Bellingcat’s Hristo Grozev: “The confrontation between Prigozhin and Putin is emerging before our eyes”

Putin is seriously considering the possibility of a nuclear attack on Poland

January 19, 2023

“The confrontation between Prigozhin and Putin is emerging before our eyes”

On February 24 last year, when Putin ordered his 200,000-strong army to attack Ukraine, he unexpectedly found himself in a difficult position. Not only did his plan to capture Kyiv fail miserably in three days, and the war has been going on for almost a year, on top of that the Kremlin dictator has made a lot of enemies. Moreover, now he is besieged by them from all sides. Here you have Prigozhin with his own army, and a considerable part of the disaffected economic elite. The latter react especially painfully to the new military reality – due to the tangible pressure of Western sanctions.

There was a place in this circle of offended people for some representatives of the FSB.

But all these people are afraid of their master, and therefore do not dare to speak out and act against his will openly.

Hristo Grozev, a journalist of the independent international intelligence community Bellingcat, shared his thoughts about what is happening in the Kremlin with Glavcom. The well-known investigator took a long break and did not appear in public or in the media for several months. In an exclusive interview, Hristo explains how he and his team now work in new conditions: when the Russian authorities set a course to isolate the country from the civilized world.

Christ, who, in your opinion, became the author of the idea of ​​removing General Surovikin from the position of commander of the Russian army on the territory of Ukraine?

I believe that a new confrontation in the Kremlin is emerging before our eyes. This time between Putin and Prigozhin (owner of PVK “Wagner. Also known as “Putin’s cook” – “Glavkom”). And the dismissal of Serhiy Surovikin is only the first stage of it. Next, we will see even more: how the Russian guarantor will act under the increasing pressure of “Wagner”. It simply cannot be otherwise, when more than 20,000 armed thugs behind Prigozhin consider their leader no better than the Russian guarantor himself.

In this case, the desire of the main Wagnerian to get part of the real power is clearly visible. Of course, to satisfy his growing ambitions for power, Putin’s cook will demand that his master remove someone from his path. It is very difficult for the Kremlin helmsman to do this.

Putin had previously tried to appease his subordinate by offering him a political role comparable to the one that Zhirinovsky had in Russia at the time. That is, according to Putin’s plan, his bloodthirsty subject should gather around himself something like another party, which would be loyal to the current government.

Did Putin flirt with his chef Yevgeny Prigozhin? Photo: AR

However, this was clearly not enough for Yevgeny Prigozhin. So he began to put more and more pressure on his patron, who had no choice but to go on the defensive. At the same time trying to get away from the supreme “musician”.

What happened recently, when the Russian Ministry of Defense suddenly decided to retreat from the previously announced victory in Soledar, should be viewed through the same prism. Although earlier the Russian military leadership said that this “victory” belongs only to them and to no one else. For his part, Prigozhin insisted in every possible way that this was the achievement of his private army.

From this, we can conclude that the Russian leadership is somehow trying to ease the tension in its relations with Wagner. However, once again, Prigozhin cannot take a step back, because he is constantly under pressure from his mercenary followers. Therefore, he will continue to attack Putin, putting forward new demands.

“Grozev’s wanted notice became a catalyst for Bulgarian society”

In your opinion, will the declaration of your wanted status by the Russian authorities affect the microclimate of Bulgarian-Russian relations? Will it not happen that these relations will be permanently spoiled?

You asked the question absolutely correctly. Unexpectedly for me, the announcement of my wanted status suddenly became a catalyst for Bulgarian society, which had previously been mostly passive, when it came to clearly defining its attitude towards Russia. People were for Ukraine, as it were, but at the same time, they would hardly go out on the streets to publicly express their collective position. By this, demanding from the government decisive steps in support of Ukraine. And on the other hand, there were a lot of pro-Russian elements who were definitely paid. This applies to both mass media and political circles. They also tried to take a kind of latent pro-Russian position. In their rhetoric, such forces resort to conciliatory appeals. Like, let’s not give weapons to Ukraine, because it will only lead to an increase in the number of victims. Moreover, not only from Ukrainian.

Well, now that I’m wanted, all secretly pro-Russian forces have become obvious. All of them are now perceived as a kind of “anti-Bulgarians”. First of all, because of the statements made by them, in which it is said that Grozev should be handed over to Russia, and let them deal with him there. Then, as for the majority of Bulgarian citizens, such a position is completely incomprehensible and even treasonous.

