The phrase ‘a split within the elites’ has become a buzzword in the media and public sphere, helped along, no doubt, by the invisible hand of political scientists. It has taken on something of a mythical quality, with many viewing this perceived elite division as a precursor to the regime’s collapse and the seismic changes that will undoubtedly follow. Although it may be difficult to imagine the collapse of the regime itself nowadays, this mysterious ‘split within the elites’ allows for magical thinking, transforming dreams into reality. The truth is, a ‘split within the elites’ is a very specific concept, and has little in common with any intra-elite conflicts. Intra-elite conflicts are not only an organic part of any regime, but also a control mechanism — as long as these conflicts exist, they need an arbitrator. In a liberal order, the voting public acts as the arbiter, but in an authoritarian regime, the role is taken up by a specific person or a group of people.
When the arbiter is no longer able to satisfy one or both sides, the carefully controlled intra-elite conflicts spiral out of control, finally morphing into ‘division’. Both of these sides are aware that the arbitrator may not be able to keep their promises or make decisions for one reason or another. As a result, they are forced to seek support outside of the system itself, most often from the general population. In such a scenario, the players try to provoke an intra-elite conflict, which is predominantly about control over the country’s resources. Finally, they project the conflict onto the social and political tensions, which already exist within society, and mobilise parts of the population in their support.
The relatively young Soviet careerist Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to power in 1985, was limited from all sides by the old party guardsmen, who had a majority in the Politburo and the Central Committee. By channelling his ambitions into the revitalisation and improvement of socialism, he orchestrated a campaign of criticism directed towards the old regime (‘glasnost’), rallying public opinion and bringing a new generation of elites to his side. Galvanised by a surge of enthusiasm for an all-encompassing ‘system update’, he deftly sidelined his opponents and emerged victorious.
However, other members of the elite and the counter-elite, inspired by his enthusiasm, quickly followed suit, utilising this same model of social mobilisation. After being ousted from his party leadership role, Boris Yeltsin from Siberia capitalised on the economic struggles of the Gorbachev era to win over broad public support. He made accusations of corruption (or ‘party privileges’) and of inefficiency directed towards not only the ‘old guardians of the system’, but toward all of the party elites.
The resulting fragmentation and division of the elites created fertile ground for radical political and economic reforms. These changes did not directly come about as a result of the ‘split’, but rather stemmed from the fact that the old party leadership, fearing change, had clung onto an outdated system for far too long, standing in the way of even minor and necessary updates. This fostered disillusionment and a yearning for change ‘from below’, allowing the intra-elite conflicts to spill over into full-blown divisions. This was far from an isolated phenomenon.
But what does this have to do with Prigozhin?
Prigozhin's conflict with the military is not only controlled by, but is also provoked by the political leadership — that is, Putin and his inner circle, the political oligarchs of his personalist autocracy.
Last summer, Putin and the other orchestrators of the war found themselves in a rather precarious situation, with the front collapsing and the military operation spiralling out of control. Of course, this was a situation of their own making, as neither Putin nor the military had been prepared for an all-out war, instead assuming that Ukraine would be cowed by them. However, the blame for these failures needed to be laid at someone’s feet. From the point of view of Putin and his inner circle, the easiest and most obvious scapegoat was the military command, who had been unable to organise an effective offensive, or force the soldiers to fight and die.
Prigozhin, with his private military company (PMC), helped to plug the gaps on the frontlines, and also became a lever to exert psychological pressure on the military. By recruiting prisoners and sharply increasing the size of his army, he was also also able to organise another frontline — a front of bloggers and military correspondents, who spun tales of military-patriotic lore and leaked details (from Prigozhin himself) regarding the importance of the army and their inability to defeat the Ukrainian armed forces.
Both the growth in the size of the PMC, the widespread public attention paid to the group’s military successes, and the wave of patriotic hysteria that the bloggers have managed to raise and hurl against the General Staff, has become a very tangible threat to the army. These same tactics have also been used as a discipline mechanism and to help the Kremlin and the military command to reach a new agreement. After Putin finally ordered mobilisation, providing the military with almost unlimited human resources, the deal was publicly acknowledged when Putin appeared at the ‘operational headquarters’ on December 15, 2022, where he was hosted by the Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov.
