“Fighting spirit”: Russia’s technocrat elite after the Wagner mutiny

The rise of private military companies remains a concern for Russian governing elites, but the Wagner mutiny has consolidated their support for the Putin regime

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 05: (—-EDITORIAL USE ONLY – MANDATORY CREDIT – ‘KREMLIN PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT’ – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS—-) Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (L) in Moscow, Russia on July 05, 2023. Kremlin Press Office / Handout / Anadolu Agency
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (L) in Moscow, Russia on July 05, 2023
Image by picture alliance / AA | Kremlin Press Office / Handout
©

Just over a week after the failed march on Moscow by private military company Wagner, Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, appeared in public to report to Vladimir Putin on the health of the Russian economy. The occasion demonstrated the importance of the technocratic section of Russia’s governing elite. In many ways, it was equal in significance to the public debriefing given to Putin by the heads of the security services immediately after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny in late June.

Since the start of the war, the technocrats have remained loyal to the regime and utilised their expertise to bolster the Russian economy during wartime. Their importance can be seen in their work to shape monetary policy, enhance efficiency in industries related to the military, and establish a new digital registry for military conscription. At the outset of Russia’s war on Ukraine, there had been some hope among experts both in Russia and in Western think-tanks that officials from the economic units of government would oppose Putin’s decision to go to war, given their liberal-leaning values and greater interaction with the West.

That did not transpire – but how might the Wagner operation have influenced the attitudes and mood of this important section of the elite? To investigate this, the author conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 high-ranking officials from Russian ministries and federal agencies (shortly after the rebellion, and also in early July) exclusively for the European Council on Foreign Relations. The findings suggest that Wagner’s actions may, if anything, have reinforced the loyalty of the technocrat group to Putin’s regime. This is despite its members’ deep initial uncertainty about how to respond during the mutiny, a lack of leadership on the part of those heading these ministries and departments, and a fear – even real possibility – that these elites might have been abandoned to face Prigozhin on their own.

Interviewees from the economy and digitalisation ministries report that, during Wagner’s march on Moscow, ministers advised employees to decide on their own what they should do. Out of the 12 individuals interviewed, ten were outside the capital when the mutiny suddenly ended, with some having fled. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin later indirectly confirmed that many officials had indeed left Moscow in a state of panic. Interviewees feared potential reprisals by Wagner in the event of a successful mutiny: Prigozhin had previously criticised the entire state apparatus, not only the ministry of defence. Indeed, had the coup succeeded, more radical actors could have gained power, leading to a purge of the bureaucratic apparatus and the establishment of a closed economy solely focused on war efforts.

In contrast to some elected federal politicians and governors who publicly expressed support for the president throughout Saturday, government officials (including ministers, who are appointed) refrained from taking a clear position, if they commented on the situation at all. For instance, the minister of digitalisation simply advised Russians to contact their loved ones.

Having endured this alarming experience, in the initial days following the mutiny, interviewees shared a common belief that the vulnerability of the regime had been badly exposed and they were concerned it could come under similar pressure again in the future. One official from the Government Executive Office described the situation as a “stress test that was only passed by sheer luck”, attributing Putin’s escape from the crisis to his well-known lucky streak.

One official described the mutiny as a “stress test that was only passed by sheer luck”

However, by early July, most respondents began to adopt a narrative similar to the official messaging. Many started to argue that the president had emerged from the crisis “favourably,” having successfully avoided bloodshed and major confrontations near Moscow. This narrative aligns with that of sources close to the presidential administration and by the end of June had become the dominant viewpoint within the Russian bureaucracy. 

Nevertheless, interviewees continued to point to the risk created by the proliferation of armed units belonging to elites, primarily to groups in the business and state corporations. They fear such developments could result in greater violence during conflicts among elites. (Alongside the technocrats, other key sections of the elite include the security agencies, such as the FSB, which hold significant power, as well as the army, defence industries, federal politicians such as the mayor of Moscow or chairman of the State Duma, state-affiliated businesses such as Rosneft, state corporations such as Gazprom, and private companies such as Alfa-Bank.) Media reports have already identified armed units within Gazprom. Interviewees worry that experienced soldiers from these battalions may be relocated “closer to Moscow as a precautionary measure” and that businesses yet to establish such units may now consider “arming their guards” in the wake of the mutiny.

In the near term, technocrats believe staffing changes are likely in the Ministry of Defence, security agencies, and other bodies. One government official suggests these will take place in September, and that the lack of senior-level resignations comes from a desire in the Kremlin to avoid appearing to concede to Prigozhin’s demands. But the anticipation of personnel changes is leading interviewees to prepare for increased work in the coming months. Competition is set to intensify among agencies as they strive to demonstrate their effectiveness and competence to take on new tasks. “The boss [minister] brought us together and told us that we have to try harder now,” says one finance ministry official. Several sources say they cancelled or postponed their summer holiday after the mutiny in expectation of being asked to work more.

In this regard, interviewees also see the coming months as presenting a period of opportunity for themselves. “We did not betray the president,” says one senior central bank official, arguing that no one in the government’s economic bloc – unlike members of the military and security elites – can be reproached for sympathising with or supporting Prigozhin. Other interviewees similarly believe they will be rewarded for their loyalty and, in general, that their bloc’s position within the Russian elite will be reinforced.

Expectations are indeed rising. After Russia’s 6-7 July Financial Congress, a key economic forum hosted by the central bank, multiple interviewees highlighted the positive atmosphere. Participants reached for expressions such as “fighting spirit,” “much better than SPIEF” (referring to the main Russian economic forum held in St Petersburg in June), and “a level of optimism not seen in a long time” to describe the event.

In short, Prigozhin’s mutiny has consolidated the technocratic groups around Putin. Where these previously exhibited a sense of “negative loyalty” (they backed the regime out of a lack of alternative options, despite their personal opposition to the war), they have now solidified their support.

It is indeed highly probable that the position of the technocrat group within the elite will strengthen. As long as the government successfully handles the pressure of sanctions from the European Union and the United States, if the technocrats remain loyal, Putin’s trust in them should grow further. In Russia’s personalist regime, trust and frequent personal contact with the authoritarian leader are vital resources.

If resignations from the defence ministry and related industries take place, some technocrats may be appointed to new positions or be given informal authority to work directly with defence enterprises to improve their efficiency. This would allow technocrats not only to support the adaptation of non-military production for war-related tasks, as they have been doing since last autumn, but also to directly influence business processes in military enterprises that were previously solely under the control of the defence ministry.

That being said, Putin does not yet appear to have made any particular nods in favour of the technocrat group, or the government as a whole. On the contrary, the president has publicly expressed his gratitude to the representatives of the security agencies, particularly the National Guard (Rosgvardia), including the detachments under Ramzan Kadyrov’s authority in Chechnya. These detachments were deployed on 24 June to recapture Rostov, which had been seized by Wagner. Following the rebellion, Rosgvardia received an elite battalion of special forces from the interior ministry. Furthermore, a new law is in preparation to grant Rosgvardia, including Kadyrov’s battalions, access to heavy weapons such as tanks, aircraft, and warships, significantly bolstering their capabilities in comparison to other security agencies such as the FSB.

This increase in strength of one security agency underscores that Putin, even after the rebellion, continues to rely on these sections of the elite more than other groups. He could yet turn towards the technocrats – but for the time being, he may be sticking with what he knows.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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