Theodoros Vryzakis The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi 1861
Wagner chief Evgeny Prigozhin published an open letter to President Putin, Chief of General Staff Gerasimov, the Ministry of Defense, and the Russian people on Friday declaring that his private military company will withdraw from Artyomovsk on 10 May due an absence of ammunition. RT reported that he blamed “paramilitary bureaucrats” for this scandalous state of affairs and requested that his fighters’ positions be replaced by the Russian Army in order to retain their gains there over the past half-year.
Prigozhin has been feuding with the Ministry of Defense over logistics for quite a while already, which has prompted Western observers to speculate that there are either serious problems with Russia’s military-industrial capabilities and/or that this is part of a power play by one of those two. It’s impossible for outside observers to know what’s really going on behind the scenes, but his latest statement makes clear his implied plea for President Putin to establish a modern-day “oprichnina” without delay.
This refers to Ivan the Formidable’s (commonly mistranslated into English as “the Terrible”) special forces that were assembled to root out traitorous elements among the boyars, which were the powerful Russian nobility, amidst their country’s long-running Livonian War at the time. While smeared by Western historians as the Tsar’s unaccountable assassins who allegedly terrorized the population, they’re deeply appreciated by many Russian historians who regard them as patriotic forces.
That second-mentioned interpretation was also shared by Joseph Stalin, who’s on record describing them to famous Soviet cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein as indispensable to the erstwhile Tsar’s crusade against internal threats to Russia’s unity and thus its continued existence as a state. In the present context, officials like former President and incumbent Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev have also described the NATO-Russian proxy war in Ukraine as similarly existential.
By the same token, just like during Ivan the Formidable’s Livonian War, there’s also speculation nowadays during President Putin’s ongoing special operation that some of its setbacks are at the very least partially the result of elite subversion. To be absolutely clear, sharing the preceding opinion isn’t equivalent to extending it credence, but the point in mentioning those rumors is to place Prigozhin’s accusation against “paramilitary bureaucrats” into its historical and contemporary context.
Upon doing so, there’s little doubt that his open letter contains a strongly implied plea for the Russian leader to establish a modern-day oprichnina just like his predecessor did, though it’s presently unclear whether President Putin will agree to this. The publicly proclaimed innuendo that his country has traitorous elements within its elite that are actively subverting the longest battle of the conflict thus far is indisputably inflammatory irrespective of its veracity.
This places the head of state in a dilemma. On the one hand, ignoring Prigozhin’s implied plea could result in those who subscribe to his speculation regarding the Russian leader with suspicion, especially in the event that Kiev takes advantage of Wagner’s impending withdrawal to recapture Artyomovsk. On the other, establishing a modern-day oprichnina (even if its creation is undeclared) and removing those bureaucratic obstacles to Prigozhin’s logistical requests could seemingly confirm that elite traitors exist.
To be sure, the FSB already has the counterintelligence capabilities to root out traitors, but the Wagner chief is strongly implying that it’s either unable or unwilling to do so. That supplementary innuendo is just as inflammatory, if not more, as his suggestion that traitorous elements exist within the Russian elite and are so deeply embedded within the bureaucracy that they might succeed in subverting their side’s victory in the longest battle of the conflict thus far and possibly turning the tide against it as a result.
It’s with the second of these two intertwined narratives in mind that it becomes obvious that he’s calling for the establishment of a modern-day oprichnina that would be independent of the existing security structures and answerable only to President Putin just like their precursor was to his predecessor. Regardless of whether Prigozhin’s intentions are purely patriotic or part of a power play, there’s thus no doubt that he’s requesting fundamental security-sector reform, which will obviously upset some people.
His de facto plea is already sensitive enough as it is, but it’s made all the more so by the immediate political context in which it’s being put forth with respect to Tuesday night’s attempted assassination of President Putin and next week’s Victory Day events. The aforesaid bookend his dual innuendo that was described above and the newfound fears of Russia losing Artyomovsk as a possible result of Wagner’s impending withdrawal, thus maximizing the attention that his implied oprichnina plea receives.
The best-case scenario from the perspective of the state’s interests would be for the Russian Army to successful hold onto Artyomovsk after replacing their Wagner allies, while the latter receive the adequate rest that they require in order to return and fight another day. In the interim, whatever logistical challenges Prigozhin’s company allegedly faced up until this point would hopefully be resolved by that time without having to resort to the establishment of a modern-day oprichnina.
Nevertheless, sometimes events don’t always unfold according to the best-case scenario, so the optimistic sequence of events shared in the prior paragraph shouldn’t be taken for granted. That said, it would be irresponsible to speculate about what else might actually happen since no outside observer in Russia or abroad has the information required to say for certainty what will ultimately transpire. All that can be done is to analyze Prigozhin’s implied plea and the context in which it was made.
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