That is why, I think, now in Bulgaria they have started to speak much more harshly against aggression. And in general, a period of clear confrontation began in the relations between the states. An excellent proof of this was the recent summons of the Russian ambassador for an explanation. No explanations have been provided so far. And this only deepens the crisis in interstate diplomatic relations.

And this, I think, is very good, considering the situation.

How can the repatriation of Russian refugees from mobilization back from Europe to Russia be affected? The other day, the Dutch government came up with such an idea.

There are two vectors here that I can see. One of them is positive for everyone except Russia. In the sense that it would be very good for Putin if the anti-war lobby remained outside the country. We see that the Kremlin did not particularly prevent the departure of those unwilling to fight. For this reason, the border in the direction of departure was open for a long time.

Of course, then they started throwing dirt at those who left the country. Promises from the authorities to take away the fugitives’ bank accounts and generally all their rights poured in. In addition, they also talked about tax penalties. And now, if repatriation is carried out, it will increase the risk of social conflict in Russia. The effect of “a pipe in which the pressure has increased above the norm” will come into effect. It will definitely be. And, of course, this means that the sense of security in society will disappear altogether. Even apolitical Russians will more and more often see an increase in the degree of tension, they will observe the relentless approach of the social conflict to the boiling point.

The second scenario will be somewhat different, under which the Russian liberal opposition will grow disillusioned with collective action. This development of events is clearly beneficial for Putin. Then today’s oppositionists, who only yesterday hoped for Western countries, will consider their actions as treason.

“The “prisoner’s dilemma” weighs on the Russian elite

And are the Kremlin prepared for the potential growth of discontent among the masses due to repatriation?

From what I see, the Russian elite, not only the oligarchs, but also the people who have power in the power structures, do not support the war at all. They all whisper against her. But they are afraid to do something in this direction. All because they are bound by fear of the repressive regime that Putin has created today.

However, they lost 90% of their previous quality of life. The worst thing for them is that it is impossible to restore anything that was lost before in these circumstances. Therefore, it seems to me that the only thing they lack in order to openly oppose Putin’s government is a signal for joint action. I call it the “prisoner’s dilemma”. Everyone wants something, but no one takes the initiative. But if suddenly a part of the society goes out into the streets, especially the one that is not afraid, because the alternative will be even more terrible, then anything is possible.

Mothers of recently mobilized killed soldiers can become such pioneers. Or those who do not want to be mobilized, but will be forced to return due to the repatriation decision.

The struggle between the Kremlin towers is intensifying
images from open sources

What is happening now in the context of the struggle between the towers of the Kremlin?

Now I’m watching the additional towers appear. That is, there are more of them. Previously, there was at least some consolidation around Putin. However, when after the start of the great war it became clear that everything was not going according to plan, new towers began to emerge. Among them, the most notable can be called the “Prygozhin Tower”. Really. In the last two or three years, Putin’s cook was constantly offended because he could not maintain subjectivity in the structure of “Wagner”, he was forbidden to earn money with the help of his private army in Africa. Not to mention that he was not invited to take part in the war from its very beginning. Therefore, he had to invite himself. And in the end, he proved his superiority in comparison with the Ministry of Defense. It is he who creates the center of gravity for the formation of a new tower today.

In general, to answer your question briefly, it should be said: there is a new branch in the tower system. And this is only worse for Putin, because it calls into even greater doubt the stability of his power.

And, by the way, one day the group of “hawks”, united around Prigozhin, may finally dislodge Putin. However, they won’t be able to enjoy power for too long, because the departure of the previous helmsman will automatically be a signal for the still oppressed Russian elite. The latter will do everything to organize a “free Russia” in which the owners of large capital will live better.

And what is Putin’s relationship with the power bloc now?

Since he is increasingly dominated by a paranoid perception of reality, he is afraid of all security forces. The biggest, of course, is “Wagner”. In general, in my opinion, waking up every Monday, the Russian dictator is terrified. Because he has to figure out how to make himself look like a person with real power for the whole next week.

That is why every Monday he is afraid of what will happen before Friday.

What can the conflict between Prigozhin and Shoigu lead to?

I have partially answered this question before. I can only add that given the pace of Prigozhin’s strengthening, it is increasingly difficult to deny the inevitability of his victory in the confrontation with the Minister of Defense. After all, Shoigu does not have a private army loyal to him, while his opponent has one, on the contrary.

