Russian socialist Ilya Matveev: ‘Prigozhin’s coup attempt has exposed Putin’s vulnerability’

Ilya Matveev is a Russian socialist and political economist. Matveev sat down with LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal editor Federico Fuentes to discuss the recent armed rebellion led by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, what it tells us about the realities of Putin’s regime and its possible impacts on the war in Ukraine.

Could you begin by telling us a bit about Prizoghin, his Wagner Group and the role they played, at least until recently, within Putin’s political project. 

The basic answer is that Wagner is a private military company (PMC) that shares some of the same features exhibited by PMCs based in developed nations. In this sense, it is not something completely unique or a completely homegrown phenomenon. For example, in the United Kingdom, PMCs have been used for all kinds of reckless adventures and covert operations, especially in Africa but also in the Middle East. Companies such as Sandline International have participated in multiple coup d’etats and attempts to take over control of natural resources. The United States has also used PMCs, such as Blackwater, for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There, the issue was not carrying out covert operations; the US could rely on the CIA for that. Rather, the problem the US faced was that it wanted to fight several large imperialist wars at the time, but did not want to introduce a compulsory military draft to obtain the numbers of soldiers it required to accomplish this. So, PMCs substituted for the regular military, providing in some cases up to half of the soldiers involved in those wars. 

All this is true for Wagner. Wagner has engaged in imperialist plunder and adventurism. Its activities in Africa are quite similar to those of other PMCs, namely destabilising countries and exploiting resources — a kind of combination of adventure capitalism and covert operations for the benefit of Russia’s geopolitical interests. Then, when the war in Ukraine started and Russia faced the same problem that the US had in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin turned to Wagner to supply soldiers. At its peak, Wagner troops in Ukraine numbered somewhere between 40-50,000 — almost a third of the entire force that invaded Ukraine.

But Wagner also has its own unique characteristics. One such characteristic is that Wagner recruits convicts. No other PMC in the world has organised the kind of campaign that Wagner has, of recruiting prisoners with the promise of a presidential pardon if they complete their contract. We are talking about 10,000s of convicts that have been recruited by Wagner.

And Prigozhin himself is also quite a unique character. Wagner is only one of his ventures; he has all kinds of projects and we are starting to gain even more knowledge about his other projects because authorities have begun conducting searches of his businesses. But from what we can see, Prigozhin’s empire is actually pretty big. It includes a troll factory that he has run for a long time, using paid trolls that go onto social networks to try to shift public opinion. Prigozhin also has a gigantic media network, consisting of hundreds of outlets all across the country: largely extremely bad quality tabloids that are constantly used to run political attack campaigns, particularly against Putin’s opponents. Prigozhin also owns a lot of real estate properties, particularly in St Petersburg. Prigozhin made his money in a variety of ways. I do not think that any other PMC in the world engages in so many different greyzone activities.

Another thing: most of Prigozhin’s activities were financed through corrupt government contracts. [Russian dissident Alexei] Navalny and his team exposed this fact — which is why Prigozhin has attacked him so furiously. Navalny’s team revealed that Prigozhin, through his catering company, was given contracts to supply food to thousands of schools and military barracks all across the country. That is why he is referred to as “Putin’s Chef”. This food was really bad quality; it was often rotten and unsafe to eat. But it was part of a corruption scheme that funded Prigozhin’s activities.

I think we can view Wagner as something like a PMC squared: it does everything that other PMCs do, but double. It involves corrupt government contracts, but on a dramatic scale. It carries out covert government operations, but much more intensely than other PMCs. And all of this rested on the personal relationship between Putin and Prigozhin, which operated outside any kind of legal framework or regulations. There is no law in Russia to regulate PMCs: in fact, mercenary companies are prohibited by Russia’s Criminal Code. What Wagner does is completely illegal, yet Putin publicly stated that Wagner was financed by the state!

Wagner operated free of any legal controls. Instead, it was controlled via this personal relationship, together with some military intelligence oversight. FSB [Federal Security Service] officers were clearly present among Wagner’s troops; in fact, Wagner was drowning in FSB agents. It is impossible to imagine it could have been any other way given everyone understood this was a risky situation: it involved an irregular military force that recruited convicts; was run by a rogue actor who specialises in provocations, assassinations, all kinds of shady stuff; and was financed through corrupt government contracts, despite these activities being prohibited by Russian law. 

In the end, Wagner demonstrated that it had a coherent command structure capable of carrying out sophisticated operations. And we saw just how loyal Prigozhin’s troops were to him and just how far they were willing to follow him during the attempted coup d’etat. They had a very sophisticated and well-prepared plan that involved capturing Rostov-on-Don, a huge Russian city and a key military centre from where the war in Ukraine is commanded. They captured the whole city and had a plan to continue marching towards Moscow. This plan only came to a halt because Priozghin himself called it off.

