Are Putin and Trump Playing Russian Roulette?

The Deer Hunter – Fair Use

I don’t think anyone in the West, myself included, has a clue about Kremlin politics. Paramilitary convicted felon Yevgeny Prigozhin could be trafficking small boys to the Politburo, plotting against the Russian general staff, hoping to leverage his mercenaries to take over Syria or Mali, or finishing up his Boy Scout merit badges for all I know.

I have read for months about the fearsome Wagner group in the front lines at Bakhmut, just as we’re now reading about his coup d’autoroute, but that still doesn’t mean that there’s an accurate Rosetta stone to Russian politics, at least not on CNN.

At the same time, it is possible to pose some answers to a few obvious questions:

What’s in it for Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus?

In granting asylum to Prigozhin, after presumably bartering the truce between the Wagners and runaway Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko saw some advantage in sheltering the exiled rebel leader and at least some of his mercenaries (maybe those who didn’t earn their commissions in Russian prisons).

What’s been clear now for at least the last five years is that Putin is Lukashenko’s daddy. In 2020, domestic protests would easily have removed the president from his throne of ease had not Russia bailed him out by assisting in the arrest or deportation of numerous opposition figures.

Then in 2022 Russia thought so little of Belarus’s sovereignty that it chose to attack Ukraine across the Belarusian frontier, and more recently Putin announced that he would be deploying tactical nuclear weapons near Minsk.

Why, on top of all that, Lukashenko decided that he’d love nothing more than to host someone intent on overthrowing the Russian president and government is a mystery to me, unless his only role in this affair—as a confirmed Putin lapdog—is to collect Prigozhin at Minsk National Airport and drop him off at some FSB chop shop.

The alternative—that Belarus is throwing open the gates to some old army base near Mogilev, so that Prigozhin can stage the Last Great Encampment of the Army of Bakhmut and from there threaten the supply lines into Kyiv—makes about as much sense as imagining that the assassin Stalin sent to Mexico City to kill Leon Trotsky was actually there to invite the exiled revolutionary to his daughter’s wedding.

Where’s Vlado?

I have no idea if those flight trackers following Putin’s presidential jet are accurate, but it does make a lot of sense that the boy and his gilded bubble would have bugged out of Moscow for an “undisclosed location” at the first hint of trouble on Russian highway M4.

We know from his press releases that in his down time Putin stalks bears with knives and drove a truck across the Kerch bridge (just as he scored about 11 goals per game in his mens’ hockey league), but away from his Twitter pages Putin looks like yet another mad tsar surrounded by food tasters and terrified of servants with daggers, spending his days in a 200-room empty palace with only his dogs and maybe a few secretaries to type up his emails.

To me the only truism of Prigozhin’s Excellent Adventure is the extent to which it shows just how isolated Vladimir the Terrible is from those fighting in his army, who might as well be tin soldiers on one of his long meeting tables than a force in the field.

Keep in mind that Putin conceived of the war in Ukraine as nothing more than an FSB “special operation,” and Kyiv and Volodymyr Zelensky were to have been dispatched in three days by KGB-types, whose job was to decapitate the Ukrainian government and install a puppet along the lines of Erich Honeker (former leader of East Germany) or Władysław Gomułka (Poland’s strong man in the 1960s and 70s).

The woefully inadequate Russian army only went along for the ride, or maybe some looting, and no doubt, then as now, professional Russian officers thought Putin was nothing more than a political commissar or a freebooter for whom the Russian army existed only to take the blame when the spooks messed up.

Now Putin is issuing a blizzard of standing-tall TikTok clips, but they cannot hide the fact that the real war in Russia isn’t between Moscow and Kyiv, but between the Russian deep state (all those guys with vials of Novichok at the end of their umbrellas) and the Russian military, which (despite those nifty parades in Red Square) is only a dummy corporation from which the oligarchy can drain away billions.

Mutiny on the Don?

By now it should be pretty clear that Prigozhin is Vlad’s Dr. Evil (“My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet…”).

If his drive up the M4 was really a business trip, and not some form of Kremlin kabuki theater, he would now be shooting up the Metropol Hotel and Lenin’s Tomb while the residents of Moscow bought him donuts (okay ponchiki) and coffee.

