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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

PRIGOZHIN VS. PUTIN: A STORY OF RUSSIAN RAGE

He feels that he can say anything he likes without consequence. He gets away with airing in public his feud with the Russian military. And his face – the bald head, the bags under the eyes pulling his gaze into a sort of permanent and simmering sneer – has become familiar to anyone following events in Ukraine.

Now Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, has ‘declared war’ on the Russian defence ministry. He announced last night that Wagner Group had taken a decision and ‘the evil brought by the military leadership [of Russia] must be stopped.’ It sounded like the announcement of a coup, despite Prigozhin’s insistence it was not.


The FSB quickly announced charges against Prigozhin for ‘calling for an armed mutiny’ – but as of this morning Prigozhin is not only a free man, his soldiers appear to be in control of the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don (from which Russia’s war in Ukraine is largely being commanded) and reportedly military facilities in Voronezh as well, which is halfway from Rostov to Moscow. There are armoured vehicles on the streets of Moscow, and Putin gave an emergency address to the Russian nation this morning. The Russian state is on edge.


The key questions for now would seem to be: how much support and loyalty can Prigozhin command inside Russia? Could he really pull off whatever his ambitions are here?


There is much noise online about what is going on and very little by way of concrete information, so this blog post is necessarily subject to many tacit caveats (and I welcome corrections in the comments section below). Most likely, I think, the hot-headed Prigozhin’s attempted coup (or uprising?) - if that's what it is - will be suppressed, but the significance of this latest challenge to Putin’s authority will not be so easily quelled.


What happened yesterday?


Prigozhin is someone who knows that his philippics haven’t really much hurt Vladimir Putin in the past, however inconvenient they might have been. Yesterday morning, in a rant published as a video on Telegram, he undermined the fundamental claims used to justify the launching of a largescale war in Ukraine last February.


In a typically fiery set of remarks, he said that Ukraine had not been shelling civilians in the Donbas from 2014 to 2022, contrary to the claims of Putin and those around him. Furthermore, he accused the defence ministry of spinning a yarn to Putin and the public that Ukrainian forces were about to attack the Donbas just before Russia’s invasion sixteen months ago. ‘There was nothing out of the ordinary happening on the eve of 24 February,’ Prigozhin barked in the recording. He dismissed the notion that NATO member states were planning to help Ukraine recapture its eastern territories, as claimed by certain Russian propaganda.


Prigozhin also claimed that Russian missiles had struck his soldiers in Ukraine. This, the more personal component of his philippic, might be the key to understanding what is going on. In the past, the man dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ (still simmering) got away with his outbursts about the war even as ordinary Russians face punishment for the most trivial of anti-war comments. As usual, Prigozhin singled out two individuals: Sergey Shoigu, the defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the armed forces of Russia for blame.


As many poor journalists were doubtless filing their copy yesterday evening, Prigozhin put out another address. This time it was audio without a video. As I said above, it sounded like the announcement of a coup. Such an announcement would typically be accompanied by a lot of noise and ideally only those with parts to play will know what the relevant signal is that calls them to action. The Wagner Telegram channel appears to have posted a one-word message: We begin (начинаем).


It was not a coup, insisted Prigozhin. Instead, he said, people should stay indoors while his troops undertake their ‘march of justice’. He would march on Moscow with his 25,000 men. Then, he says, his troops will return to the frontline to defend the motherland. If they get what they want, that is.


What do they want? The true history of the Prigozhin gang


There is a lot of history here. Back in February, Prigozhin blasted the Russian army leadership and accused them of treason. He accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of trying to ‘destroy’ Wagner Group by not giving it the ammunition it needed as it tried to capture the town of Bakhmut. The infighting in the Russian military operation was there for all to see.


A couple of months later, at the beginning of May, Prigozhin again hit out at the Russian army saying he would order his troops to withdraw from Bakhmut (which they now more or less controlled) in another rant. He retracted the claim once he was given the ammunition he demanded. Thus, we see that Prigozhin’s tirades against the Russian military leadership have proven a successful tactic in the past and we must keep in mind. This has become typical of Prigozhin, the one-time criminal turned ‘Putin’s chef’, who is always fashioning situations to his own ends.


Fashioning situations, yes, though that is not to suggest he has a long-term strategy. Regardless of his ambitions behind the latest situation, he has never looked to me like someone thinking far ahead. Although few can really talk with much authority on the workings of the Russian elite, there’s a sense that Prigozhin relies on his closeness to Putin for his power. He is not generally believed to have cultivated a network among the elite independently of Putin (although there are some dissenting voices on this point).


