This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘The end of Prigozhin

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. Our topic this week is Russia after the sudden death of Yevgeny Prigozhin. My guest is Sergei Guriev, who’s provost of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, universally known as Sciences Po. Sergei is a prominent academic economist who once advised Dmitry Medvedev when Medvedev was Russia’s president between 2008 and 2012. But Sergei fled Russia in 2013 for both political and personal reasons. He’s also the co-author of a recent book called Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century. So, after Prigozhin’s death, is Vladimir Putin firmly back in control?

News clip, translated
Caught on camera: the final seconds of a private jet. On board, reportedly the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. “Look over there by the farm. It’s burning,” the eyewitness can be heard saying. In the distance, a giant cloud of smoke.

Gideon Rachman
The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin was shocking, but not that surprising. After the rebellion of his Wagner group and his abortive march on Moscow last June, it was widely assumed that Putin would want Prigozhin dead. What is perhaps surprising is that Prigozhin felt secure enough to get on a plane flying between St Petersburg and Moscow. So what conclusions do we draw about the future of Russia and the Ukraine war? I began our conversation by asking Sergei Guriev for his reaction to the news of Prigozhin’s death.

Sergei Guriev
It was not a total surprise at all. The moment Prigozhin launched his coup, and some people would even say even before Prigozhin started to go public and started to criticise Ministry of Defence and occasionally Mr Putin and his war, that was already a big, big problem for Mr Prigozhin. But after the coup, a lot of people said — and I said as well — that he’s a dead man walking, he will be eliminated and he will try to protect himself. Still, on this day, I think it is not clear whether he was actually killed. Everybody presumes he was killed. But conspiracy theories that he managed to disappear, taken false identity, maybe doing some plastic surgery. This is also not something to rule out, but for Mr Putin was super important to send a message that traitors are punished. And I think this message has been sent and this public elimination of several people, including collateral damage of three crew members who are not related to Wagner Group, but also seven other people, including Mr Prigozhin and the commander of Wagner, Mr Utkin. That is a very, very clear signal that Mr Putin doesn’t tolerate treason and this is something that was expected. So I agree with you. It’s a shock, but not a surprise.

Gideon Rachman
Do you think it also means that Putin is now firmly back in control? Because back in June, when Prigozhin’s attempted coup took place, there was a lot of commentary, including, I must admit, by myself saying, you know, this is a terrible sign for him. The regime is rocking. The Ukrainian counteroffensive at that time was just beginning. But now, do you think he’s firmly back in control or is that also too simple?

Sergei Guriev
I think it’s too simple in the sense he had to do it, otherwise he would be too weakened because of the arguments you just mentioned. So if he didn’t kill Prigozhin, he would be showing that treason is possible and not punishable. Right now, at least he send the signal that he kills any potential traitor. On the other hand, if there is Mr Prigozhin number two, if there is a mutiny 2.0, the new Prigozhin will not stop several hundred kilometres away from Moscow. He will go all the way because he knows the stakes are too high. On the other hand, there is no one new Mr Prigozhin. Mr Prigozhin was quite unique. But of course I would say that the coups and the conspiracies against dictators never succeed before they succeed. So maybe there is a mutiny being discussed, a coup d’état being discussed in closed-door meetings right now somewhere in Russia, but we just don’t know about them. But overall, yes, it was super important for Mr Putin to take back control, to punish Mr Prigozhin, and he did that very brutally, but also very effectively. So he’s much stronger today than a week ago.

Gideon Rachman
But the nature of his rule — dictatorship, if you wanna call it that — is now much more nakedly based on violence. I mean, you wrote a book called Spin Dictators, co-wrote it, which talked about how he had sort of pioneered a form of authoritarian rule that relied as much on PR and media manipulation as on brute force. But now it seems he’s gone back to the old model.

