putin's authority has not been challenged during his more than two decades as Russia's president, a shadowy group known as the siloviki – Russia’s version of the so-called Deep State security power brokers – wields substantial power behind the scenes in Russia, said Steven Hall, a former Moscow chief of station and head of Russia operations for the CIA.
If Putin loses the group's support, he could be forced out almost immediately, he said. "Putin and the Kremlin haven't played the last card yet," Hall said. "Neither have any of the other players here, including Prigozhin, who probably has got other arrows in the quiver.
“There are still some outlying questions, I think, with regard to the Russian population and the Russian military and other ministries and power centers. But it's definitely very, very, very bad for Putin," Hall said. "In my view, if the siloviki – the senior intelligence, security and military folks – make the assessment that OK, this has gotten too crazy, then Putin's done. And that's very hard to predict, as to where they are on this and how long that might happen."
'The end of Putinism?'
Kurt Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, agreed Putin is facing a crisis exponentially more serious than anything he has seen while in power. And much of that, he said, is of his own making.
First, Putin chose to launch, and continue, a war against Ukraine that was extremely unpopular with the Russian people and, more importantly, the siloviki security power brokers who can remove him from power.
Then he picked a fight with one of the most powerful members of the siloviki: Prigozhin.
“Bottom line: Putin has left himself no way out. As long as he is in power, he will fight. And that will kill the Russian state. So this means his removal from power becomes inescapable if Russia is to survive as a state,” said Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019.
Wagner chief Prigozhin, once a close Putin ally, said earlier last week his troops had taken control of the military command centre and bases in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the nerve centre of Russia's offensive in Ukraine, and vowed to topple Moscow's top military leaders.
“We still don’t know what mechanisms may arise, but the writing is on the wall,” Volker told USA TODAY. “Going after Prigozhin is a finger in the dike. The bigger picture is the end of Putinism.”
Not everyone agrees that the end is near for Putin, at least politically. Farkas said Prigozhin’s about-face on the insurrection probably came from his realization that Putin had successfully marshalled Russian forces against him. That includes the military, the National Guard and internal security forces, she said, as well as other proxy fighting forces like the Chechens under leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who on Saturday publicly offered to help Putin put down the mutiny.
But Farkas said Putin made the serious mistake over the years of allowing Prigozhin to become not only a public face of the war in Ukraine but an extremely wealthy and politically powerful man, far more so than most other siloviki.
A wily and powerful Putin adversary Prigozhin said publicly that the war was a mistake that is undermining Russia economically, politically and militarily on the global stage.
Those comments have resonated with influence groups in Russia like the mothers of fallen soldiers, who Farkas said helped bring an end to another unpopular conflict: the war in Chechnya many years ago.
What kind of support Prigozhin enjoys among the Russian population, and the siloviki power brokers, “is the million-dollar question,” said Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Asia.
“Even if Putin has solidified his support, obviously this is a sign of weakness. It shows that Putin is on the decline in terms of his political power.”
Prigozhin’s relationship with Putin dates back to his running a catering company and operating disinformation campaigns against the U.S. including during the 2016 election, through his Internet Research Agency. But most of his wealth and power comes from running the Wagner Group, and using it as a Russian proxy fighting force in Ukraine, wide swaths of Africa and elsewhere.
By being Putin’s close ally and proxy, Prigozhin has forged alliances with many other power brokers whom he could be using now to build an alliance against Putin.
Hall, in fact, said it’s likely that the Wagner group chief began having those conversations weeks, if not months, ago. “He knows how the game has played. He has been in the Kremlin and has been a power player for a while. So I would be shocked if he hasn't already reached out to some of the siloviki and cut some deals,” Hall said. “This is not something that he's going to do cold and then see what happens.”
Daniel Fried, the former assistant secretary of state for Europe and ambassador to Poland, said the circumstances around Prigozhin’s assault, his discussions with the Belarus president and his sudden retreat suggest that something might be in the works.
“There seems to have been a deal. With whom? And for what?” said Fried, who has helped shaped the U.S. response to Russia for decades.
“Did Prigozhin demand the replacement of Shoigu and Gerasimov,” the two Russian defense officials heading the war in Ukraine? “And did Putin accept? How does Putin survive such a sign of weakness?” Fried asked then produced the following masterpiece of understatement: “There is probably more to this strange story.”