It was hardly unexpected that recently Putin took his Russian military bosses’ side over Prigozhin in calling for the Wagner mercenaries to be put under their control and sign proper contracts. Prigozhin, after all, is no one formally – even if informally he must be, or else he would never get away with insulting defence minister Shoigu and chief of staff Gerasimov so often.


Maybe he gets away with it because the military’s failings are too clear for all to see and Russia has needed Wagner mercenaries as cannon fodder. That is what he is, informally, a supplier of cannon fodder where he once supplied bread rolls (the moniker 'Putin's chef' refers to his catering business having had Kremlin contracts). But he is outspoken like one confident someone has his back and, I suppose what I am suggesting, is that I expect that is an illusion. But it is strange, very strange.


Where are things now?


And yet this is clearly qualitatively different. Even if he doesn't have a long-term strategy, this is not merely Prigozhin letting off steam and getting carried away. On the one hand, many in Moscow will be wishing it was. At first, yesterday, officials seemed to want to play down events. The Kremlin said last night that Putin was ‘aware of the situation’ and is ‘taking the necessary measures.’ And it looks like the FSB and the Kremlin and the armed forces in Moscow are shoulder-to-shoulder, but...


On the other hand, people in power were clearly rattled. Leading military figures, including Sergey Surovikin who commanded the Russian armed forces in Ukraine between October 2022 and January 2033, called on Russian troops to remain loyal (if you follow the link, note the assault rifle subtly held under Surovikin's right hand). Moreover, this appears far more than a typical reckless Prigozhin outburst because there clearly has been some planning behind the latest actions


Prigozhin has made headway quickly here. As of this writing, Wagner Group appears to have control over the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov, from which the war is being commanded. Wagner Group appears to have seized that without resistance, which indicates many sympathise with Prigozhin’s aims. Perhaps the key point here is that Prigozhin told a number of truths in his statements yesterday and many serving in the military welcome that over the concealment of accurate information about military fatalities and failures.


The FSB opened a criminal investigation against Prigozhin and in Moscow, Rostov and Voronezh counterterrorism regimes have been established (which explains the armoured vehicles in Moscow). Putin’s address this morning was unremarkable. He referenced 1917, the year Russia’s civil war began, and spoke of ‘a stab in the back’. Those involved would be punished and Russia would emerge stronger. (English transcript here.)


Is it really so outrageous to think Russia might be collapsing into civil war? If what I consider as among the more authoritative postings on social media are correct, it seems that Wagner’s troops really are advancing on Moscow. There are the first reports of exchanges of fire along the highways north of Voronezh. That is still a long way from Moscow and unless it becomes apparent that significant parts of the army are siding with Prigozhin, then this probably will be quashed. If it isn't quashed, then civil war may be the more likely outcome than a successful coup d'etat.


By talking of ‘significant parts’ switching allegiance to Prigozhin, I do not so much mean counting the numbers as paying attention to the roles of those doing so. An officer commanding troops who are loyal to him may take those under his command with him if he switches loyalty; the rank-and-file soldiers under this commander then find themselves inadvertently obeying orders from Prigozhin thinking that these are legitimate orders. As Edward Luttwak wrote in his book on coups:


‘While alienated personnel make good recruits, we [the coup-plotters] must remember that we need people who will not only cooperate personally … but also bring the units they command over to the coup. Thus, while the leaders we recruit could (and should) be estranged from the superior hierarchy, they must not be “outsider” figures who are not trusted by their fellow officers and men.’ (2016, p.87)


If this is genuinely a coup, and has been properly planned, then Prigozhin will have recruited key personnel in the armed forces because he cannot mount a coup with Wagner forces alone (remember that its numbers are made up by a ragtag of ex-convicts and retired soldiers – and probably fewer than Prigozhin claims are available to execute a coup). Though as I said at the outset, I think it wll be suppressed.


Conclusion


Whatever happens over the coming hours and days, Putin’s authority has been severely undermined and Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been given a great boost. If Prigozhin is dealt with, then he is finished as a political force, but others critical of the war – and they are hiding in plain sight – may feel emboldened by how far Prigozhin got. Ultimately, too many are sceptical of the Kremlin’s claims about how the war is progressing.


Hiding in plain sight... Earlier this month, when Russia’s defence ministry boasted about having destroyed Leopard-2 tanks, even Russian supporters of the war ridiculed the claim, noting that the video footage shared by the ministry appeared to show Russian missiles hitting tractors and combine harvesters. Prigozhin chipped in, scoffing sarcastically: ‘These [Ukrainian] bastards have learned to disguise their tanks as harvesters and their crews as farmers.’ One begins to wonder if Prigozhin himself has recruited enough farmers.

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