Vladimir Putin’s authority is now being directly challenged in a way that may have far-reaching implications for the Russian regime as well as the course of the war. The confidence there would be no coup against Putin was due to there being nobody obvious to lead one, given a serious candidate would need to be backed by credible military capabilities.
Now we have a candidate. This coup is being led by the boss of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. At first the smart money was on his failure because the full weight of the Russian state is against him. Before he made his moves, he was declared a traitor, his offices were raided, and his bases shelled. But the Russian state is inept and decrepit. If the aim was to catch Prigozhin unawares and shut him up it failed, because he appears to have had some notice of what was being prepared for him and so took his own initiatives. If you are going to move against your opponents you need to be decisive. Prigozhin got away (like Volodymyr Zelensky in February 2022).
Instead, a column of his men crossed from the Donbas into Russia, without hindrance, moving towards Rostov-on-Don. This is a vital command centre and logistic hub for the war. As he did so his people reportedly hacked into local TV and radio, broadcasting appeals for support, claiming that those who support defence minister Sergei Shoigu are the real traitors and supporters of Ukraine.
Putin now appreciates the danger that he should have realised weeks ago. In his Saturday morning address he denounced those stabbing Russia in the back at a time of war, insisted that they would be punished, confirmed that a “counter-terrorism” regime was now in place in Moscow, and promised his people that everything was under control. He managed to do this without uttering Prigozhin’s name.
There are many uncertainties about developments on the ground. These are situations when rumours are fertilised and grow rapidly, so it is unwise to talk yet with great confidence about what is happening, let alone how events will unfold. But at times like this speculation is unavoidable.
We are on reasonably sure ground when charting the development of this crisis for the Russian state. The tension has been evident for months, gaining attention with Prigozhin’s frequent complaints of being starved of ammunition during the long battle for the city of Bakhmut. At one point he threatened to walk away from the battle unless his needs were met, agreed to carry on when told that he would get his supplies, and then still grumbled that it was not enough. Once Bakhmut was taken, after months of gruelling urban combat, there were further complaints that weaknesses among Russian regular forces had allowed the Ukrainians to retake territory on the flanks, thus rendering the efforts of his men useless.
This led to a wider critique of the quality of Russia’s senior command for being out of touch with the harsh realities of the war, playing down casualties, and talking as if all was well when clearly it wasn’t. Shoigu then pushed to have the Wagner Group and other private military companies put under his direct control. Prigozhin made a big show of rejecting Shoigu’s orders. He was already in mutinous mood.
Through this it was assumed that Prigozhin was sufficiently close to Putin to have some latitude in protesting and making a noise. Perhaps it suited Putin for a friendly critic to keep his main military advisors on their toes. Yet was he so friendly? The sharper the criticisms, the closer they got to Putin. The accusation that the president was being kept wilfully uninformed by his underlings was hardly a ringing endorsement of his leadership. He was either gullible or complicit.
Nor did Putin make any effort to distance himself from Shoigu. Whenever he speaks about military operations, which he has been doing recently more often than at any point since the Ukrainian counter-offensive began, he takes the Shoigu line that all is well, that the Ukrainians are taking a beating, that Nato equipment is nothing special, and that his forces are being prepared for a long haul if necessary. One continuity in his pronouncements is that he remains far surer about why the war had to be fought than how it can be won – on this he remains remarkably vague.
It is the question of the war’s necessity that made Prigozhin’s latest accusations so incendiary. Those made on Friday (23 June) were quite different in nature and direction to anything that had gone before, challenging not only the conduct of the war but the whole basis upon which it was launched. The shots might have been aimed at Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the commander-in-chief, but Vladimir Putin was clearly in the firing line.
Remember that the pretext for this war was that Ukraine was mounting a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas, egged on by Nato. That made the invasion urgent, both to safeguard the potential victims and to remove the hateful neo-Nazi regime engaging in such terrible acts. The whole sequence of events leading to the 24 February 2022 invasion was orchestrated in line with this theory, starting with the meeting on the morning of 21 February of Russia’s security council, which was asked whether the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DNR/LNR) should be recognised.
[See also: Russia’s tipping point]
Putin immediately decided that they should be, confirmed the next day that this covered the classical boundaries of these oblasts rather than the DNR/LNR enclaves, and gained authority from the Duma to do whatever was necessary to defend them. This was followed by the full-scale invasion.
In his Friday morning video Prigozhin dismantled this whole contrivance. He explained that there was no extraordinary threat to the Donbas prior to the invasion, that artillery exchanges were no more than usual, and that the whole business was a put-up affair by Shoigu and other corrupt officers, backed by oligarchs making money out of the military build-up. So damning was the charge that the FSB, the security agency, opened a criminal investigation against Prigozhin. Later, Prigozhin was on air again, showing images of the aftermath of an attack by Russian missiles and helicopters on a Wagner camp. He moved even further onto the rhetorical offensive. “The evil carried by the country’s military leadership must be stopped.” The official Russian media denied the attacks, insisting sniffily that they remained preoccupied with the fight against Ukrainian forces.
