Putin Moves to Punish Prigozhin's Allies

As President Vladimir V. Putin seeks to assert control in Russia, he moves to punish those who enabled mercenary boss Yevgeny V. Prigozhin's mutiny over the weekend, but Mr. Prigozhin with the ruling elite complicates the endeavor.

The question of who should be punished for the mutiny carries high stakes for the Russian leadership, especially since some of Mr. Prigozhin is believed to be in the military and government.

There was a strong focus in Moscow on the fate of General Sergei Surovikin, a senior military official whom Prigozhin praised publicly and was said to have known about the mutiny before; he has not been seen in public since Saturday morning. Several Russian pro-war blogs reported that authorities were investigating military service members with ties to Prigozhin, but these reports could not be independently confirmed.

Putin stoked speculation about a wider crackdown Tuesday night in a closed-door meeting with Russian media personalities in the Kremlin. During the meeting, he presented himself as a leader in complete control, and said that he was studying Prigozhin's business contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Putin also described himself as fully involved during last weekend's 24-hour uprising by Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, according to the newspaper editor who attended the meeting, Konstantin Remchukov. “Putin said he didn't sleep during the uprising,” Remchukov said in a telephone interview from Moscow.

After the uprising, when Wagner's forces seized military installations and headed toward Moscow, he said, Putin appeared to focus on the economic motives guiding Prigozhin. And he hinted that authorities would be looking “who signed what and lobbying for orders, or for uniforms, or for weapons.”

“He was drowning in the amount of Prigozhin's contract, money was pouring in,” says Mr. Remchukov.

Putin himself signaled the depth of Prigozhin's relationship with the government in his public remarks on Tuesday, saying Prigozhin, a catering magnate, had made about $1 billion from military catering contracts in the last year, and that the government had spent another $1 billion to finance its mercenaries.

Operational fortune Mr. The wider Prigozhin is also under surveillance. On Tuesday, Syria, where Wagner mercenaries operate widely, released photos of Russia's deputy foreign minister meeting with Syrian officials, say both sides held talks “as part of regular political consultations between the two friendly countries.”

On Wednesday, Putin attempted to show he would return to business as usual. He flew to Russia's southern Dagestan region to discuss domestic tourism, praising the expansion of the local brandy industry. State media released video of Putin stepping into a town square and being greeted by a crowd of people — an image apparently designed to show the president retaining the public's support.

But in Moscow, with the predictable nature of Putin's long-term response to the uprising, members of the Russian elite are still scrambling to demonstrate their loyalty and renege on past ties to Prigozhin.

“This is a very convoluted question” of who should be punished for their relationship with the Wagner leader, said Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian Parliament and longtime pro-Kremlin political consultant.

Those targeted, he said in a telephone interview, were not those who were simply “pictured with Prigozhin somewhere”, but those who were “actively protecting him, actively continuing to do this, and actively working against the president's policies.”

Mr Matveychev acknowledged working with Mr Prigozhin about a decade ago, but said he terminated the partnership after concluding, in his view, that Mr Prigozhin was a “mentally unstable person”.

Mr. Prigozhin built a network of connections starting when he was running a high-end restaurant and serving banquets in St. Petersburg. Petersburg in the 1990s. Most recently, he worked with General Surovikin in Syria, where Wagner's troops were fighting.

“I thought they would ask why he was silent” and did not speak out against Mr. Prigozhin before the uprising, said Mr. Remchukov about the general. “Is there any interest? Is there a connection?”

On Wednesday, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called a New York Times report that General Surovikin knew about an earlier uprising as “speculation”, but did not dispute the report or express any support for the general, which has not been heard from since appearing in Saturday morning video pleading with the rebels to stand down.

After spending a career in the shadows, Prigozhin transformed himself into a public figure in the last year, establishing himself as a loud-talking mercenary leader far more effective than a traditional military. He regularly punishes and belittles military leaders such as Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia's defense minister.

Over the past year, pro-Kremlin figures trying to prove their patriotic sincerity have rushed to join Mr. Prigozhin.

Mr. Peskov's son, Kremlin spokesman, brag that he had joined the artillery unit in Wagner's group and earned the “courage” medal.

And the head of the party in the Russian Parliament, Sergei Mironov, pose with a sledgehammer emblazoned with the Wagner crest, a pile of skulls and a hand-drawn smiley face. The sledgehammer became Mr Prigozhin's trademark after he endorsed its use in the gruesome execution of a Wagner fighter who had surrendered to Ukraine.

“Thanks to Yevgeny Prigozhin for the gift,” Mr. Mironov write on Twitter in January. “It is a useful instrument.”

But by Tuesday, Mr. Mironov had turned himself into a bulwark against Mr. Prigozhin's uprising. He called for an investigation into what he claimed were “lines of VIPs – officials and civil servants” who left the country in droves from the private jet terminal of Moscow's Vnukovo Airport during Wagner's brief march towards Moscow on Saturday.

“This is the fifth column!” He write on social media, anonymously. “Traitor to the Motherland!”

There are also questions about who spoke up for Putin while the uprising was unfolding, and who remained silent. A Moscow political analyst, Mikhail Vinogradov, published what he called an “oath assessment” on the Telegram social network that cataloged, down to the minute, what time on Saturday Russia's regional governors posted messages of support for Putin, and listed 21 people who didn't.

Mr Vinogradov said in an interview that it would be a mistake to draw serious conclusions from his ranking, but Mr Matveychev, a member of Parliament, said he found the list open.

“I took a quick look and came to a conclusion: that someone is, let's say, unreliable and might act differently next time,” he says.

Mr. Matveychev insisted that the aborted uprising was positive for Russia because of its failure to “strengthen the image of the authorities” and act as a “vaccine” against future uprisings.

And Mr Remchukov, the newspaper's editor, said that despite his prediction on Sunday that Mr Putin might not run for re-election next year because the uprising tarnished his image, he has seen Moscow's Kremlin-connected elite flock to Mr. Putin's side as he attempts to telegraph power.

“Putin is now really focused on sending a message to the elites that ‘I can protect you,'” Remchukov said. “Now, I think, there will be some very energetic actions to show this, because the whole logic is to show that this is just treason.”

Others see a continued challenge to Putin, especially as the war drags on and members of the elite blame each other for setbacks at the front.

“This is a signal that the governing system is not handling wartime pressures well,” said Vinogradov, a Moscow analyst. “Especially not in the last two months, when everyone was waiting for a successful Ukrainian counterattack and preparing to attack each other – and even that lack of success hasn't changed this in the slightest.”

For the Russian public, and the military ranks, the aftermath of the mutiny was a whiplash moment, with Wagner's troops – having scored Russia's only recent battlefield success and been celebrated by pro-war bloggers and occasionally by the state. media – reconstituted as a traitor.

Leonid Ivashov, a retired senior Russian general who has spoken out against the war but has remained in Russia, sums up the overarching question hanging over society and the military as follows: “What is going on?”

“Many do not understand what the government really wants,” General Ivashov said in a telephone interview. “The first question is: What happened to the country and the army?”