What role does Putin assign to Kadyrov? And can it happen that he will become a candidate for the role of successor?

Unlike the Prigozhin I already mentioned, Kadyrov is much more of a tool in Putin’s hands. He does not have the proper level of subjectivity. He got rid of it as soon as he was installed in the chair of the head of Chechnya. The inability to hold out even for a month independently in the conflict with the Kremlin makes Kadyrov extremely comfortable.

On the other hand, I can say that if the main Chechen sees the inevitability of Russia’s defeat and division, then he has a backup plan for such a case. Among other things, it involves falling into a much safer vassal-type dependence on its Middle Eastern sponsors. It is not for nothing that Ramzan Kadyrov has access to Arab assets.

During the last time, we have seen several times that the Chechen protégé of Putin transported planes stuffed with his relatives in the eastern direction. And this already shows the very close nature of the relations between the Arab sheikhs and Kadyrov.

Where did Surkov go? Do you have any information about this?

The last time Vladyslav Surkov was tracked by a mobile phone signal in the territory of South Ossetia. From this we can conclude that in the past one of the most loyal followers of Putin has been lurking and is waiting for an opportunity to become useful again. This time for the new owner of the Kremlin, if you’re lucky.

How many plans of military and political actions do the Russian leadership have for this year? And is there one among them that predicts the collapse of the Russian Federation?

A large part of the political and military elite already understood by September of last year that any military plan to end the war with victory this year can already be considered a failure. And so preparations for a long war took place. Not knowing at the same time what the winning scenario will look like. That is, the only plan consisted in the absence of a plan as such. At the same time, it is necessary to endure from two to four years at any cost. Why exactly this way and not otherwise? Because any other option for the end of the war entails the immediate disintegration of Russia.

Such an understanding was formed in the Kremlin closer to September. And that’s for sure.

I can add that our friends, Belarusian cyber guerrillas, were able to hack the website of Roskomnadzor. In particular, the data of a special department of this agency, which cooperates directly with the FSB and monitors social threats, was exposed.

The first in the list of the most dangerous is the threat of the disintegration of Russia. Based on this, we can conclude that separatist sentiments are monitored even more closely than anti-war sentiments in society.

“Putin is capable of a nuclear strike”

If we are already talking about plans. What is your opinion about the four scenarios of the conflict between Russia and NATO, published by the experts of the Rand Corporation?

In this case, Putin’s options are not so important. Much more important is how the collective action will react to it. Are the Western states ready to enter the war at a certain moment and what is the red line for them.

Because, judging by the information I received even before the start of a large-scale war, the Russian rival is ready to take a nuclear step on a smaller or larger scale. Although, under ideal conditions, I would not like to use this last argument in the war with Ukraine. In this case, any sense of looking for a social justification for Russians will disappear. The narrative about helping the “brotherly people” will then simply completely self-destruct.

In addition, the Russian leader is seriously considering the possibility of launching a nuclear strike on Poland. And he will do it in the end, if he has no other way out. After all, he is capable of such.

We have repeatedly heard, from various sources, that Russian elites are slowly preparing for a future without Putin. Have they found someone to replace him?

Yes, that’s a good question. At the very beginning, we saw that the Kremlin tried in every possible way to keep the hands of individual representatives of the elite clean in order to use them in some time, just in case, if the need arises.

Thus, in the event of an unfavorable development of the situation, Mikhail Mishustin was considered to replace Putin. However, his hands were eventually soiled by involvement in the war. In the event that secretive rebels, who are the absolute majority in the presidential entourage, have the opportunity to cement the results of the social revolution, Oleksiy Navalny may well come to power after the elections. By the way, he has already announced that if he gets at the helm, he will demand from the oligarchs 30% of their wealth for the benefit of the state budget. In any case, losing 30% under Navalny is much better for them than 90% under Putin.

“Wagnergate”: the investigation continues

Last year, an investigation was announced into the circumstances of the disruption of the special operation to detain the Wagnerites , who were supposed to fly out of Belarus with an “unplanned” landing in Kyiv. Is it ready and will it ever be released?

As for the specific Belarusian case, this investigation is published on our website in text form. But a documentary based on the materials of the corresponding investigation is still in the process of production. We are now continuing the investigation. It is very interesting what happened to the same “heroes” who were intercepted by the Belarusians then. We would like to know how many people from among those involved at that time participate in open warfare today.

So, since it’s a work in progress, I’m not ready to say anything yet, because I’ll just get in the way of further work.

