When Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a short speech to the nation on Monday evening, his first remarks since a negotiated end to the weekend’s violent uprising, he was visibly angry as he spoke of national treason.
Although he did not name Yevgeny Prigozhin, his purpose was clear. So is the narrative being pushed by the government and the popular television channels under its control.
Their message is that Putin had to make a deal with Prigozhin to avoid more bloodshed, and that the decision to negotiate with a man he labeled a traitor was made by a pragmatic leader, not a threatened one.
In a country that reveres its military, the fighters are seen as national heroes by a large part of the population.
“They are elite troops. So being too harsh on Prigozhin may not be in Russia’s best interests,” said Anna Matveeva, a senior visiting researcher at King’s College London.
In Putin’s speech, he praised Russian citizens for their patriotism and social solidarity, but over the weekend, when a Wagner convoy traveled hundreds of miles towards Moscow, shooting down Russian planes along the way, there was no strong display of support for the president on the street.
Instead, crowds gathered around the Wagner fighters in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, gave them food and drink and cheered them as they left.
Anna Matveeva is a visiting senior research fellow at the Russia Institute at King’s College London. (Submitted by Anna Matveeva)
In an interview with CBC News, she said that Russian authorities are following two strategies when it comes to the problem of Prigozhin, who launched a mutiny against Russia’s top military leaders.
He’s been labeled a criminal, but she says he’s eventually recognized as a valuable asset.
“The other strategy is he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole and we have to keep him as our ally.”
Russia relies heavily on Wagner fighters in Ukraine, where thousands of them were reportedly killed while seizing land in Bakhmut in May.
After it was announced on Saturday that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had struck a deal whereby Prigozhin ended his violent uprising in exchange for criminal charges and exile to Belarus being dropped, the Wagner fighters reportedly returned to base camp.
It is unclear whether that means bases in Russia or positions in Ukraine.
People walk in a park near the Moscow Kremlin on Monday, June 26, 2023. The day was declared a public holiday due to the situation in the country. (Dmitry Lovetsky/The Associated Press)
In his speech, Putin told the fighters that they could either sign contracts with the Defense Ministry or go to Belarus.
Prior to the uprising, the government wanted to force private soldiers to sign defense contracts by July 1. In an audio message posted to social media on Monday, Prigozhin acknowledged that he launched his “march for justice” because he feared his mercenary. group was destroyed.
LOOK | Before the uprising, Prigozhin was a longtime ally of Putin:
Yevgeny Prigozhin: from Putin ally to opponent
The Wagner fighters seemed to easily surround buildings in Rostov-on-Don and moved north along the main road to the capital, exchanging fire with Russian troops along the way.
State television host and legislator Evgeny Popov told CBC News in an interview from Moscow that the Wagner fighters are seen as friends of the military and security services.
“They took part in a huge fight for cities like Soledar and Bakhut,” he said. “Some of those guys are heroes of Russia. They have medals.”
He said the fighters were able to move to Rostov-on-Don so quickly because they apparently had permission from the local authorities.
Commuters ride on a subway next to a poster promoting Russian military service in Moscow on June 26, 2023. It reads, “Join your people!” (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)
Popov called Prigozhin a traitor several times during the 15-minute interview. When asked where he thought Wagner’s leader was, he replied that he doesn’t know – nor does he want to know.
“He’s nobody to me at the moment,” Popov said.
“He must take responsibility for his crime. But now our state’s first goal is to win the war and then we will solve our other internal problems.”
One could very well be Putin’s future as president, and Russia’s transition to whoever.
According to the Levada Center, a non-governmental research organization, Putin still has strong support. a poll conducted in April found that 82 percent of those polled approved of the president.
But people did not rush to the streets to show their support for the government during the uprising. Matveeva said it was in stark contrast to Turkey’s 2016 military coup, when thousands of Turkish citizens took to the streets after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on them to repel the coup.
“People felt it was their duty to come out and do something to protect the state,” said Matveeva. “Russian society showed a very different reaction.”
Light on the floors of the building in central Moscow, Russia, forms the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military, on Sunday, June 25, 2023. (Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press)
While there was no call from the Kremlin and many local authorities had asked people to stay off the roads, Matveeva believes many Russian citizens saw the uprising as a battle between powerful elites that did not really concern them.
And others resigned themselves to the fact that there wasn’t much they could do anyway.
She believes that Putin is now in power in the twilight of his time, but she does not feel that Russia is on the verge of a revolution, as life is still quite stable for most, as the government has tried to make the biggest isolate part of society from the war. and “paint over the cracks” in economics.
For the Russian elites, she says, it’s a different story – unhappy with the situation and where the country is headed.
She says Russia is moving towards a transfer of power, but it is not clear by what mechanism.
She thinks the most optimistic scenario is that Putin will nominate someone as his successor ahead of the presidential election in March 2024. But she believes that violence ultimately also paves the way for political change.
“The road to violence is open and where it will lead is anyone’s guess,” she said.