Sergei Guriev
That’s correct. And so in our book, we said that Mr Putin may be moving in that direction already, going back in time to the open repression, open fear-based model of 20th century. And actually the new edition which came out this year, we have a preface discussing the full transformation of his regime in the first week of the Ukraine invasion of 2022, when Putin closed down all independent media in Russia, when he introduced open censorship. And this killing is also typical fear-based dictator killing. Remember, previously he would use poison. He would use deniable ways of eliminating his opponents. Now, downing a plane in Russia, not in Ukraine, not in Africa, but in Russia, is a very clear message that you don’t mess with Mr Putin. He doesn’t want to send ambiguous messages. He wants to send a very open fear signal to all his potential competitors and opponents. And so, yes, this is part of the transformation of Mr Putin’s regime, which happened last year and this year.

Gideon Rachman
Hard to tell, of course, from a distance but what do you think ordinary Russians will make of it? Because it seems to me one of Putin’s original promises was you will live in a normal country, you know, and here you’ve just had an attempted coup. Now you’ve had, it appears, the Russian military shooting down a civilian airliner just outside Moscow, as you say, killing not just Prigozhin, but the civilian crew. And also Putin used to say I obey the law, you know, step down when my term is over and so on. This is a completely lawless regime now, if they’re clearly murdering people.

Sergei Guriev
This is a great question and I’m really looking forward to seeing Russian TV response to this, Russian official propaganda response to this. I should tell you that of this stage, Russian official view is that’s been a plane which crashed. Nobody is talking about Mr Putin gave an order to down this plane. We don’t know why this plane crashed. We don’t know, maybe there was a bomb in there. But everybody who reads anything but Russian TV, who follows news on internet, who reads Financial Times, is, of course, aware Mr Putin is behind this.

And the only question that we have is whether that was a bomb on board of that plane or it was downed by a rocket. And probably it was a bomb because downing by the rocket, you also need to take care of people who launched the rocket, and so it’s probably costlier. But I think official position was Mr Prigozhin died and people who want to support Mr Putin will probably, some of them will understand that, some of them not.

But official propaganda will not say that Mr Putin downed this plane. But it’s already true that people will support the war on Ukraine, people who supported Mr Prigozhin’s so-called Z Telegram channels, the pro-war Telegram channels, they’re all very clear that this plane was downed by the government and they’re extremely unhappy about this. There will be no reaction but for them, the rules of the game are very clear: that somebody as powerful and as important to this war as Mr Prigozhin can be killed by Mr Putin, it’s a very, very clear message. And they now know that nobody among them is safe.

Remember before that, Mr Putin arrested one of the leaders of this political movement, Mr Strelkov, a former defence minister of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, the man who actually started 2014 war. He was arrested. There were some very, very small protests, but arrests and downing a plane within Russia are very different things. All these people who support the war who think that Mr Putin is not brutal enough versus Ukraine will now be aware that Mr Putin, according to them, may not be brutal enough towards Ukraine, but he will be very brutal to any competitor within Russia, whether the competitor supports the war or not.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, I would like to believe that this will damage Putin internationally because, again, you know, Russia tries to present itself as a respectable state and as a country that in fact, has been dealt with very badly by the west. And yet, in fact, I guess you could argue that Putin is actually making diplomatic progress at the moment. You’ve just seen the Brics summit. Apparently, Russia will host the next one in Kazan. The Brics have just expanded, or looked like they’re going to, to include countries like Argentina and Saudi Arabia. So do you think he feels that he won’t really pay an international price for this?

