Prigozhin’s connections complicate any purge plans by Putin

In a behind-closed-doors meeting with Russian media officials Tuesday night, President Vladimir V. Putin presented himself as a leader who took matters into his own hands and delved into Yevgeny V. Prigozhin’s business deals with the Russian Defense Ministry, according to a person. who was present there.

The person, newspaper editor Konstantin Remchukov, said Mr Putin also presented himself as fully engaged during last weekend’s 24-hour uprising by Mr Prigozhin, the leader of the paramilitary group Wagner.

“Putin said he didn’t sleep a minute during the uprising,” Mr. Remchukov said in a telephone interview from Moscow. After the rebellion, he said, Mr. Putin appeared to have focused on the economic motives guiding Mr. Prigozhin: “He is deeply engrossed in the numbers of the Prigozhin contracts and cash flows.”

These details from Putin’s meetings with pro-war bloggers and Russian media chiefs in the Kremlin show how the Russian president has gone on the offensive to counter the feeling that the weekend’s events showed he was losing control. The focus on Mr. Prigozhin’s financial dealings allowed Mr. Putin to divert the storyline from the perceived threat to his leadership and portray Mr. Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny as a personal complaint about money.

Mr Putin indicated that even if he allowed Mr Prigozhin and his fighters to find sanctuary in neighboring Belarus, the mercenary chief’s associates in government and elsewhere would still face consequences. Several pro-war Russian blogs reported this week that the authorities are investigating military personnel linked to Mr Prigozhin, but these reports could not be independently confirmed.

The problem for Mr Putin is that Mr Prigozhin has developed a web of connections deep within Russia’s ruling elite, beginning when he ran top restaurants and hosted banquets in St Petersburg in the 1990s.

Mr. Putin himself hinted at the depth of Mr. Prigozhin’s ties to the government in his public statements on Tuesday, saying that Mr. Prigozhin, a hospitality magnate, made about $1 billion from military catering contracts last year and that the Government had spent another billion dollars to fund his mercenaries.

Mr. Remchukov said that Mr. Putin returned to the issue at Tuesday night’s closed-door meeting and that it was apparent that Mr. Putin was “trying to find out the full economic background” of Mr. Prigozhin’s financial deals with the government.

On Wednesday, Mr Putin tried to show that he would go back to business as usual. He flew to the southern Russian region of Dagestan to talk about domestic tourism, praised the expansion of the local brandy industry and made no mention of the weekend’s uprising, according to Kremlin minutes.

But back in Moscow, where the nature of Putin’s longer-term response to the rebellion was unclear, members of Russia’s elite were still struggling to demonstrate their loyalty and deny past ties to Mr Prigozhin.

“It’s an extremely complicated question” about who should be punished for their links with Mr Prigozhin, said Oleg Matveychev, a member of Russia’s parliament and a longtime pro-Kremlin political adviser.

Not those who are just “pictured with Prigozhin somewhere,” he said in a phone interview, but those who “have been actively covering for him, are actively continuing to do so, and are actively working against the president’s policies,” are not being targeted.

Mr Matveychev admitted to working with Mr Prigozhin and his internet “troll farm” about a decade ago, but said he ended the partnership after concluding that he believed Mr Prigozhin to be a “mentally unstable person”. person.”

The stakes are high as to who will be punished for Mr Prigozhin’s rebellion, especially given that some of Mr Prigozhin’s key allies and sympathizers are believed to be in the military. Mr. Remchukov said there was intense speculation in Moscow about the fate of Sergei Zurovikin, a senior general whom Mr. Prigozhin had publicly praised. The New York Times reported Tuesday that American officials believe General Surovikin knew about the rebellion in advance.

“I think they will ask why he was silent” and did not speak out against Mr. Prigozhin before the uprising, Mr. Remchukov said of General Surovikin. “Was there any interest, was there a connection?” On Wednesday, Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, called the Times report “speculation” but did not deny the coverage or express any support for the general, either However, that wasn’t the case. I’ve heard from him since he posted a video last Friday night calling on the rebels to step down.

But Mr. Prigozhin’s connections extend well beyond the military. After a career in the shadows, Mr. Prigozhin has emerged as a public figure over the past year, presenting himself as a hardened mercenary leader far more effective than the traditional military. He regularly castigated and slandered military leaders such as Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu.

Over the past year, pro-Kremlin figures keen to show their patriotic faith rushed into Mr. Prigozhin’s move.

The son of Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, boasted that he had joined an artillery unit of Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner group and received a medal “for courage”. The leader of a party in the Russian parliament, Sergey Mironov, placed with a sledgehammer decorated with the Wagner insignia – a bunch of skulls – and a hand-drawn smiley face.

The sledgehammer became Mr Prigozhin’s trademark last year after he endorsed its use in the gruesome execution of a Wagner fighter who surrendered to Ukraine.

“Thank you to Yevgeny Prigozhin for the gift,” Mr. Mironov wrote on Twitter in January. “It’s a useful tool.”

But by Tuesday, Mr. Mironov had become a bulwark against Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. He called for an investigation into what he said was a “line of VIPs – civil servants and officials” who streamed out of the private jet terminal at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport to leave the country during Wagner’s abbreviated march towards Moscow on Saturday.

“It’s fifth column!” he wrote on social media, without naming names. “Traitor to the Fatherland!”

The question also arose as to who had stood up for Mr Putin during the rebellion and who had remained silent. In Moscow, political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov posted what he called an “oath rating” on the social network Telegram, cataloging to the minute the time on Saturday more than 80 regional governors of Russia released a message of support for Mr Putin. if so – and listed the 21 who didn’t post any such messages at all.

Mr Vinogradov said in an interview that it would be a mistake to draw any serious conclusions from his assessment, but MP Matveychev said he found the list instructive.

“I took a look and drew conclusions,” Mr. Matveychev said, “that a person is, let’s say, unreliable and might behave differently next time.”

Mr Matveychev stressed that the aborted uprising is positive for Russia because its failure “bolsters the image of the authorities” and acts as a “vaccine” against future uprisings. And Mr. Remchukov, the newspaper editor, said that despite his forecast on Sunday that Mr. Putin might not run for re-election next year because the rebellion had damaged his image, he had seen the Moscow Kremlin-linked Elite took care of Mr. Putin. Putin’s side, who wants to signal strength.

“Putin is now fully focused on sending the message to the elites that I can protect you,” Remchukov said. “Now I think there will be some very strong action to show that because his whole logic is to show that this was nothing but treason.”

But others saw Mr. Prigozhin’s challenge as a problem for Mr. Putin, especially as the war drags on and members of the elite try to blame each other for frontline setbacks.

“This is a signal that the system of government is not coping well with the stress of war,” Moscow analyst Vinogradov said. “Especially not in the last two months, when everyone was waiting for a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and preparing to act against each other – and even the lack of success did not change that.”

For the Russian public and military base, the aftermath of the uprising is a moment of skidding with Mr Prigozhin’s Wagner squad – which had achieved Russia’s only recent battlefield success and been hailed by pro-war bloggers and state media – recast as traitors.

Leonid Ivashov, a retired senior Russian general who opposed the war but has remained in Russia, summed up the overriding question hanging over society and the military: “What’s going on?”

“Many cannot understand what the government actually wants,” General Ivashov said in a telephone interview. “The first question is: what is happening in the country and in the army?”

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