Putin's revenge: Brutal crackdown on bloggers, critics of Ukraine war follows a familiar pattern

Putin’s revenge: Brutal crackdown on bloggers, critics of Ukraine war follows a familiar pattern

Yevgeny Prigozhin in June led his Wagner Group mercenaries on a “march of justice” toward Moscow with the goal of ousting Russian military leadership that he cast as incompetent.

Russian military blogger Igor Girkin last December used his popular Telegram channel to declare that the “fish’s head is completely rotten” and that top officials in Moscow had completely botched the invasion of Ukraine.

Last month, Valery Garbuzov, a leading scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, released a treatise that skewered Moscow’s foreign policy doctrine and said the country is in the midst of an “extremely painful syndrome of ‘suddenly lost imperial greatness.’”

Today, Prigozhin is dead, Mr. Girkin is in prison, and Mr. Garbuzov was fired from his post as director of the academy’s Institute of the USA and Canada just days after his essay went public.

Those are just three of the names that have fallen victim recently to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive crackdown against his domestic critics, a long-running crusade that over two decades has reached from military and political circles to outspoken academics and even influential bloggers who built a following on social media with their blunt takedowns of Russian power players. Most observers see the deadly explosion of Prigozhin’s private jet last month during a flight from Moscow to Saint Petersburg as the shining example of the evolution of Mr. Putin’s war on dissent, which now seeks to silence anyone who might even appear to undermine — or even question — Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has strongly denied any connection to the Wagner Group boss’s death. They say that claims Mr. Putin ordered his assassination are nothing more than Western disinformation.

Cold and calculating

If Mr. Putin was involved, as most Western observers believe, it may seem surprising on the surface that the Russian president let Prigozhin live for two months after his short-lived mutiny in June. Outsiders have also remarked on how Mr. Putin allowed Mr. Girkin and other widely-read military bloggers to slam the Russian war effort online for well over a year before taking them into custody.

But analysts say Mr. Putin is following his standard playbook and is behaving less like an unhinged dictator and more like a cold, calculating mob boss, a onetime KGB operative who lulls opponents into a false sense of security and waits for the perfect moment to exact revenge.

“This is not unlike Putin’s personality, what we know about him. He usually takes time to act,” said Maria Snegovaya, a senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who closely watches the Kremlin.

“He likes procrastinating until he absolutely has to do something. That quality could be considered a weakness, but also, he’s not too radical, too abrupt. That’s one of the things people like,” she said.

Ms. Snegovaya said that the Prigozhin-led Wagner Group mutiny, which ended in a negotiated truce before the mercenary troops reached Moscow, was just the first domino to fall. She said the entire Prigozhin affair may have demonstrated to both Mr. Putin and any adversaries waiting in the wings that the once-strong support for the Russian president may have faded.

“The mutiny itself might have created a new chain of events,” she said in an interview. “I think that’s why we’ve seen this intensified wave of repression. When Prigozhin was marching toward Moscow, he exposed the fundamental hollowness of the system.”

That new wave of repression is manifesting itself in several ways, some more deadly than others. Over just the first six months of this year, the Kremlin has reportedly blocked more than 885,000 websites from the Russian public as part of an apparent effort to filter out information critical of Russian leaders and their ongoing war in Ukraine. Kremlin officials said those sites contained information banned under Russian law.

Moscow is also taking aim at prominent military bloggers, who backed the invasion of Ukraine but emerged as some of the harshest critics of how the war was being fought. Mr. Girkin was arrested in July on charges of extremism. Another prominent war critic, blogger Andrey Kurshin, was arrested in late August. Russian state-controlled media said he was spreading “fake news” about the Russian army.

On the whole, specialists say that critical voices in the Russian blogosphere have slowly disappeared over the past several months. The community of military bloggers, or “mil-bloggers,” that had been so sharply critical of Mr. Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top officials throughout 2022 and into 2023 seems to have been greatly diminished. They’ve been at least partially replaced by bloggers and social media figures more supportive of Russia’s war effort.

‘Russia’s ace’

Throughout Mr. Putin’s nearly quarter-century rule, both domestic and foreign critics have regularly met their demise under mysterious circumstances. Some have been poisoned, while others reportedly fell from windows. Many others — most notably opposition leader and corruption critic Alexei Navalny — have been arrested, often on charges that appear exaggerated at best.

But for all of the criticism aimed at Mr. Putin and his war in Ukraine, no other detrator carried nearly the influence of Prigozhin, who cultivated a close personal relationship with Mr. Putin over the course of two decades and made his Wagner Group almost indispensable to Russia’s broader foreign policy aims. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group was key to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and its activities in Africa and elsewhere. In Ukraine, Wagner troops often appeared to be better trained, better equipped and more disciplined than soldiers in the Russian army proper.

That reality led to deep divisions between the two camps. Prigozhin made no secret of his disdain for Russian military leadership. In May, he released a video blaming Mr. Shoigu, top Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov and others for the deaths of his Wagner fighters in Ukraine, saying the Russian Defense Ministry failed to provide ammunition and other equipment that his men needed.

“They came here as volunteers and they died to let you lounge in your mahogany offices,” Prigozhin said. “You are sitting in your expensive clubs, your children are enjoying good living and filming videos on YouTube. Those who don’t give us ammunition will be eaten alive in hell.”

In retrospect, it’s little surprise Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion seems to have pushed Mr. Putin toward another round of violent crackdowns. Specialists say that Prigozhin’s activities both before and after the aborted mutiny may have left the Russian president little choice but to take him off the playing field, especially after Mr. Putin struck a deal that seemingly offered Prigozhin immunity and a free ride out of Russia despite his public threats to march on the Russian capital.

“Here’s where things start to look really shaky for Putin,” said John E. Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Prigozhin “marches early on a Saturday, and a few hours later Putin denounces what’s going on as treason.”

“Within six or eight hours of Putin’s speech, they announced the deal. But what type of strongman makes a deal with a guy he’s accused of treason?” he said.

In the weeks afterward, Prigozhin was seen across Russia, even appearing publicly at the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg while offering the assistance of his Wagner Group fighters to help restore order in chaotic African nations.

“He’s making himself look kind of good,” Mr. Herbst said of Prigozhin and his public relations offensive after the June mutiny. “He’s looking like he’s Russia’s ace.”

“Putin decided he had to get rid of him,” Mr. Herbst said. “But even that decision does not demonstrate that the strongman is back, tougher than ever. He does it in a way he can deny responsibility even while taking out the plane, taking out Prigozhin, was understood by all of the elites to be payback.”

Mr. Herbst added that Mr. Putin remains “vulnerable as long as he’s fighting in Ukraine,” and that further Russian setbacks — perhaps in the form of major Ukrainian advances in its current counteroffensive — could possibly lay the groundwork for another Russian figure to arise and threaten Mr. Putin’s control.

For the Russian leader, that may mean that the most prudent course of action is to scale down his ambitions in Ukraine and possibly even declare victory now, with just a portion of eastern Ukraine under Russian control.

“We have already seen as this war unraveled, the Russian army is able to rethink its original goals radically,” Ms. Snegovaya said. “In that sense, limited rationality is there and Putin is the one who is making these final decisions. He is able to revise the goals to more limited ones.

“Russia may actually be more interested in some sort of break at this point to reset, maybe rebuild what was lost, to lick its wounds,” she said. “But it’s clear to me that he is not going to leave [Ukraine] alone.”