How much more difficult has it become to get information from your informants in Russia? Is there a feeling that the aggressor country is totally shutting down?

It became more difficult to receive information through standard channels with the beginning of the war by about 30%. The root cause of this is the more careful attitude of the Russian special services to data protection.

On the other hand, because of this, it became easier to determine who is an employee of the secret services and who is not. If the information is hidden, then the person who owns it belongs to the employees of the relevant services. Then we run a search for older data from what is publicly available today.

Along with all this, many more volunteers appeared ready to merge the necessary data. First of all, they should include people who do not agree with the war and who have access to large databases of Russian corporations. Such persons willingly share with us what they have under their hands.

By monitoring the resources on which illegally leaked information is posted, we concluded that after the start of the open war, 50 times more illegal sources appeared.

Regarding the closure of Russia, I will say this. It will completely close in on itself as soon as Iran and China stop providing the Kremlin with the technologies necessary for functioning and waging war. And this can happen only as a result of powerful pressure, including from Western countries. As compensation for the loss of the Russian sales market for certain Western goods, it makes sense to offer Tehran and Beijing something substantial in return. Only a successful combination of gingerbread and a whip will bring the desired result in negotiations with the Chinese and Iranian parties on the topic of ending supplies to Russia.

The plan to make Russia a closed country was drawn up a year before the war. The existence of such an algorithm of actions on paper caused panic among some FSB employees. Moreover, it was so strong that they were ready, if necessary, to leak data received from the Kremlin to Western emissaries.

Bohdan Bodnaruk, for “Glavkom”

7 comments

  1. The recent exposes of the emerging conflict between Putler and Prigozhin is somewhat like those of Putler’s illnesses and or the possibility of him being deposed. It’s welcome news, but it’s also unlikely (for the near future, anyhow).
    Anyway, there is a potentially great happening in the making. It’s probably needless to say that any and all internal conflicts in mafia land can only be good news for Ukraine. Putler hoped that the Wagnerites would help to turn the tide in this war that has become a hopeless cause for the rat. In reality, he opened a sort of Pandora’s Box. We have four (!) adversaries in mafia land that are vying for power and or survival, and this is definitely good news. I hope this will bring many bad consequences for the crime syndicate.

    • A pretty jaw-dropping statement is casually chucked in here :
      “In addition, the Russian leader is seriously considering the possibility of launching a nuclear strike on Poland. And he will do it in the end, if he has no other way out. After all, he is capable of such.”

      Were it not for the fact that this guy is a reliable friend of Ukraine, I’d tend to ignore it. But why didn’t the interviewer press him on this for more info?

      • Maybe because it’s only an opinion. Nobody knows for sure, not even if the rat is still alive is a certainty.

  2. Grozev’s interview raises so many interlinked subjects that it illustrates the limits of analysis.

    It all must be taken together, WITH the recognition that any individual response ALSO is biased by the individuals reporting, commenting, or weighting, the information.

    You can surely see this only by observing your OWN response.

    Then you will develop insight into the emotional biases of others, which will increase your capacity to distill more accurately.

    Self-interest is prominent in some of the comments, and self-interest IS the basic natural, evolved motivator of ALL living organisms.
    You are educated even by your own fear, as to this “scattering ” factor, which leads to increased discord in ANY interaction , and degrades discourse.

    But, for this comment,let’s merely explore Grozev’s view of Bulgaria:
    He recognized Bulgarians accepting a propaganda tactic (which has actually occurred aggressively since 2004, and was less visible in the years of euphoria following 1992) of “Ukrainians will best survive through ending this [9-year] invasion through “negotiation.”
    That is, the easily inserted propaganda for inducing capitulation.***

    I could go in SEVERAL directions, including that of the prigodniy yolop – the useful fool.

    You have had this recurring problem in the USA concerning Russia in BOTH common sociopolitical poles, and THEIR influence has obfuscated the skilled origin of Induced Emotional Overarousal, for over a century.

    Let’s leave the historical trace, because it’s more essential that you RECOGNIZE the use of casuistry as a tool used against the common, locally-oriented human mind.

    I URGE you ALL to at least FAMILIARIZE YOURSELVES with the most common LOGICAL FALLACIES to which we are subject when desiring to dismiss thoughts or information that seem to US to threaten our previously assembled “understanding.”

