The rise of outspoken hardliners in the Kremlin is alarming insiders fearful the Russian president will heed their calls for even more confrontation abroad and sweeping repression at home. 

Senior business executives and government officials have watched with growing worry as players they once considered marginal like Yevgeny Prigozhin, known for his Wagner mercenary company and recruiting of prison inmates to fight in Ukraine, have become the public forces behind Vladimir Putin’s push to step up his increasingly all-encompassing war effort.

Prigozhin’s public calls for “urgent Stalinist repressions” against business tycoons who aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about supporting the war effort have led some rich Russians to fear for their own safety and that of their families, they said. 

Prigozhin’s open attacks on top military commanders – some of whom have been subsequently removed – and on the prominent Putin ally who is governor of St Petersburg have added to worry within the bureaucracy about the Kremlin’s unwillingness or inability to defend its own.

Opponents of the war fear a return of the brutal repression that was common during the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. (Image: Getty)

With Kremlin officials now describing the invasion of Ukraine as a “people’s war”, hearkening back to the World War II rhetoric of Joseph Stalin, a few insiders even say they fear the purges and arbitrary arrests of the Soviet dictator’s rule may not be far behind. 

Amid the call-up of 300,000 reservists, officials furtively asked each other if family members were safe, worried about too openly admitting that they’d sent their military-age children abroad.

Deepening alarm

One senior official likened the current situation to a military dictatorship but without the military coup that usually precedes it. The dominant emotion now is fear, insiders said. All those interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the risk of reprisal. 

The deepening alarm about the outlook so far hasn’t coalesced into anything like internal resistance to Putin’s continuing escalation, according to insiders. Many in the leadership support what they see as an existential fight for Russia’s future and see no alternative but to keep boosting the pressure until Ukraine and its allies in the US and Europe back down. 

A few officials once thought of as relative liberals, such as Sergei Kiriyenko, Kremlin deputy chief of staff, have emerged as enthusiastic public advocates of the war. 

The invasion of Ukraine is regarded by many business leaders as a dreadful mistake. (Image: Depositphotos)

While Putin has said the mobilisation is over, at least for the moment, many in the business and bureaucratic elite worry the militarisation of the economy and society is only accelerating. 

The special commission of top government and security officials Putin set up to coordinate economic policy to support the defence industry and the army has been compared to Stalin’s war cabinet. “The state has lost the monopoly on legalised violence and new operators of this former monopoly have appeared,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist who left Russia in the early weeks of the war. “It’s strange that Putin is encouraging this.”

Terrified to speak out

Nearly nine months of fighting has only hardened the view among many in the business and economic elite that Putin’s invasion was a catastrophic mistake that will doom the country to isolation and weakness. Even within the government, many quietly oppose the fight but are too terrified to speak out, according to people close to the leadership. 

Tycoons have sought to stay out of politics, hoping to remain on the Kremlin’s good side and keep factories running. Only a few have left the country and publicly criticised the war.

Putin has no alternative but to rely on aggressive players like Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman head of Russia’s Chechnya region who has sent thousands of troops to fight, given the poor performance so far of Russia’s regular military and tepid support for the war in his own government, according to one senior official. Both men have heavily armed forces loyal to them.

Meddling on US elections

“Prigozhin is behaving like a parallel government,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He may be able to compete for power, if not under Putin then after him.”

Known as "Putin’s chef" for his background in the restaurant business in the president’s hometown of St Petersburg and Kremlin catering contracts, Prigozhin, 61, has been sanctioned by the US and its allies for a range of alleged transgressions, including meddling in US elections and sending mercenaries to Africa and the Middle East. 

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation put him on its wanted list in 2021 for vote interference. After years of playing down his links to the Wagner private military contracting company, Prigozhin in late September publicly confirmed he’d founded the group in 2014. On Nov 4, he opened a glass-and-steel skyscraper in St Petersburg called the Wagner Centre. This week, he sarcastically admitted his role in meddling in US elections, saying it would continue.

Prisoners have been offered enticements to fight in Putin's war – but also threatened with execution if they attempt to desert or surrender. (Image: Depositphotos)  

He’s shown up in leaked videos from prisons around Russia where he promised inmates the chance of early release if they sign up to fight in Ukraine and last six months at the front. At the same time, he warns they’ll be summarily shot for desertion or attempting to surrender. Prigozhin’s press office declined to confirm he was in the videos, but said the person in them “looked frightfully like” him.

Last weekend, Prigozhin announced Wagner plans to set up training centres for “militias” in border regions near the war zone. Fighters would come from “local businesses”, which would send a quarter of its male workforce to “the trenches”, he said in a commentary posted on Telegram, promising to fund the preparations himself.

Hero of Russia

Prigozhin earlier this month filed a rare complaint with prosecutors against the governor of St Petersburg, a Putin ally and longtime rival of the tycoon. The Kremlin’s public silence in the case has shocked insiders. 

Prigozhin has appeared wearing the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest honour, but how frequently he and Putin meet remains unclear. Some Kremlin insiders said Prigozhin now meets with the president more often than before, while others said he’s not a member of the small group of hardliners closest to Putin. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “There are lots of rumours about Prigozhin. We don’t have any intention to comment on them."

Prigozhin said he hasn’t spoken to Putin. He is seen as an ally of the new commander Putin installed last month to run the Ukraine operation, Sergei Surovikin, who was known for his harsh tactics in Syria, where the Russian forces fought together with Wagner troops.

Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has sent thousands of his war-hardened troops to support the Russian invasion. (Image: Depositphotos)

US intelligence has told President Joe Biden that Prigozhin spoke directly to Putin about the war, countering upbeat reports from the military, according to the Washington Post. Prigozhin has made common cause with Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, with both at times questioning the skills of the military leadership, especially when Ukraine’s forces were actively retaking territory in September.

Insiders describe Putin as increasingly isolated, surrounded by a small group of hardliners and impervious to critical views. With its forces struggling to contain a Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Kremlin has dropped months of trying to insulate the country from the reality of the conflict.

Martial law

Putin has steadily stepped up the fight since Ukrainian forces began pushing back his troops in large areas over the late northern summer. So far, his mobilisation of reservists, sweeping expansion of missile strikes against civilian infrastructure like power plants behind the lines in Ukraine, and hints of possible use of nuclear weapons haven’t succeeded in turning the tide. Ukraine’s advance is continuing, with Russia losing territory Putin claimed to have annexed in September.

Last month, he ordered versions of martial law across large areas of Russia. Government technocrats, meanwhile, have been tasked with revising budget and economic plans to reflect the steadily increasing shift of resources to fund the war. They have also been assigned to computerise the mobilisation process to avoid a repeat of the disorganisation and mistakes that plagued the first round. Many officials expect another round to be announced early next year. “The mood of doom that everything has turned out this way is very strong,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R Politik, a political consultancy.

© 2022 Bloomberg 

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