What are the implications of the Wagner group’s march towards Moscow for Putin’s regime and its grip on power in Russia?
Well, clearly it has exposed divisions within Russia, divisions within the leadership itself, to the elite, and among the oligarchs. I think that for Vladimir Putin, whose own power and legitimacy have always been based on the fact that he is Russia’s strongman—that he is the one person in Russia who can protect the Russian people—that facade has been irreparably damaged at this point. Newspapers in Russia today are talking openly about these divisions and questioning Vladimir Putin’s power to a certain degree —speaking in terms that simply wouldn’t have been used or even allowed before this weekend.
I think this is quite clearly the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin. I think it’s a preview of things to come. I don’t think this will be the first attempt. I think that the elites and oligarchs are smelling that nervous sweat. They are circling Vladimir Putin and waiting for that next opportunity. As soon as that opportunity arises, I think there will be others that will take it. Vladimir Putin is in for an extremely bumpy ride in the coming weeks. Maybe it’ll take months, but certainly, in the near future, he’s in for a rough ride unless he himself voluntarily steps down.
What can we expect in the coming months or years post-Putin? There have been headlines along the lines of “the West must now consider the possibility of a Russian political collapse.” What needs to be done?
I have been warning the Canadian government and Canadians about this sort of possibility. I’ve been warning that this will be coming already for a number of years. And certainly, over the past 15 to 16 months. We already saw the invasion on February 24, 2022. It was senseless, it was un-strategic. I think there were some pundits who simply don’t understand Russia, who claimed that it was a reaction somehow to NATO, to some mysterious Ukrainian threat that we never saw.
Yevgeny Prigozhin made it quite clear over the weekend that this invasion has nothing to do with either of those issues. It has nothing to do with NATO. It has nothing to do with Ukraine. What this has to do with is Vladimir Putin holding on to power. It’s about Vladimir Putin. And so, we’ve known that Vladimir Putin has only been interested in Vladimir Putin for the past 23 years. I think that this war is catastrophic, it was strategically foolish. It was really the final nail in his coffin.
It is leading Russia towards some sort of political change. Now, what that change will look like, again, I think we had a preview of what it could look like over the past 48 hours. We could very well see someone like Yevgeny Prigozhin who is an ex-convict, a hot dog vendor, who became a billionaire oligarch thanks to corruption within the Kremlin. He and his troops have been charged with mass atrocities in Africa and certainly in Ukraine. He is a far-right neo-fascist thug. He is a criminal. And it is entirely possible that someone like Yevgeny Prigozhin could come to power. I would suggest that had he not turned around his forces, had he wanted to march upon Moscow, it’s entirely likely that he would have walked into Moscow, into Red Square, and even the Kremlin unopposed. Let’s not forget that.
I think the Western World and Canada itself need to be prepared for a Russia that is either fragmented, falling apart, or is run by a sort of bloodthirsty dictator who is potentially much worse than Vladimir Putin. Having said that, my prediction is that there will be a very bloody future for Russia in that transition because a transition will happen. It’s just a question of time. There’s only so long that the Russian people will be able to tolerate that sort of situation. They’ve already tolerated 23 years with Vladimir Putin. He’s not made good on most of the promises he’s made to the Russian people such as improving their living standards. One in three Russian hospitals doesn’t have running water, for example.
The fact that Russia’s armed forces are failing on the front with Ukraine shows there’s nothing left for Vladimir Putin to offer to his people. It’s entirely unlikely that if someone like Yevgeny Prigozhin were to take over things would improve. The Russian people have already stood up in protest against the regime. You’ll recall, when Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow and was detained, there were massive protests on the streets. Those have been largely repressed by the regime. I think that the past 48 hours have demonstrated that Vladimir Putin isn’t all that strong, that there is a weakness.
I think that in the coming weeks and months, you’ll see the Russian people develop and pick up some courage to come out to the streets. And eventually, they will demand democracy, freedom, and the rule of law in the future because this sort of criminal regime is unsustainable. I do believe that the Russian people know that they deserve better.
How does the Wagner Group’s rebellion to challenge Putin’s authority impact the Ukraine war?
Well, it’s going to have a significant impact. Over the past five or six months, we’ve seen that the Wagner troops were probably the most effective Russian troops on the ground. They were stuck in that meat grinder in Bakhmut. Prigozhin leveled that city and there’s no one left in that city. It’s uninhabitable. But they were the only ones to make any sort of significant gains in this war. Now, you’ve effectively removed them from the front lines. There are reports that the Russian government is trying to integrate or will try to integrate Wagner after July 1st into the Russian Armed Forces. I think this is entirely unlikely.
The troops serving in Wagner, especially those former members of the Russian Armed Forces are much better paid with Wagner. They are respected by the commanders within Wagner. And I don’t think they have any interest in joining the regular armed forces. The Russian Armed Forces have demonstrated complete incompetence in their leadership. The morale is incredibly low. So, I don’t see that happening.
We’ll have to see where these troops go. There’s some suggestion from Prigozhin himself that these 25,000 troops may follow him into Belarus. I think we have to keep a close eye on that if that is indeed the case. We also have to remember that anything we’re reading coming out of Russia, anything that Prigozhin says, anything that Putin says, anything that Shoigu or Gerasimov say, we can’t trust any of that to be true.
