Monday, 26 June 2023 06:38

Prigozhin’s coup attempt unleashes chaos on Russia

Members of the Wagner group sit atop a tank in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don on June 24, 2023.

Russia is in turmoil after the leader of a powerful paramilitary group staged an armed and brazen challenge to the Russian regime.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the private military company, the Wagner Group, said Saturday that his forces will halt their march on Moscow, and that he is “turning around our columns and returning to field camps according to plan.” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have reached a deal with Prigozhin. Prigozhin has denied a deal, saying he turned around to avoid bloodshed.

Later on Saturday, the terms of that potential deal started to emerge. According to Russian state media, Prigozhin will leave Russia for Belarus. In exchange, prosecutors will drop charges against him for his rebellion, and his fighters could officially sign on to the Russian military and avoid prosecution.

“There was a higher goal — to avoid bloodshed, to avoid an internal confrontation, to avoid clashes with unpredictable consequences,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said late Saturday. “It was in the name of these goals that Lukashenko’s mediation efforts were realized, and President Putin made the corresponding decisions.”

It’s not at all clear what comes next after a remarkable not-quite-24 hours in Russia, and right now the situation is still pretty perplexing: a paramilitary leader, marching toward the capital, threatening President Vladimir Putin’s power — appearing to end with everyone packing up and apparently calling a truce brokered by Belarus. As of now, there is no indication that as part of the deal, Prigozhin achieved his initially stated goal: a change in Russia’s military leadership overseeing the war in Ukraine.

It is quite a turn from earlier Saturday, when Wagner forces were moving rapidly toward Moscow with a force about 25,000-strong, and Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to forcibly put down the rebellion led by Prigozhin.

Putin called the “internal betrayal” a threat to Russia’s statehood in a speech on Saturday. “It’s a stab in the back of our country and our people,” Putin declared.

Prigozhin and his fighters also appeared to be leaving Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, where Wagner forces had seized defense and military buildings. That city is close to the Ukrainian border, and a crucial command and logistical hub for the Russian military’s efforts in Ukraine. In the early morning hours of Saturday, a video appeared to show Prigozhin meeting with Russia’s deputy defense minister in the military headquarters at Rostov-on-Don, trying to negotiate the handover of Russia’s top military leaders and threatening to march on Moscow.

Just wow. A video has surfaced showing Prigozhin at the Southern Military District HQ in Rostov-on-Don talking to (and HUMILIATING) Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov. He threatens to blockade Rostov and head for Moscow!

I have extreme trouble understanding Yevkurov and…

— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) June 24, 2023

The Wagner Group has always been an extension of the Russian regime, a convenient way for Moscow to achieve its geopolitical and military goals with a degree of plausible deniability. That means many see Prigozhin’s position, and power, as dependent on his ties to Putin. Now, after a months-long public feud between Russian military leaders, Prigozhin directly challenged the Russian state — and by extension Putin — even as he insisted he is trying to save it. The military monster Putin created appears to have gone rogue.

The immediate coup threat to the Russian regime seems to be on pause. But it is hard to see this as the end of the story. And if it all feels very confusing, it is — even long-time Russian analysts are not sure what to make of it.

How this all ends — for Prigozhin, for Putin, for Russia, for the war Russia started in Ukraine — is impossible to know right now. Putin looks weak, and Prigozhin’s rebellion has exposed the cracks in the Russian state. All of this may still have unpredictable aftershocks for Russia and the world.

What precipitated this remarkable challenge in Putin’s Russia

In recent months, Prigozhin had been increasingly vocal in his attacks against the Russian military’s leaders, posting more and more scathing criticism of the top brass over the war effort and accusing generals of denying Wagner the ammunition and support needed to fight effectively.

Prigozhin had generally avoided direct criticism of Putin himself though.

Then, on Friday, he posted a video on Telegram with a stunning assessment of Russia’s war effort. In it, he attacked the Russian military’s — and, by extension, Putin’s — rationale for the war, basically saying the threat of NATO aggression through Ukraine was made up by Russia’s top brass and corrupt elites. The war, Prigozhin said, was “needed for a bunch of scumbags to triumph and show how strong of an army they are.” He included a diatribe against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who Prigozhin claimed pushed for war to secure a promotion, and whose decisions led to the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers.

Late on Friday, Prigozhin made a shocking accusation: Russian armed forces attacked Wagner soldiers. Prigozhin vowed retaliation.

“The evil that the military leadership of the country brings forward must be stopped. They have forgotten the word ‘justice,’ and we will return it,” Prigozhin said in a recording published Friday on Wagner’s social media, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Russian Ministry of Defense denied Prigozhin’s allegations that the military had launched a strike on Wagner fighters, calling it a “provocation.”

Shortly after, Russian law enforcement said that in response to Prigozhin’s statements, Russia’s security services, the FSB, had launched a criminal case over calls for an armed uprising. “We demand to stop these unlawful actions at once.”

Russia’s deputy head of military intelligence went as far as to call it a “coup” attempt in a video urging Wagner fighters to stand down. Prigozhin himself, for what it’s worth, denied he was carrying out a coup, calling it a “march of justice.”

Late on Saturday, videos started surfacing of what appeared to be soldiers — though it was hard to know exactly their affiliation — in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. When the video surfaced of Prigozhin at the military headquarters, it helped bolster Prigozhin’s claim that his forces had taken over military buildings there. Prigozhin also claimed that Wagner forces had shot down at least three Russian helicopters.

