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June 25, 2023
What A Day
Russian To Conclusions

In This Episode

  • Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia’s most notorious mercenary leader, sent an armed convoy toward Moscow over the weekend after accusing the country’s military of staging an airstrike on his own fighters. Crooked news contributor Max Fisher joins us to break down what happened, and what it could entail for Russia and the war in Ukraine.

 

  • And in headlines: Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was re-elected for a second term, the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration over how it can enforce existing immigration laws, and a federal judge in Orlando blocked the state of Florida from enforcing its recent restrictions on drag performances.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Monday, June 26th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

Erin Ryan: And I’m Erin Ryan. And this is What A Day where we are still basking in the afterglow of pride. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: You know, it’s been a very long month and I’m about ready to hang up my transgender cape and wait for next year.

 

Erin Ryan: Wait, you guys get capes? [laughter] You get issued capes? [laughter] That’s amazing. [music break]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, Greek voters overwhelmingly reelected their prime minister and his conservative party. Plus, a federal judge has blocked Florida from enforcing its anti-drag law. 

 

Erin Ryan: As they would say in Greece, to misó, which means I hate it. But first, it’s been an absolutely wild couple of days in Russia, and that may be putting it lightly. That’s because Russia’s leadership was staring down the barrel of what had all the hallmarks of a military rebellion as its most notorious mercenary leader abruptly sent an armed convoy toward Moscow and came within striking distance of the city by the time all was said and done. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Oh my God. This was one of the major news stories over the weekend. We all were like, is it a coup? What’s happening? We weren’t sure. This came and went within the space of about 18 hours. Tell us a little bit about what the hell happened out there. 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, like a lot of uprisings these days, this one started with a shit post on social media. Late Friday Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary company that’s been heavily involved in the war in Ukraine, accused the Russian military of staging an airstrike on his own fighters. Prigozhin made the claim on a video posted to the messaging platform Telegram, which is widely popular in Russia and Ukraine. It’s become the go to source for many people in both countries for updates on the war. We don’t have all the facts as far as the airstrike is concerned, but it’s been widely reported that these soldiers for hire, most of whom are recruited from Russian prisons, have been treated as cannon fodder in Ukraine, especially in the bloody battle for the city of Bakhmut earlier this year. Despite being a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin has been in a months long feud with Russia’s top military brass and with the alleged airstrike, he apparently decided enough was enough. He vowed to send 25,000 of his mercenaries on what he called a, quote, “march for justice,” and a heavily armored convoy of Wagner soldiers quickly crossed over from occupied eastern Ukraine and started making its way north to Moscow. They actually made it within 125 miles of the city before seemingly out of nowhere, the whole thing was called off. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Not they called it a march for justice. Choice words there. [laugh] So exactly how did the whole calling off of this happen? 

 

Erin Ryan: Tre’vell. I am as confused as you. I woke up on Saturday and I was like, what is happening? And I went to bed on Saturday and I was like, what is happening? [laughter] It is still unclear what made Prigozhin backed down. Putin obviously was pretty pissed about this, but in another unexpected turn of events, it appears that the president of neighboring Belarus stepped in to broker a deal. Prigozhin agreed to go to Belarus and, according to the Kremlin, won’t face any charges. But what is clear is that no one is coming out of this unscathed. This was one of the most direct threats to Putin’s leadership since he’s been in power. And it raises many, many questions about what the future brings for Russia. So we called up our good friend, Crooked news contributor Max Fisher to get the lowdown. He’s been covering foreign affairs for a very long time. But right off the bat, he told us he’s never seen anything quite like this. And to help us make sense of this very bizarre saga, we started off by asking who is Yevgeny Prigozhin anyway? 