And we must keep an eye on Prigozhin’s troops, and what they’re doing in Belarus. Is it possible that they may try to open a new front on the Belarusian border with Ukraine? I wouldn’t rule it out. But I also wouldn’t rule out Prigozhin disappearing once he arrives in Belarus. I doubt he can remain alive alone. He needs hundreds of his forces surrounding him to ensure that Vladimir Putin doesn’t come after him. Because ultimately, you can’t challenge Vladimir Putin’s own power without a conflict and without any sort of consequence. So, I think the impact of all of this on the war effort is that Russia has lost its best fighters for the time being. And I think that the Ukrainian forces should be taking advantage of that.
What factors do you think may have motivated Prigozhin to organize this march on Moscow? What might it suggest about his influence or ambitions?
Prigozhin has been complaining about the lack of provisions being sent to him, and the lack of ammunition, and weapons over the past six months he’s been engaged in what’s happening in Bakhmut. But I would say that Prigozhin has also made his own bed. Anytime that he’s had any sort of success on the battlefield, he immediately claimed credit for it. And instead of raising the Russian flag over sections of Bakhmut when they were defeated, he raised the Wagner flag instead. Yevgeny Prigozhin is very much in this for himself. He’s certainly not in it for Vladimir Putin and not even necessarily, for Russia. Again, he’s a criminal, a con man, and an entrepreneur. I think that the Russian Armed Forces recognize this and that’s why the delivery of ammunition weapons went down to a trickle essentially over the past couple of months. This enraged Prigozhin and certainly, it didn’t help that on Friday, Russian Armed Forces’ helicopters and an aircraft apparently started firing on the Wagner camp in southern Russia. Apparently, thirty Wagner soldiers were killed during those strikes. And that’s what immediately inspired Prigozhin to react and march on Rostov.
Personally, I think he is clearly ambitious. I think he sees himself as at least commanding Russia’s armed forces if not becoming one day President himself. I don’t think we can rule any of that out. And I think that Vladimir Putin recognizes this which is one reason I also believe that unless Prigozhin is allowed to bring along several 100, if not several 1000s of his troops to Belarus, I don’t think that Prigozhin has much time left in this world.
In light of the ease with which Wagner seized a major Russian city and their subsequent progress towards Moscow, what would you say this incident reveals about the readiness and competence of Russia’s military and security forces?
We’re only seeing part of what was happening—we were seeing these tanks roll into Rostov and indeed, there was very little resistance. Yevgeny Prigozhin was able to basically walk up to the Southern District military headquarters, which is basically the hive, the brain of much of the activity of the invasion that is against Ukraine. He was able to walk in there unopposed and basically walk around inside the courtyard. The fact that his troops, his tanks, were able to travel nearly 1000 kilometres, pretty much unopposed through Voronezh and up to 200 kilometres from Moscow makes me believe that there was probably something happening behind closed doors.
We don’t know what was happening politically. What we do know is that on Saturday, many of the leading oligarchs including Roman Abramovich, who was very close to Vladimir Putin, fled and they haven’t gone back. They flew off to places like Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. We don’t know what their position is on any of this. And quite frankly, we haven’t heard from Shoigu and Gerasimov. We don’t know what’s happening in Russia’s military leadership, either. There were some images that were broadcast on Monday of Shoigu visiting with some troops, but those were apparently archival images. So, we simply don’t know what was happening behind the scenes.
The fact that there really was no opposition also points to the fact of the level of morale in the Russian army. They didn’t seem to care about what was happening. They allowed Wagner to pass and the fact that there was no opposition coming to the streets in Rostov to support Vladimir Putin, I think that’s the biggest sign. Now, whether that means that those Russians living in Rostov are interested in seeing a change in regime or whether they’re just apathetic—who knows, but the fact that these Wagner troops were getting high fives from some of the residents of Rostov, that they were able to just walk into convenience stores, drink coffee, and casually walk around without any sort of opposition leads me to believe that that it’s a just another signal that the Putin regime is extremely weak and unpopular. I think Vladimir Putin probably recognizes this and is most certainly quite nervous about his own position right now.
Why should Canadians care about these latest developments in Russia?
I think that Canadians need to be keeping a close eye on this. We need to care because what happens in Russia is going to affect much of what happens in Central and Eastern Europe and the Arctic as well. This affects everything around us. We Canadians need to remember that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government laid claim to all of the natural resources underneath the Arctic Sea right up to our 200-mile economic exclusive zone two years ago. They’ve also built 23 offensive capability bases in the Arctic. Now, Vladimir Putin hasn’t been doing much with them. But someone like Yevgeny Prigozhin, might. He’s very much interested in natural resources. He’s been active in Africa for the better part of the past decade. And the Arctic is, of course, rich with these sorts of resources. In that sense, we need to be aware of what’s going on there.
I would also say that the Canadian government needs to prepare for that transition. I can’t emphasize this enough. I think that the Canadian government can play a role in the future of Russia. we can do that by working with Russian civil society groups, and Russian independent media, supporting them and giving them all the tools that they need so that when that time comes when there is that opportunity for a democratic transition, they have all the tools and resources they need to successfully make that transition.
And this is something that we should be actively looking at immediately. Now’s the time to do that. I think this weekend demonstrates the urgency of that.