Why do you refer to the recent events as an attempted coup d’etat? Generally, when you think of a coup, you think of events involving the active participation of the country’s armed forces, but this was not the case. Or was there evidence at the time of broader support within the military for Prigozhin’s actions?

Prigozhin himself said this was not a coup attempt because he was not planning to replace Putin; he said he only wanted to remove [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu and [Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Valery] Gerasimov. But that is not really much better: when you are directly attacking the defence minister and Chief of General Staff, it is somewhat laughable to say that what you are doing is not a coup simply because you are not attacking Putin. Even Putin himself was rather straightforward, denouncing it as treason rather than treating it as a protest. What Prigozhin was effectively doing was an attempted coup against Putin himself, because there was no way that Putin could give up Shoigu and Gerasimov and turn around and say: “OK, nice job Prigozhin. So you become defence minister and your favourite general Sergey Surovikin can become chief of staff.” Maybe Prigozhin thought something like this could work but, looking at it realistically, no state in the world could allow something like this to occur. So, it was basically a coup.

In terms of support from the military, Prigozhin has his own military — that is the important caveat here. It is true that coups are usually organised by the military, but then Wagner is a large heavily-armed military force. There were probably not 25,000 troops involved in the coup attempt, as Prigozhin claimed; it was probably about 7-8000 troops. But 7-8000 heavily armed people is still a huge force. In 2014-15, the number of Russian regular army troops that participated in the war in Donbas was about 8-10,000 troops, so you can do a lot with a force of this size. And we should not forget that Wagner has within it all branches of the military, including its own military aviation. Wagner does not just have artillery, tanks, drones, anti-drone weapons, armoured personnel carriers and infantry; it also has fighter jets. It is the only PMC in the world that has its own fighter jets. Of course, Prigozhin did not buy his own fighter jets, they were given to him by the military. In this sense, it was a serious coup attempt by a very cohesive military force, with soldiers ready to follow Prigozhin’s orders. It was not going to be easy to stop them, if Putin decided to do this, especially when all his troops are on the frontline: who’s going to stop them? It would have required a lot of bloodshed, it would not have been an easy battle.

But returning to the issue of support within the military, it is clear that some of the things Prigozhin said before the coup attempt in his long 30-minute video were just common sense: that the Russian military leadership had proven itself to be inept and that they lost so many soldiers due to bad planning, bad military strategy; that they were all corrupt — completely true — and that no one had been held accountable for all this. Even before the war no one liked Shoigu; in the army there was no real sympathy for Shoigu. Because of this, I think a lot of military generals were not sure how to respond. On the one hand, it is clear that staging a coup in the middle of a war is very stupid: you cannot say that you are a patriot if you stage a mutiny amid a war, you are not acting in a patriotic manner; anyone with half a brain understands that. On the other hand, what Prigozhin was saying was true: that Shoigu is inept and a bad minister of defence; that the Russian military needs a huge shake up but no one is ready to lead this effort. So, when all this was happening, it was clear that army commanders were reluctant to act. During the first 10-12 hours, military commanders did almost nothing. I think they were hedging their bets; they did not exactly understand how strong or weak Putin’s position was and thought that maybe they should let things slide, that maybe there needed to be some kind of new government. I think the military was kind of wobbling.

That is why Putin now finds himself in a very bad situation. First, it is clear that some low-level soldiers defied orders: certain pilots refused to fire at Wagner troops when they were ordered to. Second, it is clear that the military generals were not that enthusiastic about crushing the revolt. And, third, look at the way it was all resolved, with Prigozhin now completely safe in Minsk. There are indications that Prigozhin was allowed to travel to St Petersburg to pick up some of his things before going into exile. Just imagine: Prigozhin is a traitor who has just staged a mutiny, but rather than arrest him they allow him to collect his stuff, his money, and leave the country in complete safety. On top of this, the criminal case against him has been closed, with the official formulation being that these criminals have agreed to halt their criminal activities so the case will be dropped. Imagine a criminal justice system working in such a way that if you agree to stop your criminal activities then nothing happens to you. So, if you kill one person and say: “I'm going to kill another person”, but afterwards you decide you just wanted to kill one person and say: “Okay, I have stopped my criminal activities, I will not kill the second person”, then the criminal case for the murder you have already committed is dropped. This is all very farcical. And I think most people in Russia see it this way.

Given this, why do you think Prigozhin aborted his rebellion so abruptly? It’s hard to understand why he would get so close to Moscow and then just turn around, pack his bags and leave.

I think Prigozhin decided that the deal offered to him was not a bad one and that it actually made sense to accept it. I do not think he really planned this all the way through. He definitely had a military plan, but he had not done much political planning. For instance, after reaching Moscow and taking power, what was he going to do next? Who were going to be his lieutenants, who was going to be in his government? I do not think he thought through the political part of this whole thing.