Instead, Putin issued a statement thanking the traitorous Wagners for their patriotism and allowed the ringleader to waltz off to Minsk—a far cry from how the French army in 1917 dealt with its mutineers, randomly shooting one in ten in the angry regiments along the Chemin des Dames.

Before Prigozhin’s three-hour roadside show trial, we watched him bad-mouth every senior officer in the Russian army, if not the Comintern, and in response get nothing more than a shrug from the Kremlin—this in a country where the Russian father of a twelve-year-old school girl was sentenced to two years in a penal colony after his daughter drew an anti-war picture in class.

Is Prigozhin Rasputin?

I realize that the odds are good that Prigozhin might well end up floating in the Svislach river, which runs through Minsk, but keep in mind that for the first few years of the Great War, Grigori Rasputin (an itinerant faith healer and mystic) held great sway over Empress Alexandra (especially) and her husband Tsar Nicholas II.

At the time the Russian aristocracy (earlier oligarchs) and military (then losing another war) deeply resented Rasputin’s influence at court, to the extent that a group of plotters (the one constant in Russian history) invited him to the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg.

Over a full dinner, with much wine and brandy, Rasputin was poisoned with cyanide. When that didn’t take, they shot him, and when bullets didn’t do the trick, they bundled up his bleeding body and tossed it into a nearby canal. A few days later, when his corpse was discovered and an autopsy performed, it turned out that the man of faith had only died finally of drowning.

I am assuming that Rasputin’s fate awaits Prigozhin, and that a collection of supplicants in either Belarus or the Russian army will either toss him in a canal or present his head on a Wagnerian platter to Vladimir Magnus (a latter-day Herod-like Roman governor in the eastern provinces).

Is There a Trump Connection?

As Ukrainian politics have been at the center of the last two U.S. presidential elections, I am assuming that there’s a Trump angle to the latest Russian revolution—even if Putin’s survival only means that Trump’s option for a links course on the banks of the Dnipro River remain in the money.

At the very least, I have always assumed that Putin timed his Ukraine putsch in February 2022 to influence the U.S. midterm elections (by trying to make President Biden look ineffectual) and that Putin’s larger geopolitical play was to hope that Trump would return to office in 2025, allowing Putin to re-impose Russia’s spheres of influence across Eastern Europe.

Clearly, if Trump had been in office in 2022, he would have cheered on the advancing Russian columns in Donbas just as he did those January 6th rioters with hockey sticks. Remember Trump’s immediate reaction to Russia’s attacks—“This is genius…” and “You gotta says that’s pretty savvy.”

Trump has always denied any business connections with the Russians, although in the small print that sent fix-it man and porn-star paymaster Michael Cohen to prison for three years there was a charge for lying to Congress about Trump’s relations with Russia. And he did so at Trump’s request (a big ask so there had to be a big reason).

And it is from Cohen that we know that Trump once had the idea of “gifting” V.V. (Vladimir Vladimirovich) with the penthouse suite (with a street value of about $50 million) in his proposed Trump Tower Moscow (which was never built).

From his side, Putin has always denied owning preferred shares in The Trump Organization, just as he has for years denied funding Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, although now it turns out that in the past year alone the Russian government has given Prigozhin’s merry men about $1 billion.

Think then how much Putin might have invested to secure a call option on the head of the American government.

What’s in the Boxes?

Finally, I am wondering if there is a connection between Trump, Putin, Prigozhin and all those boxes that Trump decided—ignoring a subpoena, lying to the the Justice Department about, and risking federal charges—that he absolutely had to squirrel away in a Mar-a-Lago locker room.

I can believe that Trump is a pack rat hoarder of anything that inflates his ego, but if you step back and judge sequentially the enormity of his crimes— sucking up to Putin to compromise Hillary, blackmailing Kyiv, trying to rig the 2020 election, storming the Capitol with deadly intent to stay in office, and stealing state secrets—it all points in the direction of support for Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, with Trump playing the long game of a mole-in-chief. As John le Carré writes: “Spying is waiting.”

Its as if everything in Trumps world depends on the good graces of one Vladimir Putin, paying customer and handler. And front and center in these shell games is yet another paid-to-play mercenary (of the Trump variety), Yevgeny Prigozhin with his rent-an-army. He was Putin’s chef, so why can’t he be Trump’s lifeguard?

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.