It has been just over two weeks since the aborted Wagner "march for justice," on the face of it the most serious challenge to Putin’s authority for more than two decades. The reaction of the Kremlin, both at the time and since, has puzzled many observers who anticipated a swift, merciless blood-letting on behalf of the autocrat. But it hasn’t happened, so the question is why?

 

Earlier this year, the website Business Insider, working with Die Welt, the Dossier Center, and Politico were handed a collection of data files belonging to the Wagner Group which had been downloaded by the “Bogatyri” (warriors) group of hackers.

One of the files, which some have called a diary, is the almost complete contents of Prigozhin's personal calendar covering a ten-year period until late 2021. The Dossier Center, which is funded by the exiled opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky to track the criminal activity of those associated with the Kremlin, helped render the file, which was in an obsolete format, readable.

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The document includes almost 18,000 entries, many of which provide a mundane snapshot of Prigozhin’s daily life with entries about such things as medical and dental appointments, reminders to take prescriptions and other daily routines.

However, it also details meetings and other contact with individuals at the highest levels of Moscow’s military, political and security elite. Many of these entries were in code but have now been decrypted which, following the mutiny, has given the document potentially critical significance.

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Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that Ukraine’s “peace formula” is a “dead-end” and complained about the deliberate “ignoring of other initiatives” to end the war in Ukraine.

The level and frequency of Prigozhin’s interactions with Moscow’s most senior players has led many to the conclusion that his links with Putin and his cabal were even more extensive than previously thought.

One commentator has said “Prigozhin’s close ties to the Kremlin’s top brass, demonstrate how he served as a de facto member of Putin’s cabinet, while his Wagner forces played a crucial role in advancing Russian influence across Africa and the Middle East.”

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The relationship between the Russian President and Prigozhin, often referred to disparagingly as “Putin's Chef”, has been well documented with the pair being photographed together at many events since they first met in St. Petersburg. 

However, Putin is only directly referred to in the calendar twice, and neither entry appears to refer to a one-on-one meeting. There are a small number of entries which include the word "Президент" (president) accompanied by country names, which Insider feels may be coded locations where the two might have met up.

There is another example of how Wagner, at Prigozhin’s insistence, takes extensive precautions to protect the personal security of its senior members. In this document, Wagner members are only referred to by four digits of their employee numbers, never by name or position.

While Putin may not appear too often, others do. Prigozhin seems to have had almost daily contact with someone or other from within Putin's inner circle.

Thirty-three entries denote meetings or calls with Aleksey Dyumin, a former bodyguard of Putin's. He is viewed by many as the top man’s protégé, as Putin was with Yeltsin. Dyumin was “shoe-horned” into the post of governor of the Tula region in preparation, some believe, for future promotion, perhaps as minister of defense. The governor is also reported to have helped negotiate the deal which ended Prigozhin’s march.

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While the calendar effectively ends in November 2021, its final entry refers to a booking for a “helicopter permit” for April 2022, a date which more or less coincides with the first appearance of Wagner contracted troops on the ground in support of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Commentators are now trying to analyze (for analyze, read guess) what could be the impact of the calendar and the secrets it holds, for the way Putin deals with the fall-out from the march toward Moscow.

Some feel that Putin must assert his authority and carry out a purge of all those who may have even the most tenuous links with or loyalty towards Prigozhin and Wagner.  If you consider just those who have been identified to date, that would mean culling many of those considered to be Moscow’s brightest and best.  There is evidence both in the diary and elsewhere that Wagner’s contacts weren’t only made directly with the top men but with their deputies and staff at every level as well; should they go too? That would ultimately leave Putin even more isolated than before with a need to search for replacements for some of those who have been with him from his earliest days in power and were considered loyal until a fortnight ago.

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On the other hand, if he doesn’t take the action this seems to call for, he would appear weakened even further than the June 23-24 debacle has made him out to be. Whichever way it goes it is obvious that Prigozhin was never really under control and the murmurings of his political as well as military ambitions had been right all along.

For Putin, it seems there is no way back. His advisors should be telling him it is time to jump before he is pushed, perhaps literally from a sixth-floor hotel room. He has an obvious way out, by confirming he won’t stand for re-election in 2024, but his past behavior suggests that won’t happen.

The end of Putin’s rule could get very messy indeed particularly as indicated by the Prigozhin diaries it is no longer clear who is friend and who is foe.

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