By Robert Reich
I’m no Russia expert, but I do know something about tyrants (I’ll get to Trump in a moment), and I doubt Yevgeny Prigozhin has mounted a fatal challenge to Putin’s authority.
I say this because of the roles Putin has asked Prigozhin to play, and the dependence of each man on the other.
Why did Putin authorize Prigozhin to lead a private army to attack Ukraine outside the Russian military chain of command in the first place? Presumably because Putin didn’t trust Russian generals to do the job. And he didn’t want to risk that the generals might turn on him.
Before that, starting in 2014, Prigozhin ran the so-called “Internet Research Agency” — the infamous troll factory that mounted disinformation campaigns.
As you might recall, in 2018 the U.S. Justice Department indicted Prigozhin and 12 of his most senior employees at the Agency for interfering in the 2016 election in favor of Trump, based on evidence from the Mueller investigation.
Putin denied any involvement, of course. And Trump said he “believed” Putin rather than the conclusions of U.S. intelligence.
By the time Putin invaded Ukraine last February, Prigozhin’s mercenary army numbered more than 30,000 — including thousands of prisoners in Russia’s gulag whom Prigozhin promised to free if they risked their lives on the front lines and survived.
When the Ukraine war started to go badly for Russia, Prigozhin blamed it on the incompetence and corruption of the Russian generals. This took the heat off Putin while putting it on the generals. It’s inconceivable that Prigozhin could have gotten away with his searing criticisms had Putin not given him permission.
Did this embolden Prigozhin to threaten the generals directly, which he did last Friday? Or is Putin still quietly encouraging Prigozhin to counter the generals, as a means of shaking up the Russian military while insulating Putin from responsibility if defeated? Putin’s deal allowing Prigozhin to go unscathed into exile in Belarus and dropping all charges against him suggests some complicity.
We may never know the real story, but it seems doubtful that Prigozhin’s career is over. Nor Putin’s.
Throughout history, tyrannical rulers have created their own private operations outside normal chains of command, run by people like Prigozhin, who are personally loyal.
This give tyrants flexibility to do what they want without bureaucratic opposition. It protects them against revolt by their subordinates in the chain of command. And it gives them deniability when operations go badly.
Tyrants trust no one — especially not their intelligence operations, prosecutors, or generals — which is why they take some of these functions away from the state and create their own separate centers of power, headed by personal loyalists.
Which brings us to Trump, who has emulated Putin.
It’s no accident that Trump went to battle against the FBI, the Justice Department, and the rest of the so-called “deep state,” and fired those (like James Comey and Jeff Sessions) who showed more loyalty to the nation than to himself.
And no accident that Trump ended up with a largely privatized White House, including Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Roger Stone, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
They weren’t quite a Wagner Group or Internet Research Agency, but they were more loyal to Trump than to the United States. And by operating independently, they gave Trump the flexibility and deniability he wanted.
If there’s a second Trump term (perish the thought), Trump has already indicated he’ll replace much of the executive branch with loyalists. Trump is no Putin strongman, but he knows how to rule like one.