    *** the fact that this “reasonable capitulation” is continued by Russian information-manipulation strategy, tells you it has been found useful on successive populations, and also tends to persist in the minds of those holding moral absolutism.
    “Peace above all else” arises from one of the possible courses an individual naturally analyzes when sensing threat.

    It has been so useful for individual reproductive success when anonymous large populations arise, that it remains the most popular.You know it from refugees’ primary goal:
    Safety over all else.

    It’s OF COURSE, an ILLUSION. The stated goal, NEVER withdrawn, of Kremlin governance, is to either absorb OR liquidate Ukraine and any who regard themselves as Ukrainian (there is repeated history of this, and the Russian Imperial strategy of population displacement and mixing to accomplish analogous control is centuries old).

    It has NOT worked, for important reasons in ANY of the populations now controlled by Muscovy/Kremlin. From Sakha to Finn, Tatar or Georgina to Nenets, , re-aggregation and sociocultural identity remains.

    The phenomenon has to do with successful approaches to early developmental acculturation. We hold to that which worked for our survival, and this is persistent .

    The issues, such as learning, ecological fit, and modeling of behavior, leave easy discussion behind in comment columns. Child development and the evolved obligate social human brain are SOURCES of propagandistic success.

    Just please explore logical fallacies and bias. In the simplicity of Others’ obvious biases, we CAN get a handle on our own.

    Emigration to Costa Rica, USA, Europe, or elsewhere may not work for you. Failure of refugees to assimilate into other cultures merely leads to greater spread of defensive violence – and violence occurs MOST in humans experiencing the delusion or fact of threat.

  3. Grozev’s evaluation can be complemented by this:
    Putin, upon Soviet collapse. found haven in St. Petersburg.
    Prigozhin, an organized criminal mind (there are disorganized personalities , but let’s not proceed into abnormal psychology any more than necessary), was also forming a typical mixed enterprise.
    A criminal enterprise includes both unlawful and violent means, as well as interaction with a lawful economy.

    Extortion itself arises from the very human social brain’s recognition of fairness. Even the most ill of us are transactional because tit-for-tat is built in.
    (and Tit-for-Tat, in basic Game Theory IS necessary. You will remember that the most successful two-person interactive “game” is , first, affiliative, then, IF the other defects, penalization.)

    Putin used his past connections while in St. Pete, to trade favors, rising to a point within this currency, of becoming regarded by Yeltsin – and others – as a “good” upholder of steady, economic/political stability.

    Only when sufficient power to defect and obtain greater advantage occurs, does an organized Psychopathic mind ALWAYS defect, for greater advantage. THIS is what Putin and Prigozhin share.

    Our beliefs Do affect not only our choices, but , however transparently false they may be, REMAIN useful, due to the ability of rhetoric to hold in the human mind. You REMEMBER things said, and memory, induces familiarity.

    IF you yourself resort to transaction- equivalent trade, as the epitome, or life value, as do MANY< MANY individuals in many cultures, you share deep belief with what psychopaths learned in sufficiently cold childhood.

    Putin is a more adept user of beliefs, though Prigozhin rather crudely seeks coalition and social acceptance, from as far as his recent letter to USA.
    Putin still trades less visibly than Progozhin. Prisons are amazing examples of the rise of utilitarian culture, mirroring the subcultures of organized crime within communities.
    You find examples in early 19th c. Yakuza in villages where national oversight had broken down. Warlords of East African nations are examples on larger, more exclusively violent political organization.

    The cold Oligarchy arising in 20th C. Soviet Union, countered any reduction of hierarchy upon that collapse. Thus, the rise of St Petersburg Transactional Organized criminal oligarchy was viable, stable, and organized. Security requires organization, and it is security agencies that plan most strategically. Counter-disruption, is useful through both Intelligence-gathering and collation, and Counterintelligence, which arm disrupts organized resistance.

    Putin is a former professional counterintel agent, having absorbed the skills, and essentially works within a group, that manipulates. What you hear and is signaled, are constantly used to disrupt, true or false.

    THAT is the culture with which you are dealing.

    Ukraine struggles both away from this culture, and toward a culture that we regard as admirable – the beliefs and tenets of the selected government understanding the option described above, and desiring to restore what is our nature in hundreds of thousands of years of affiliative and loving small communities and extended familial, emotional understanding.

    This is why the latter is attractive to us, and the former abhorrent.

    The comment is, necessarily hugely incomplete.

    The social science upon which it's based should be a matter of PRIMARY interest to ANY who desire to comment on human social matters.

What is your opinion?