Two weeks after this event, Prigozhin (using his fighters as a mouthpiece) hurled a stream of obscenities, insults and accusations of betrayal at Gerasimov. But even this could not prevent the official appointment of Gerasimov two weeks later as commander of the SMO. The very public appointment meant that Gerasimov was effectively given full responsibility for the operation itself, as well as for planning and making tactical decisions. As such experts began to make predictions of Prigozhin's ‘decline’.
But they should not have jumped to this so quickly.
A joker who does as he is told does not need to be dismissed from the court.
The new round of escalation in the conflict between Prigozhin and the General Staff differs from what came before as the present insults against the army leadership come directly from Prigozhin himself. It is highly likely that this is a sign of his weakened position.
Indeed, while the army has received virtually unlimited manpower, Prigozhin's prison recruitment has come to an end, and his ‘wild division’ has been attempting to take control of just Bakhmut for several months now. Accusing Gerasimov of being behind the ammunition shortage appears to be more of an attempt to absolve himself of his own failures on the battlefield than a valid criticism.
Prigozhin’s public calls to provide his division with ammunition in whatever amounts they require seemingly undermines the chain of command. It is the commander of the operation who determines how much ammunition is given to whom, especially since supplies appear to be limited. But it is not only about that. Despite the fact that Prigozhin allows himself to directly and indirectly insult the chief commander of the army, demonstrating his complete autonomy, the main issue lies in the anti-elite narratives which underlie his hysterical patriotism. In this narrative, the corrupt generals at the top betray and sell out those at the front, leading to many unnecessary casualties of the war.
On the one hand, these accusations should encourage the generals to demonstrate their own successes on the frontline, justifying themselves in the eyes of Putin and the public. However, the political power of this narrative — which attributes the army's defeat and senseless casualties to corruption among top command and leadership — is so significant that it also has the potential to increase Prigozhin's personal popularity and may even serve as a destabilising force should the army experience new failures and require additional waves of mobilisation.
For a stable authoritarian regime, the main taboo of intra-elite conflicts is for elite groups to ‘air their dirty laundry in public’, that is, to make direct appeals to the population. This has the effect of destabilising the regime, calling into question the authority of the supreme arbitrator as well as the regime’s own procedure for conflict resolution. As a result, this sets the stage for a potential split among the elites, intensifies the politicisation of the population, and galvanises political processes in the extreme circumstances of war, sanctions and budgetary instability.
As in the case of Gorbachev, such a shock may initially appear beneficial to the leader, allowing them to address issues that might otherwise go unsolved by the government. This galvanising force arises from the leader's self-assurance and belief in their ability to alter their political discourse without the situation spiralling out of control. In this same way, Gorbachev believed that his extensive critique of the Soviet system would only affect the ‘old guard’ and not undermine his own power. However, when the total overhaul of socialism encountered a setback and the economy deteriorated, the genie of partial liberalisation began to perform unexpected tricks, much to Aladdin's dismay.
By using an aggressive player on the political fringes to organise a public campaign against one of the ‘systemic’ elite groups (military generals), Putin has threatened the other elite groups under his control, as well as the foundations and rules of the old procedure for settling disputes. He has also demonstrated the potential of public mobilisation.
Today, it seems as though Prigozhin's conflict with the General Staff is unlikely to spiral out of control. But the aftertaste of their squabble will linger. This episode sends a clear message to the elites that the rules are changing, and these changes will continue to be unpredictable. The time has come for various elite groups to think about how they might mobilise the public to protect themselves from such ‘fringe’ attacks by untethered radicals in the future.
Moreover, public expectations differ fundamentally from how Putin seeks to portray them. While Putin's goal is to ‘win’ the war or achieve some plausible imitation of victory, Russian society dreams of ending the war and achieving a return to normality. So far, public opinion has agreed that ‘Putin's victory’ would be the best option, satisfying both its own expectations and Putin's. But if this ‘victory’ project stalls again, as Gorbachev's perestroika stalled, a significant gap will emerge between the expectations of both parties.
One way or another, having been drawn into a protracted and large-scale war, Putin has managed to create a great deal of tension, stemming from the fact that neither society nor the elites were prepared for such a turn of events. To discipline both, he has been forced to unleash radicals into the wild, allowing them to attack systemic elite groups through public mobilisation campaigns. This is his ‘perestroika in reverse’, the restructuring of radicalisation itself. Today, this remains the most likely trigger, capable of, under certain circumstances, undoing his own power.