 

Max Fisher: He got his start, weirdly enough, as Vladimir Putin’s personal caterer very early in his career [laughter] and through a combination of business wheeling and dealing, he managed to build up what is now one of the largest mercenary empires, I guess you could call it, in the world. He runs these mercenary groups that are most prevalent in Ukraine, but they were very big in Syria, where I’m sure you remember Russian forces intervened starting in 2015. Prigozhin ran this thing you might remember, called the Internet Research Agency that sewed all of that pro-Trump, anti-Hillary Clinton disinformation that was on Facebook during the election. So he is kind of like Putin’s guy, but operates very much autonomously in a lot of these countries, and especially in Ukraine. Why did he back down? We don’t know for sure, partly because we don’t actually know exactly what his demands were. I mean, something that he has been saying for a long time is he doesn’t like how the war is being run and he wants Putin to replace Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, who are the two leaders of the Russian military, with someone else. At some point, he started saying something that sort of implied that he wanted to remove Putin. But I think that was probably just hyperbole. He did at one point in his drive north towards Moscow, call this thing called the Rosgvardiya, which is the Russian National Guard, to rise up and join him. They did not, which might be part of why he didn’t push all the way to Moscow. It’s also possible he just thought that he got the best deal that he was going to get because 25,000 troops is a lot when so much of Russia is undefended, but it’s not really enough to take over an entire country. 

 

Erin Ryan: So okay, a lot of people are kind of speculating about this, wondering about this. Why do you think Putin let him go instead of doing what Putin usually does to people who challenge him? 

 

Max Fisher: Prigozhin is not just some liberal dissident off the street. Uh I mean, he’s a fairly powerful guy. So Putin has been trying for a long time to balance this feud between the Russian military and the Wagner Group, whose support and help he needs in Ukraine and a lot of other places. And clearly, that fell apart and he failed. But he obviously felt maybe because these some number of thousands of Wagner troops were driving towards Moscow, maybe just because he saw how bad this looked for him domestically at a time when his hold on power is strong. But, you know, we never know how strong that he just needed to end it as quickly as he could by making whatever concessions he needed to make. But that said, it’s always possible that Prigozhin will end up, you know, falling down an elevator shaft next week. [laughter]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Wagner group itself? What role did they play in Ukraine up until this point? 

 

Max Fisher: So the numbers are sketchy, but we think that there are about 50,000 fighters with the Wagner group. And to give you a sense of the flavor of this group, probably about 10,000 of them are hardened, well-trained special Forces style mercenaries, and probably the rest are people recruited basically straight out of prisons. They’ve played an important role in the war. But of course, the war has been going very poorly for Russia, which is part of why there has been this escalating feud between Prigozhin and the military. Prigozhin has felt that the Russian military has not been properly supplying him and that that has been hurting his troops. He feels that the Russian military was using his troops as frontline cannon fodder to protect regular forces in this long siege that just ended in this town of Bakhmut in Ukraine that went really poorly. It’s pretty plausible because the Russian military feels that Prigozhin is undermining their authority because he’s such a loose cannon. They feel that he is actually a thorn in their side rather than a help. But to some extent it’s probably just that Russian forces are really undersupplied, stretched really thin. So there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing and that has been escalating to the point where Prigozhin is openly criticizing and in some cases working against the Russian military, even though they’re on the same sides in this war. He was caught speaking to Ukrainian intelligence at one point. And the big escalation from the Russian military is they finally got Putin to grant them a concession they’ve been asking for, for a while, which is to get all of the Wagner mercenaries to, they say sign contracts with the Russian military. But that means basically become regular Russian military soldiers rather than acting as this independent force under Prigozhin so that was a huge threat to him and is probably everyone’s best guess is probably why he felt he had to do this, because he was about to have this force taken away from him. 

 

Erin Ryan: So as we’re sitting down to chat with you, the latest is that Prigozhin agreed to essentially go into exile in Belarus. So is this a crisis averted for Vladimir Putin right now? Is Putin sleeping any easier or does he still got to watch his back? 