Remember, the provocation for all this was that the government had tried to force Wagner troops to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence and integrate them into the regular army. Wagner refused. Prigozhin likely thought: “If I’m in Belarus, and my troops are also in Belarus, then I can continue my global adventures. Maybe I can go to the Central African Republic and become a dictator there. Why not?” Ultimately, he was offered a very nice way out of all this. It is not like they told him that they were going to execute or even court martial him. Instead, they just said: “You can go to Belarus, no problem”. By doing so Prigozhin’s initial problem is solved, because the Wagner troops who do not want to go over to Shoigu’s side can also go to Belarus with him. And even if Putin tries to kill him now, it would be a blow to Putin, because he said publicly that he promised him safe passage, meaning any retribution will not look good for Putin; it would demonstrate that Putin’s word is worth nothing. For Prigozhin, all this amounted to a good deal, so he decided to take it within the context of this crazy situation.

In a short post on Facebook assessing these events, you wrote that “Putin’s ‘strengthening of the state’ was in many ways a strengthening of the regime at the expense of the state”. Could you outline what you mean by this and how recent events reflect this reality?

I have now also published an article that delves more deeply into this. But, yes, there is a certain paradox here because Putin is a self-avowed statist; his ideology is statism. He has repeatedly said that the state is very important, that there should be a strong legal framework and that a strong state should be restored because it has always played a positive role in Russia’s development. That has been his line throughout the past 23 years that he has been in power. If you listen to him, he is a very state-minded person. 

But if you look at what he has actually done, he was not really building a strong state at all. A strong state requires a strong bureaucracy that is meritocratic, competent, professional and free of corruption. Corruption is the opposite of a strong state: corruption means the privatisation of the state by corrupt public officials. The question is how could Putin repeat this rhetoric about needing a strong state and, at the same time, allow so much corruption. What I explain in the article is that the manner in which Putin has organised his state is all based on informal relationships. He simply hands over powers to some of his trusted associates rather than a formal body. So, he is not strengthening formal state bodies or institutions but instead relying on informal relationships. The people whom he entrusts with these huge powers all speak as though they are state-minded people too, but there is no state to speak of because it is just a bunch of people doing their own things: there is no state in the sense of legal procedures.

Marxist theorists see the state as a machine based on procedures not personal relationships, but Putin has always prioritised relationships over procedures. For example, there is a state company called Rosneftegaz, which accumulates a huge proportion of Russia’s revenues from the energy trade. But what happens to this revenue? Nobody knows. At one point a journalist asked Putin: “What happens with all of Rosneftegaz’s money?” Putin responded that the government is sometimes unable to finance everything that needs to be financed, so he personally decides what to finance with this money because he does not trust the government to do it properly or because he can do it better. Despite being a state company, Rosneftegaz’s revenue did not go into the state budget. The company was owned by the state, but it operated like any private company, where individuals decided where to invest its revenue, without any kind of legal framework or documentation limiting their activities. The relationship Putin had with Prigozhin was very similar.

Instead of having a formal state with strong structures, Putin relies on these informal relationships, meaning all you have is the facade of a state. You have rhetoric, you have ideology, but you do not really have state institutions. You do not have formal rules of the game, you only have informal rules. All this was exposed by Prigozhin: he revealed that Putin’s state is actually just a bunch of people, each of them controlling their own fiefdom, and that all those fiefdoms come together because Putin is watching over everyone, attempting to combine agendas. This is good for Putin and his own power. This system of patronage enables him to reward his clients with means to enrich themselves and, in return, they give him their loyalty. This is good for his regime of political power, but it is bad for the state as a formal legal institution. The relationship between these two is not one of mutual development: when the regime is strengthened, it does not mean the state is strengthened. At a certain point, a strong regime actually makes the state weaker. In Russia’s case, we are precisely seeing how Putin’s strong political regime — which is very capable of maintaining its own rule — is degrading the state in a systematic manner. Putin’s personal power is strong because the state is weak.

But one thing I would add is that, even before the recent events, I kind of understood that things were going in this direction, but I never thought that the rot within the Russian state was so strong and that the state was just so flimsy. I also thought that Putin’s own personal power would be enough to hold all this together, but we are now seeing that it is not enough; that all this can crack very easily.

Without asking you to predict the future, what are the most likely outcomes of all this? Has the regime been strengthened? Is all this likely to embolden anti-war protests? And what, if any, impact could it have on Russia’s war in Ukraine?

One thing we can say for sure is that Putin has come out of this weakened because everyone saw his vulnerability; it became public knowledge. You cannot dance your way around the fact that there was an armed mutiny involving columns of heavily-armed troops that almost got to Moscow. Everyone saw this, and they saw that the army did not really try to stop them; they saw high-level army officers, even the deputy defence minister, just talking to Prigozhin, negotiating with him, as if this was all just a normal situation. Prigozhin himself acted very arrogantly and aggressively towards the deputy minister during those talks. You had this situation where someone who has been a criminal all his life, who specialises in murky, dirty activities, is talking to someone who is a decorated war veteran, a respected soldier, a general and the deputy minister of defence, and the former is talking to the latter as if he is some kind of errand boy. How can Putin be strengthened after this? It is unthinkable.