Prigozhin then appeared headed toward Moscow, until he abruptly declared the mission accomplished, and Belarus said it had sorted everything out.

This story is still moving very rapidly, and the main sources of information are the Russian state and military, and Prigozhin himself, actors who tightly control their narratives and are skilled at manipulating information. All of that makes it very, very, very hard to know exactly what is going on, and how this will all play out, even with a stated deal.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin — and what does he want?

Prigozhin, the man at the center of this, is an unlikely, and imperfect, challenger of Russia’s war effort and of the Russian military.

Known as “Putin’s chef,” he has been something of a fixer for Putin’s regime. He rose from the criminal underworld in post-Soviet Russia, and that always made him a bit of an outsider among Russia’s elites. He isn’t exactly in Putin’s inner circle but has the skills and connections to make himself useful and needed. Prigozhin’s helping hand may come in the form of setting up a troll farm to sow political discord abroad, including in the 2016 US elections, or acting as the frontman for Wagner, a private mercenary-like force, to do the Kremlin’s bidding. In both cases, Prigozhin fulfilled the interests of the Russian state, but with just enough distance to offer Putin a measure of plausible deniability.

Prigozhin has claimed to be the founder of the Wagner Group, but the reality is likely much more complicated. He is more likely the convenient figurehead of the group, which Russia has relied on for years to do its bidding around the world in places where it did not want to openly commit troops or resources, and where it could operate in a kind of gray zone. That, again, granted Moscow a degree of plausible deniability as it exerted its influence and interests in other corners of the globe, from Syria to Mali to Venezuela, often destabilizing countries and leaving a trail of potential human rights violations in their wake. It also gave Putin a kind of independent power center, a paramilitary outside of the formal military structures.

That all started changing in Ukraine, where Wagner, and Prigozhin himself, took on an increasingly public role in the war.

Wagner filled a specific operational and public relations need for Russia. The group’s fighters — a portion of them convicts recruited from Russian prisons — bogged down and attrited Ukrainian forces at a time when Russia’s military was in disarray. The group achieved its most substantial victory in Bakhmut, one of Russia’s main territorial gains since last summer. But that victory took months and came at an astounding casualty rate.

But as the battle for Bakhmut ground on, Prigozhin got more and more outspoken about what he saw as the failures of the Russian military and its leaders. In one video Prigozhin posted in May, he stands in a field, apparently surrounded by corpses of dead Wagner fighters. “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where are the fucking shells!” Prigozhin says, referring to the minister of defense and the military’s chief of the general staff. “They came here as volunteers and died so you could gorge yourselves in your offices.”

These kinds of critiques are frankly shocking for a guy who is largely dependent on Putin’s largesse; in a country where open criticism of the government, and especially the war, is often brutally crushed; and within a military apparatus where insubordination of this magnitude is rarely tolerated.

Some have interpreted Prigozhin’s braggadocio as an oligarch feeling himself, and seizing on the incompetence of the Russian military to create his own power center — maybe even playing the long game to challenge Putin.

But even before Prigozhin escalated his rivalry with the Russian military this week, experts I’ve spoken to really doubted Prigozhin was actually a Putin rival and could build his own power center in the Russian state. Instead, then, it made sense to look at Prigozhin as a functionary who was seizing an opportunity in an otherwise dicey environment.

There is a place — even within Russia’s controlled media environment — for a convenient foil, a guy to get out front and complain about Russian military incompetence. It focuses and puts pressure on the war’s generals, but not on the war’s mission or its necessity. It is not necessarily a permanent or stable spot to be in, and becomes even more precarious when Prigozhin outruns his usefulness.

“Prigozhin clearly understands that there will be no safe retirement for him,” Sergey Sukhankin, a senior research fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told Vox earlier this year. “He knows that if the current regime, or if his Wagner Group, goes down, he goes down with them.”

There were signs then, as now, that Prigozhin might overstep his ambitions. In 24 hours, the situation has changed remarkably and irrevocably, and there are a lot more questions than answers. Did Prigozhin’s relative success in Ukraine give him an inflated sense of self? Did what he witness in Bakhmut really radicalize him in such a way that he would take such a risk to challenge Putin? Did Prigozhin realize that his time was up, his usefulness spent as Wagner forces drew down in Ukraine, and he’s essentially going out on a suicide mission? Would he potentially have real political support if he were to make it to Moscow? And why do any of it if the end result is giving up your leverage — a very rich, semi-private paramilitary — and going into exile?

As events began to unfold last night, the view from where Prigozhin sat looked pretty bleak. But Prigozhin’s campaign looked way more substantial and potentially much more destabilizing as his forces marched on Moscow. Even with a deal, the coup attempt, and its consequences, can’t be undone.

And maybe even more questions exist for Russia, and Putin himself. Besides his speech Saturday, the Russian leader has been relatively absent, and he appears to have relied on Lukashenko — who’s long been seen as dependent on Putin — to get Prigozhin to stand down. The Russian public, and the entire world, just witnessed a paramilitary force march on Moscow with, so far, minimal penalties. That does not make Putin look like the strongman leader he has long sold himself to be.

All of this, though, appears to be conditions of Putin’s own making. He miscalculated in Ukraine and spent years weakening and hollowing out the state. The political turmoil Wagner fomented around the world has now come home to Russia.

Update, June 24, 5:15 pm ET: This story, originally published June 23, has been updated to reflect breaking news.