Sergei Guriev
That’s a great question. And I’m really interested in the reaction of democratic members of the Brics. I think some of the Brics members, such as South Africa and Brazil, should probably ask why now? And the answer to the question why now is it’s exactly two months after Prigozhin’s coup. And so Putin was thinking, I need to do it as soon as possible. And this symbolic date of two months after the coup is great so let’s go for it, even if it’s happening during the Brics summit. So Putin chose domestic reasons over the diplomatic success. And I would like to agree with you, hoping that he would pay an external price. But remember, expansion of Brics will include, as you said, Saudi Arabia, which chops journalists in parts. It will include Iran, which is not a soft regime as well. So I would say that in Brics, human rights is not top of the agenda. So I don’t think within Brics there will be a price to pay. On the other hand, President Biden has already said it’s very clear that Putin is behind this. Mr Biden said, remember, I told journalists already a few weeks ago that Mr Prigozhin should watch what he’s using as a means of transportation. So apparently American intelligence already expected something like this.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. In fact, I think Bill Burns, the head of the CIA, speaking at the Aspen Institute, more or less said, he said Putin will take revenge, but he likes to do it a little while later, which does raise the question, maybe it’s pointless trying to get inside the mind of Prigozhin, but what was he thinking? If people like you and me could see that Putin would try to kill him, why was he in Russia taking planes? Massive overconfidence.

Sergei Guriev
I agree with you. I think the main challenge for Mr Prigozhin was also his gamble to keep at least some African assets, if you like, some African contracts. And apparently part of the discussions during Russia-Africa summit, which happened a few weeks ago, was also for Mr Putin to retake control over Mr Prigozhin’s business in Africa. And so Mr Prigozhin was very worried about this.

With this team of seven people who were killed, he was coming back from Mali, and it could have been that he was trying desperately to talk to Mr Putin or somebody around Mr Putin to negotiate something. And probably that was a trap where some sources around Mr Putin told Mr Prigozhin that it’s safe to come back from Mali to Russia. And that was just a trap set up by Mr Putin.

And Mr Prigozhin again, as you rightly said, was overconfident. Overall you see, Mr Prigozhin survive two months, and that probably is because he’s also trying to protect himself from things like poison and traitors in his close entourage. So maybe he’s grown overconfident over two months. But again, another thing is maybe he thought that shooting down the plane in Russia, within Russia between Moscow and St Petersburg, that’s a bit too much. Who knows? But you’re right. You and I have told Mr Prigozhin, but not in a private conversation, but (laughter) openly. We warned people like Mr Prigozhin this it’s unsafe to challenge Mr Putin.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Just zooming out from the last bit of the podcast to the general situation of Russia. When we were first talking about having this conversation, we wanted to focus in on the economy because the rouble’s been having a terrible time. Fell below the symbolic level of 100 to the dollar. How much trouble do you think that signals for the Russian economy? Does it mean that sanctions are finally taking a toll on Russia?

Sergei Guriev
Yes, rouble has lost half of its value. Last summer, I would remind you it was about 50 roubles per dollar. Actually, the strongest rouble was end of June, beginning of July with 51 and a half roubles per dollar. So it’s really losing half of its value within a year. And indeed, I think we should interpret it in a very clear way. It’s a signal that sanctions are taking a toll. But I would not overinterpret the loss of value of the rouble as a signal that Russian economy is in ruin, Russian economy is falling apart. This is not correct. Russian economy is holding. It’s weakened, Russian budget is strained. The central bank will have to raise interest rates, which means a slowdown, further slowdown of the economy. But indeed, the very fact that in 2023 we see a much weaker rouble tells us two things. First, oil sanctions are working. We see that Russian budget is gaining half of oil revenues relative to the same period of 2022. So it’s a big impact on Russian budget; not catastrophic, but still sizeable.

And second, trade sanctions are working. Why is rouble weaker? Because Putin needs dollars to pay for imports of technology, of components, and he pays more because he needs to pay intermediaries to circumvent sanctions. And I think the takeaway from recent events around rouble being weaker and the need for urgently raised interest rates is the west should say, yes, sanctions are working, but they are not working well enough and we’ll need to tighten the sanctions. We need to enforce the implementation of the sanctions, in particular imports by Russia of sensitive technologies through intermediaries, through third countries, in the same way that oil sanctions enforce oil price cap and oil embargo, and probably also lower the oil price cap. Now it’s 60, maybe you can go lower. So Russian budget is strained even further.