 

Max Fisher: So the Wagner troops are off the streets. They have pulled back. But something that is not obvious outside of Russia, but that is very keenly known and felt by Russians within the country, is that one of Vladimir Putin’s most important jobs is to act as the balancer and mediator between all of the power centers in Russia, like the Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group. I was actually reporting in Russia in 2014, the last time something like this happened, there had been this monthslong feud between the FSB, which are the security services they’re like the new KGB and the autonomous government of Chechnya, which is run by this like pro-Putin warlord figure named Ramzan Kadyrov. They had been fighting openly in the streets in Russia for a long time. And all of a sudden, at one point as this was escalating out of control. Putin disappeared from public view for like two weeks. And you really felt on the streets in Russia this fear, this real terror even among dissidents, even among liberal foreigners who hated Putin, that because he is the keystone of this system, that if he failed to manage all of these power rivalries or even lost power, the country would collapse into outright civil war, which is a fear that, rightly or wrongly, is felt very near the surface in Russia. So the big fear that is going to be on the minds of the Russian public and especially other Russian powerbrokers, the people Putin needs to keep on sides is was this a case of him successfully mediating a dispute at a really tough time in the war between this loose cannon Prigozhin and his defense ministry, or was it a sign that he really failed because things got this far, that there were this many troops on the street? 

 

Erin Ryan: And what are American officials saying about all this? 

 

Max Fisher: Very little. They are trying their best not to make this about them because they don’t want to give Putin any rhetorical ammunition for portraying this as, you know, a CIA plot or anything like that. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm 

 

Max Fisher: They have said that they got intelligence a couple of days before it happened, indicating that Prigozhin was planning something like this, which just goes to show how deep this rivalry was, that it appears to have been premeditated. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: So now what does all of this mean for the ongoing war in Ukraine? 

 

Max Fisher: I mean, it’s going to continue to go really poorly for Russia. We are entering a new phase right now of where Ukraine, after being on the defensive for a very long Russian offensive against the Ukrainian side. Now, the Ukrainians are just on the verge of launching a big counter offensive, which actually makes this timing really interesting, because Prigozhin probably knew that because Ukraine was about to launch this big counteroffensive, Russian forces were going to be pinned down in Ukraine and not going to want to leave the front lines to go stop him, you know, in Rostov. Probably this is not going to lead to a seismic change in the war because, as I said, the Ministry of Defense was just on the verge of getting Wagner’s forces to, quote unquote, “sign a contract,” which basically means to become regular Russian troops, which is party of the agreement, is that the ones who are not being put into exile because they participated in this, are going to now be folded into the regular army. 

 

Erin Ryan: That was our conversation with Crooked news contributor Max Fisher, if you want to hear more about this whole situation. Max recently joined our friends over at Pod Save the World for a special bonus episode. Can’t miss it. It’s great. Need to hear it. We will, of course, keep a close eye on how this continues to play out, but that’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break] 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Erin Ryan: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 

 

[sung] Headlines. 

 

Erin Ryan: Greece’s incumbent Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been reelected for a second four year term. It was the country’s second national election in five weeks and also delivered a landslide victory for his conservative New Democracy Party, which now holds an outright majority in the Greek parliament. Though Greece is currently in the throes of a cost of living crisis, the outcome of Sunday’s election apparently showed that voters were willing to overlook Mitsotakis shadier dealings in favor of his vision for the economy. The election comes more than a week after hundreds of migrants are presumed dead after the ship they were on sank in the Mediterranean Sea. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in the region in recent memory and has called Greece’s strict migration policy into question. The Greek Coast guard is also facing scrutiny for not doing enough to help. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: The end of June is quickly approaching and the Supreme Court is expected to wrap up its term with several major decisions by the end of the week. We’re still waiting on how the court will rule on cases dealing with affirmative action, LGBTQ rights and student debt forgiveness. You know, a few minor, inconsequential things we’re not worried about at all. In the meantime, on Friday, the court handed down an important decision on immigration policy. In an eight to one vote, the justices sided with the Biden administration over how it can enforce existing immigration laws. The case was brought by the states of Texas and Louisiana, which argued that the guidelines put in place when Biden took office somehow prevented immigration authorities from doing their jobs. During the Trump administration, ICE was given broad authority to round up and deport anyone who was undocumented. And considering there are about 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S., even this set of Supreme Court justices recognized that that is just not possible. Under the new guidelines, the Department of Homeland Security will instead focus their efforts on undocumented people who have recently crossed the border, as well as those who are seen as a risk to public safety. 