Maybe this was an elite fight that got out of hand, a consequence of a military system that failed to achieve unity of command and allowed a number of these private military companies, not just Wagner, to operate according to their own agendas. Since moving out of the shadows during the course of this war Prigozhin has shown an interest in an eventual political career. He has his own propaganda machine and significant name-recognition among the population. Most importantly he commands a substantial body of men – as many as 25,000 are engaged in his current manoeuvres.
The language we have to describe these events often fails to grasp their singular nature. When we talk of coups we imagine armed men rushing into the Kremlin to arrest or kill Putin and installing a new leader, with the main media outlets seized to ensure that everyone knows who is now in charge. In that sense, this is not a coup and Prigozhin has insisted that he is not mounting one. His aim is solely to remove Shoigu and Gerasimov and replace the “meat-grinding” strategies they have followed in the war. At any rate, following Putin’s speech Prigozhin is in a direct confrontation with the Russian president, whether or not this was his intention. One of them will lose.
Prigozhin will have some supporters among the civil and military elite, for his arguments if not for his character, and he is not short of funds when it comes to buying favours and intelligence. And while most will take it for granted that their careers and well-being depend on Putin’s survival, few can have many illusions left about the mismanagement of this war and the costs it is imposing on Russian society and economy. Most, for now, will be keeping their heads down, but if this goes much further then there will be demands for loyalty that will carry their own risks.
There has been some fighting, sufficiently serious for Wagner to claim to have shot down three helicopters, but it has not yet got close to a civil war, which would mean that the armed forces were completely divided against each other as if they were confronting an external enemy. On the ground Wagner does not appear to have faced much resistance so far.
Nor is it an insurrection. Prigozhin has urged people to go out on to the streets to get rid of their “weak government”, (“we will find weapons”). To the extent that they know what is going on, the Russian people are likely to be alarmed and perplexed, but they are not going to rush out onto the streets and start building barricades. It is certainly not a drive to make peace with Ukraine. At Rostov, Prigozhin has taken care to show that he is not interfering with the business of Southern Command as it tries to manage the war.
It is, however, a mutiny. As such, everything for Prigozhin depends on whether his accusations ring true to other troops and prompt them to join his ranks, or at least refuse to start fighting his men. By and large Wagner has shown more discipline and elan than many other Russian forces and it would not be surprising if they gained the upper hand in any combat This could soon have a knock-on effect on the cohesion of the loyalist military response.
Prigozhin is clearly not alone in his disdain for the higher command of this war. There are many military bloggers, often extremely nationalistic and pro-war, who are candid about the failings of Russian forces and also blame corruption and complacency at the top. What distinguishes him from others is that he has a large and apparently loyal force at his disposal. Unlike other generals he also has actual victories to his credit, albeit pyrrhic in nature. His men were to the fore in the capture of Soledar and Bakhmut. Elsewhere during the recent Russian offensive there were only costly failures.
Furthermore, we know that for many in the front lines, especially those that have been fighting in the Donbas, conditions have been miserable, casualties extremely high, and commanders absent. The Wagner Group has claimed that contracted Russian troops would rather be with them than under Gerasimov’s chain of command.
It is telling that Moscow’s instinctive response is to insist that the mutiny is already failing and that Wagner fighters are seeing the error of their ways and returning to join their true comrades. There is a hope, present in Putin’s speech, that the Wagner troops can be divided from their leader. Denying bad news is the default position of this regime but there is no evidence for now that the mutiny is faltering.
The big question is how the rest of the armed forces will respond. One of the most remarkable videos to emerge so far shows Prigozhin talking in Rostov with deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Vladimir Stepanovich Alekseev, the deputy chief of Russia’s military intelligence service, who were both presumably on duty at the command HQ, and now appear to be effectively hostages. Alekeev had not long before issued his own video urging Prigozhin to abandon his adventure. Intriguingly, from the same room Prigozhin’s main ally in the high command, General Sergei Surovikin (incidentally, a participant in the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev), had issued a similar appeal, delivered more in sadness than in anger. So where is Surovikin now? He is potentially a key player.
Shoigu and Gerasimov, who Prigozhin also claimed were in Rostov, do not appear to be there now. As they still have Putin’s backing it will be up to them to organise the counter-mutiny. Prigozhin now has to decide whether to continue with his march on Moscow as he has promised, knowing that preparations are being made to receive him. The UK Ministry of Defence claims that his men have already reached a half-way point of the journey, at Voronezh. What happens now depends on the loyalty of troops. There are reports – rumours – of some from mainstream forces going over to Wagner. Many more may be passive spectators. If he can’t mobilise substantial loyalist units then Putin is in trouble. If he can, then Prigozhin will be isolated and potentially crushed. One factor in all of this is where the loyal troops come from given that so much of the army is bogged down in Ukraine.
Even if Wagner is defeated quickly, which I would not take for granted, then this is still a big shock to the regime and it will have been weakened. If the confrontation goes in the other direction then all bets are off and panic may start to grip the Kremlin. The problem for autocrats like Putin is that they don’t really know what is going on among their people, and that tends to add to the panic. Moreover, once the high command looks vulnerable what will the junior commanders do in their battles with Ukrainian forces? How keen will they be to die for a cause that seems lost? For now, those watching events with the greatest enthusiasm will be the Ukrainian high command. There are opportunities for offensive operations opening up that they never expected.
[See also: Rebellion comes to Russia]