Gideon Rachman
And when it comes to Russia’s ability to wage war, presumably these economic difficulties are not yet impacting that. Do you think, again, from Putin’s point of view, Prigozhin now no longer there and Ukrainian counteroffensive not going that well, US presidential election on the horizon with some of the Republicans talking about forcing Ukraine to come to a peace deal or cutting off aid to Ukraine. Do you think he feels if he just plays for time, despite everything that goes wrong, he can still turn the situation around?

Sergei Guriev
That’s definitely his plan and that’s been his plan since the second week of the war when he saw that the blitzkrieg didn’t work out. But one of the things I would mention is that sanctions are working and the Prigozhin affair is a testimony to this. So how did Prigozhin problem start? Prigozhin started to complain that he’s not getting enough munitions, right? So Mr Putin did not produce enough artillery shells. He did not import enough rockets from North Korea and drones from Iran. And so Mr Prigozhin said, I’m not getting enough munitions, I’m very unhappy. You should do more for me. And this is where the split between Mr Prigozhin and Ministry of Defence has started. And this is what led to mutiny and eventually to killing of Mr Prigozhin. And so in that sense, sanctions have created a tension within the regime.

Imagine the world without sanctions. Imagine the world where Mr Putin doesn’t have his money frozen, his oil revenue sanctioned. Imagine the world where Mr Putin can continue buying unsanctioned elements from France, Germany, United States. In this world, the war would have a very different outcome in the battlefield. But yes, if we come back to 2023, Putin continues to wage this war, not at the intensity that he would love to. But still, the war is going on. As you rightly said Ukrainian offensive is still not break through. And so we don’t know what’s going to happen.

And Mr Putin’s calculation is exactly, as you said, to outwait the patience of western political leadership and western public opinion. He miscalculated in the following way. With all his games around grain prices and gas prices last year, he thought public opinion would shift, would diminish support of Ukraine in the west. That didn’t happen because western public opinion was outraged by all the war crimes Mr Putin has committed. But he thinks that patience will run thin and indeed he is counting on American presidential election. That is something that for him is a silver bullet. If Mr Trump is elected, maybe Mr Trump will be able to break through American checks and balances and diminish support for Ukraine. And of course, Ukraine crucially depends on weapons supplies from the west and in particular from America and on financial support from them.

Gideon Rachman
Last question, Sergei. I mean, you left Russia now almost a decade ago. It must be a source of kind of anguish to you to see what’s happened to the country. But do you feel any grounds for optimism now or do you just see things going from bad to worse?

Sergei Guriev
Well, things have been going from bad to worse for 10 years. And unfortunately, in Russia, even if you are an optimist, you can still imagine that things can go even worse. And this is also possible today. But overall, the regime is in a worse situation than just a couple of years ago in the sense that it did not win this war, the tensions are high, Mr Putin’s budget is strained and he can actually try to create a much more repressive regime. And even if he’s eliminated somehow by his close circle, the successors can try to build a North Korean Russia. This is completely plausible.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s very likely. And I think that if Mr Putin is now gone, whether because of natural sources or because unhappy lieutenants will kick him out, there is an opening, I think, for a new, let’s call it perestroika 2.0, where his successors will say, we don’t have a charisma of Mr Putin, we need populist support of Russians. And so for that we need economic performance. And for that we need to negotiate with the west and remove sanctions. And in that sense, this is also quite a likely outcome. But actually, if we look at history of transformation of autocratic regimes, I think immediate successors will try to keep autocratic system in place in the immediate aftermath of Mr Putin’s departure. So just to reiterate our discussion of Mr Prigozhin, it’s very dangerous to be around Mr Putin these days, and even after he’s gone. There’ll be ugly aftermath of Mr Putin’s departure whenever it happens. But then, of course, as I said, there is a natural incentive for people who succeed Mr Putin to try to divest this repressive regime and also get rid of this war, which is so costly for everybody in Russian elite. I think in that sense, if that counts as optimism, Gideon, I think I can give you some opening in the end of the tunnel.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Sergei Guriev of Science Po in Paris ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening. Please join us again next week.

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