 

Erin Ryan: I beg the state governments of Texas and Louisiana to actually do some governing that benefits the people who live in Texas and Louisiana. I would love to see that, but I actually don’t think they’re capable of it. They cannot govern. To the surprise of absolutely no one, former President Donald Trump is apparently trying to get his supporters to pay his legal bills again. He’s like dine and dash just as a career. According to a recent report from The New York Times, Trump has been quietly diverting some of the small donations he’s received for his 2024 presidential campaign into a separate political action committee that’s essentially acting like a piggy bank to play his personal legal fees. It’s even spelled out in the disclosure tax on Trump’s digital fundraising platform, which has been updated to say that 10% of those donations will go towards his PAC, which is seriously called Save America. Hmm. I feel like I know a company that should have trademarked the phrase Save America. It seems uncomfortably close to something that already exists [laughter] and is fairly widely known. Previously, just 1% of small donations were going towards payments for Trump’s legal battles. Internet archival records show that the change may have happened as early as February or March of this year, which means that $1.5 million dollars, give or take, has already been diverted to the Save America PAC. Now, what PACs technically can or can’t pay for is still fairly murky. Thanks a lot, John Roberts. But the general consensus is that they can’t directly pay for something that is for a candidate’s personal gain. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m sure Trump will figure out a way around that, as he always does. Moving on to some good news if you’re a connoisseur of the drag arts. On Friday, a federal judge in Orlando blocked the state of Florida from enforcing its recent restrictions on drag performances, saying that the law likely violates the First Amendment. This comes just days after another federal judge overturned a law backed by Governor Ron DeSantis, which would have kept trans Floridians from getting gender affirming care through Medicaid. The judge who granted Friday’s injunction against the anti drag law, which sought to ban minors from attending so-called obscene live performances, was too broad, though he refused to dismiss it entirely. The law was challenged in a lawsuit brought by the restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s, which also features live drag performances at each of its locations. Friday’s ruling also means the suit can move forward. So pull up a seat and order another side of fries because this show is going to be a good one. 

 

Erin Ryan: I am so glad that the Supreme Court is finally going to determine that the First Amendment protects the freedom to serve. [laughter] And finally, if the news is already making you wonder out loud, where is an asteroid when you really need one, you’re in luck. Or in this case, maybe not. That’s because a relatively small asteroid, known to scientists as asteroid 2023 M-U-2, casually zipped by Earth last night without incident. And by relatively small that is of course in astronomical terms. It was estimated to be between 13 and 29 feet in diameter, about the size of a small house, a million dollar house in Los Angeles. Uh. Though it swung through much closer to us than the moon normally does. And just like the next joke I’m going to tell, NASA saw this one coming last week and determined that there was only a very small chance of it actually landing. Ugh. I’m mad at the structure of that joke. I’m mad at it because I realized when I got to the end of it that I was doing a self own. [laughter] It’s mean. While space rocks zoom past our planet all the time, experts say it’s only a matter of time before one of them knocks into us. Case in point, there is one about the size of an Olympic swimming pool heading our way right now. It currently has a one in 600 chance of hitting the earth on Valentine’s Day 2046, which is actually a better chance of you finding love by logging onto Tinder tonight. So [laughter] there you go. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Remember when we were all going um crazy about that Don’t Look Up movie on Netflix? 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: This feels similar. I don’t know. 

 

Erin Ryan: I don’t even want to think about how meta it would be to see, like pundits on there saying exactly what Jennifer Lawrence said, but in a less charming manner. [laughter] [?] Alright. And those are the headlines. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Don’t forget to tip your server at drag brunch and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Erin Ryan: And if you’re into reading and not just the fine print of Donald Trump’s campaign email like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Erin Ryan. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

[spoken together] And bring on the asteroids. 

 

Erin Ryan: I mean, honestly, that would be a pretty quick way to go, right? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I guess you’re right. A one hitta quitter, as they say. [laughter] [music break] What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producers is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. Our intern is Ryan Cochran, and our senior producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka. 

 

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