Putin Moves to Punish Prigozhin Allies

As President Vladimir V. Putin seeks to assert control in Russia, he is moving to punish people who enabled the mercenary boss Yevgeny V. Prigozhin’s rebellion over the weekend, but Mr. Prigozhin’s deep connections with the ruling elite are complicating those efforts.

The question of who gets punished for the mutiny carries high stakes for the Russian leadership, especially because some of Mr. Prigozhin’s key allies and sympathizers are believed to be inside the military and the government.

There was intense focus in Moscow about the fate of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a senior military official whom Mr. Prigozhin praised publicly and who is said to have known about the rebellion in advance; he has not been seen publicly since early Saturday. Several pro-war Russian blogs reported that the authorities were investigating military service members with ties to Mr. Prigozhin, but those reports could not be independently confirmed.

Mr. Putin fed speculation about a broader crackdown on Tuesday evening in a closed-door meeting with Russian media figures at the Kremlin. In the meeting, he presented himself as a leader in total control, and said he was delving into Mr. Prigozhin’s business contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Mr. Putin also portrayed himself as having been fully engaged throughout the 24-hour uprising last weekend by Mr. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, according to a newspaper editor who attended the meeting, Konstantin Remchukov. “Putin said he didn’t sleep for a minute during the rebellion,” Mr. Remchukov said in a phone interview from Moscow.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, when Wagner forces seized a military installation and headed toward Moscow, he said, Mr. Putin appeared focused on the economic motives guiding Mr. Prigozhin. And he signaled that the authorities would seek out “who signed what and lobbied for orders, or for uniforms, or for weapons.”

“He’s deep in the numbers of the Prigozhin contracts, the money flows,” Mr. Remchukov said.

Mr. Putin himself hinted at the depth of Mr. Prigozhin’s ties to the government in his public remarks on Tuesday, saying Mr. Prigozhin, a catering magnate, had made roughly $1 billion from military catering contracts in the past year, and that the government had spent another $1 billion to finance his mercenaries.

The fate of Mr. Prigozhin’s broader operations are also under scrutiny. On Tuesday, Syria, where Wagner mercenaries have operated extensively, released a photograph of Russia’s deputy foreign minister meeting with Syrian officials, saying the two sides held talks “as part of the regular political consultations between the two friendly countries.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin sought to show he was going back to business as usual. He flew to the southern Russian region of Dagestan to discuss domestic tourism, praising the expansion of the local brandy industry. State media released video of Mr. Putin striding onto a city square and being greeted by a crowd of people — an image that appeared designed to show that the president retained public support.

But back in Moscow, with the nature of Mr. Putin’s longer-term response to the rebellion a matter of guesswork, members of the Russian elite were still scrambling to demonstrate their loyalty and disavow past ties to Mr. Prigozhin.

“It’s a highly convoluted question” as to who should get punished for their connections to the Wagner leader, said Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian Parliament and a longtime pro-Kremlin political consultant.

Those targeted, he said in a phone interview, would not be those who were only “pictured with Prigozhin somewhere,” but those who “actively covered for him, actively continue to do this, and actively work against the policy of the president.”

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

Mr. Prigozhin built a web of connections beginning when he ran high-end restaurants and catered banquets in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. More recently, he worked with General Surovikin in Syria, where Wagner forces were fighting.

“I think they’re going to ask why he was quiet” and didn’t speak up against Mr. Prigozhin before the rebellion, Mr. Remchukov said of the general. “Were there any interests? Was there any connection?”

On Wednesday, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called a New York Times report that General Surovikin knew about the rebellion ahead of time “speculations,” but did not dispute the reporting or express any support for the general, who has not been heard from since appearing in a video early Saturday pleading with the rebels to stand down.

After a career spent in the shadows, Mr. Prigozhin turned himself into a public figure in the last year, casting himself as a tough-talking mercenary leader who was far more effective than the traditional military. He regularly castigated and belittled military leaders like Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister.

Over the past year, pro-Kremlin figures seeking to prove their patriotic bona fides rushed to join Mr. Prigozhin’s bandwagon.

The son of Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, bragged that he had joined an artillery unit in the Wagner group and earned a medal “for courage.”

And the head of a party in Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament, Sergei Mironov, posed with a sledgehammer decorated with the Wagner insignia, 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.

“Thank you to Yevgeny Prigozhin for the present,” Mr. Mironov wrote on Twitter in January. “This is a useful instrument.”

But by Tuesday, Mr. Mironov had refashioned himself into a bulwark against Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. He called for an investigation into what he claimed was a “line of V.I.P.s — officials and civil servants” flocking to leave the country from the private jet terminal of Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport during Wagner’s abbreviated march toward Moscow on Saturday.

“This is a fifth column!” he wrote on social media, without naming names. “Traitors to the Motherland!”

There was also the question of who had spoken up for Mr. Putin while the rebellion was ongoing, and who stayed silent. One Moscow political analyst, Mikhail Vinogradov, published what he called an “oath rating” on the Telegram social network that cataloged, down to the minute, at what time on Saturday Russia’s regional governors posted a message of support of Mr. Putin, and listed the 21 who did not.

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

“I had a glance and drew conclusions: that a person is, let’s say, unreliable and might act differently next time,” he said.

Mr. Matveychev insisted that the aborted rebellion was a positive for Russia because its failure “strengthens the image of the authorities” and acts as a “vaccine” against future rebellions.

And Mr. Remchukov, the newspaper editor, said that despite his prediction on Sunday that Mr. Putin might not run for re-election next year because of the rebellion’s blow to his image, he has seen Moscow’s Kremlin-connected elite rally to Mr. Putin’s side as he seeks to telegraph strength.

“Putin is now totally focused on sending the message to the elites that ‘I can protect you,’” Mr. Remchukov said. “Now there will, I think, be some very energetic actions to show this, because his whole logic is to show that this was nothing but treason.”

Others saw an ongoing challenge for Mr. Putin, especially as the war drags on and members of the elite look to blame each other for setbacks at the front.

“This is a signal that the system of governance is not handling the wartime stress well,” Mr. Vinogradov, the Moscow analyst, said. “Especially not in the last two months, when everyone was awaiting a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and preparing to turn on one another — and even the lack of that success didn’t change this at all.”

For the Russian public, and the military rank and file, the aftermath of the rebellion is a moment of whiplash, with the Wagner forces — which had scored Russia’s only recent battlefield success and had been celebrated by pro-war bloggers and at times the state media — being recast as traitors.

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

“Many can’t understand what the government actually wants,” General Ivashov said in a phone interview. “The first question is: What is happening in the country and the army?”

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