My general diagnosis is that the system Putin built was capable of reproducing his own personal power at any cost — at the cost of corruption, at the cost of bad governance, at the cost of inequality; no matter the cost, his personal power could be reproduced. Then, when he invaded Ukraine, he created a new goal for this system: to not only reproduce his own personal power but to also conquer a large European country with a huge military. But it turns out the system he built is too weak, too flimsy to do that. First, his army has turned out to be much weaker than many expected. Second, he turned out to be politically weaker than expected due to his system being very haphazard and based on informal relationships rather than strong legal state structures. The system worked, more or less, to reproduce his own power, but it does not work when confronted with very tough situations that are not just about him, such as this war, which has been absolutely dramatic for the Russian state and society. This means the situation is very chaotic and uncertain, and the level of uncertainty has only increased due to recent events. When Putin started this war, he did so without any political repercussions: there were no real defections among his elite, almost no high-level officials defected. It seemed that Putin’s power was really solid, because there were no defections. Now we see that, underneath this surface, there are clans and patronage networks ready to attack each other when the opportunity arises.

Paradoxically, in Putin’s mind, he believed that by going to war he was not just “saving the country” but also saving himself. He thought that if the US and the West were out to get him, he needed to show some extreme resolve in order to avoid the same fate as [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi and [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein. He thought that if he won the war and surrounded himself with military conquests — and with the repressive, military wing of the state strengthened — he would be safe from the regime change activities of the West. But the opposite has turned out to be true. Today, he is as vulnerable as ever to being deposed from power, but it is not the West that is generating the threat; it is his own system generating it. Putin failed to understand that his greatest vulnerability lays within and that, by starting the war, his vulnerability would only increase, not the other way around.

In terms of anti-war protests, I do not see this as a likely development because Putin will seek to punish the weakest link, which in this case is the unarmed people. When Putin sees a military warlord, that’s a problem for him; but it’s no problem to punish unarmed people and send them to prison. What I do think is that, if there is going to be some kind of descent into chaos, which is possible, I think that the people can play a constructive role in building a mass movement to save the country from this descent into disintegration and civil war. I can imagine such a scenario in which a movement against civil war and the disintegration of the country emerges.

And as to the future of the war in Ukraine, I do not think that Putin has settled on any particular course because both main options remain bad for him. For example, let’s say he decides to freeze the conflict. First, it is not at all clear that he can even do this: the Ukrainians could just keep advancing and possibly break through Russia’s defences. But let’s imagine he manages to freeze the conflict. Then comes the time to calculate victories and losses. But what is the victory here? Yes, Russia annexed a few territories, but it is not as if Russia does not already have territory; Russia is a pretty big country, why would it need another two regions? And what would Russia even do with them? These annexed territories have been devastated by war, with almost no industry or economic activity left. They are going to be little more than sinkholes for government funds. Not only that, after one and a half years of war, Russia’s army has failed to break the encirclement of Donetsk by Ukrainian troops who, if they want, can continue to bombard the city. If the war was about saving Donetsk from potential Ukrainian attacks, then Putin has failed as of this moment.

So, there are no real gains, but the economic losses are enormous in terms of the destruction of trade relationships that Russia had built up over decades, particularly with Europe. Russia will not only not be able to access markets in the West but also Western technology. Russia will be left isolated and weakened. Furthermore, NATO has further expanded along Russia’s northern border with Sweden and Finland joining. All this amounts to a huge strategic defeat. So, what can he point to as a victory?

The other option is to go all in and try to win this war. But this is an unwinnable war: Putin simply does not have enough troops and equipment to conquer Ukraine. So, both options are bad. This is why he kind of wriggles between the two, because he does not know what to do in this situation. If you stop the war, you bring forward the day of reckoning and everyone will turn to Putin to ask: “Alright, let’s see what we won and what we lost out of this war”. But, at the same time, if it continues, he cannot win the war. So, Putin just continues the war in order not to stop it.

None of the options are good for Putin, but this does not mean that Russia will end up becoming more democratic or anything like that. We may end up with a military dictatorship, with someone like Prigozhin coming to power and saying: “Alright, we’ll try the second option. Let’s have a full mobilisation and mobilise two million people, give them some rusted AK47 from the ’60s and 70s and just send them to Ukraine to die”. Unfortunately, this is also possible. The end of Putin does not mean that something good is coming next. But I think it’s very realistic to think, given what we saw with Prigozhin, that this regime is as vulnerable as never before.