Prigozhin’s death exposes a weak despot

Published by The i paper (28th August, 2023)

There is a famous story from his childhood that Vladimir Putin has repeated often and seen spun by his propagandists since taking power at the turn of the century. He tells of chasing rats with sticks in the freezing stairwell of his family’s apartment block in St Petersburg, once spotting a huge beast that he cornered. He was surprised that it “threw itself at me”, but he was faster and “managed to slam the door shut on its nose”. The implication is clear: if his regime and country is pushed into a corner, it will come out snarling and fighting.

Yet this story – whether apocryphal or not – is misconstrued by those who warn that it shows the risks of confronting the Russian dictator, armed with a nuclear arsenal. For as one Russian journalist who was among the first to hear the parable says, it really reveals how the boy armed with a weapon fled when challenged. It shows Putin to be a weak coward, something seen many times over the years as he ran away from democracy, murdered foes, attacked neighbouring nations and hid in fear of Covid.

Now we have seen this again with the killing of Yevgeny Prigozhin, two months after the Wagner mercenary chief led a mutinous challenge to his rule. Putin called that weird rebellion “treason” and “a stab in the back”. Yet, he allowed Prigozhin to travel to Belarus and attend an important forum for African leaders. The Kremlin used this time to humiliate the Wagner boss b]y showing off the wigs used in disguises, gold bars and pictures of severed heads found in a raid on his home. It arrested Igor Girkin, a former intelligence officer who was among the loudest ultra-nationalist voices backing his brutal military criticisms. It neutered his allies in the army, took over his forces.

Then the billionaire’s private plane suddenly plunged from the skies into a field north of Moscow. The only surprise was the style of execution, falling in a plane rather than plunging from a window or suffering the slow death of poison. Prigozhin had many enemies, but whoever carried out the killing, it was sanctioned by the Kremlin.

Yet this shows Putin’s weakness again: he could not arrest his treasonous warlord. And now he is deprived of a key ally who has proved his value since the initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with his atrocities in Syria, his savagery in the battle for Bakhmut and by advancing Russian interests in Africa. Meanwhile, Prigozhin may have been a thief and a mass murderer, but his expletive-filled criticism of military corruption and incompetence in Ukraine was often correct – as was his questioning of the rationale of last year’s full-scale invasion.

Putin’s politics have always relied on the execution and impression of power. So he has underlined to his military chiefs, spooks and oligarchs the risk of crossing him regardless of their views of his military misadventures – even if he showed also that Russia is a mafia state that relies on summary violence rather than a court system.

Now the gangster president, his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and their military chief, Valery Gerasimov, are firmly back in command of their armed forces as they grapple with their bungled invasion, which has failed so obviously in its aims from overthrowing democracy in Kyiv through to sowing disunity in the West.

Putin still controls almost one-fifth of Ukraine. Kyiv’s much-hyped offensive, backed by Nato-donated tanks and launched amid ridiculously gung-ho expectations, is inching forward but progress is slow against heavily-fortified Russian lines. Initial attempts to breach them with frontal assaults by Western-trained brigades failed partly due to lack of air cover – a reminder of the West’s sluggish response to this crisis – and their understandable reluctance to take heavy casualties in minefields.

This was succeeded by a more cautious strategy to degrade Russian logistics routes by attritional attacks on enemy artillery systems, ammunition dumps and electronic warfare capabilities using superior Western weaponry. There are signs this is slowly working, although war is unpredictable and Ukraine still some way off its goal of reaching the Azov sea and thus cutting off the stolen land corridor to Crimea. Soon the autumn rains will fall; muddy terrain will make their offensive tougher.

There is expectation in Kyiv that Putin will target energy supplies again over the winter in another bid to undermine the heroic resolve shown by Ukrainian citizens since the missiles started landing in Kyiv and Kharkiv early last year. This will, however, only intensify their hatred of his genocidal regime.

Curiously, Putin’s best hope of emerging unbowed from the debacle was on display not amid the debris of that crashed plane, nor even in the bloodstained battlefields of Ukraine, but in an arena in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was the venue for the first Republican Party debate, where the two candidates best-placed in the polls behind Donald Trump raised hands when asked if they opposed sending more aid to Ukraine.

Trump himself – the absent frontrunner who has a dreadful record of fanning Putin’s propaganda – claims this war is not a vital interest for the US so they should send less support and pressure Kyiv to accept a peace deal. This demonstrates how toxic isolationism combined with alarming naivety on global affairs has infected the Grand Old Party. Sadly, even the epochal struggle for our age over a fledgling democracy in Ukraine is a polarising issue in the divided US with 71 per cent of Republicans opposing more funding compared with about two thirds of Democrats who support President Joe Biden’s stance.

Ultimately, this is a far bigger threat for those fighting to save their country along the 600-mile front line scarring Ukraine, along with anyone else who cares about freedom and democracy, than the slaughter of a vile warlord who turned on the killer in the Kremlin like that snarling rat in his childhood.

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