In what was probably the most enthralling weekend since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the USSR (1991), events of this weekend again placed the Russian military, politics and intrigue squarely in front of the world. And like the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR, so much could have gone wrong, but thankfully didn’t. All of the soldiers have returned to their barracks and the nukes are resting undisturbed in their silos.
So, to recap:
Everybody knows that private military company Wagner Group fought alongside regular Russian troops and distinguished themselves in numerous battles, not least of which resulted in the capture of the Donbass city of Artyomovsk, known in Ukraine as Bakhmut.
The leader of Wagner is a chap named Evgeny Prigozhin who has been a very vocal critic of Russia’s top military, in particular, Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff. Prigozhin has repeatedly claimed the Russian military leadership have mishandled the military operation in Ukraine, deprived Wagner forces of ammunition and generally made a mess of every military tactic or strategy.
Then, a few days ago it was announced that Wagner forces would sign an agreement that would bring them under the direct control of the Russian military, but Prigozhin was blind-sided and refused to sign any such contract. Coupled with that, was the corresponding Russian military remark that Wagner funding was to be significantly cut.
This all culminated in an (apparent) attack on Wagner’s camp by Russian artillery coupled with attack helicopter air strikes resulting in, according to Prigozhin, significant losses of Wagner troops. Prigozhin was enraged and his forces commenced their march towards Rostov-on-Don with the ultimate ambition to march onwards to Moscow.
Prigozhin declared his troops will march with the rather grandly named “March of Justice”. Meanwhile, the Russian Federal Security Service accused Prigozhin of inciting a rebellion and opened a criminal case against him. Then on Saturday in a national video address to the nation, the visibly angry President of Russia Vladimir Putin, said that Prigozhin actions were ‘stabbing our people and nation in the back’, ‘betrayal’ and ‘treasonous’.
Of course, from that point, the rumour and speculation mill went into turbocharged overdrive. Some of the stories were utterly ridiculous whilst others were either factual or had some basis in fact but like all good games of Chinese whispers, some ‘facts’ were eventually transformed into absurdity.
It should be noted that the civilian and other authorities were not idle. Anti-terrorism measures were enacted in Moscow and other cities, public events were cancelled in several cities and traffic on major highways was suspended.
It is fair to say that tensions were very high – made worse by news that Wagner forces had shot down three Russian military helicopters and that (infamous) Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was already sending his forces north to Rostov-on-Don to confront the Wagner forces. Video footage of at least one burning helicopter and truckloads of Chechen soldiers mobilising was shown on numerous media sites.
This was an incredibly dangerous flashpoint. Just imagine – Chechen fighters confronting (mostly) ethnic Russian soldiers (Wagner) on Russian soil.
Needless to say, the Ukrainian leadership were cock-a-hoop at the turn of events and responded gleefully with some (very subtle) offering of support to Prigozhin. Anything that assists a coup in Russia would be a bonus for them.
Whimper not bang
A fuel depot was destroyed but the Russians (reputedly) did that themselves to prevent Wagner re-fuelling. In addition, the fate of the crews of the Russian military helicopters is not known but we can assume they are injured, if not dead. A building occupied by the FSB in Rostov was also damaged with reports of one fatality. However, and with respect to those who are deceased, these incidents can be considered minor compared to the potential outcome of a full-scale battle involving the Russian military, Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Wagner through the streets of Rostov.
On Saturday evening as most of us were going to bed, Belarusian President Lukashenko struck a deal with Prigozhin that Wagner would end its attempt at insurrection in exchange for safe passage for Prigozhin to Belarus, the dropping of charges against Prigozhin and that Wagner forces would return to their barracks. Further, Wagner forces would not face any consequent retribution.
So, the deal was done and within an hour or two, Wagner forces began their withdrawal. At the time of writing, all Wagner forces have returned to their barracks and Prigozhin is, presumably, enjoying some nalistniki (thin pancakes) and a glass or two of champagne in a safe location in Minsk.
This topic will be a separate post in itself but to summarise, it is crystal clear that Putin was uber mindful of the implications of a ‘Russian-on-Russian’ fight. In other words, images of Russians killing Russians on the news could easily stir up consequent events that may be difficult or impossible to quell.
This fear was expressed in Putin’s address to the nation early on Saturday where he remarked that he would never allow Russia to descend into events that mirrored 1917. In his address he said that a “blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917….. and the nation turned into the greatest turmoil, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, and the loss of vast territories, ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war.”
Therefore, while many commentators envisaged a wholesale military showdown between Wagner and Russian forces and even the potential for a civil war, Putin had no intention of allowing events to head down that path.
We now know that it was Putin that authorised Lukashenko to make the peace deal. Lukashenko did not act unilaterally. I suspect that the deal may also see the sacking of Defence Minister Shoigu and chief-of-staff Gerasimov although those outcomes may not happen immediately (but I think their ‘card is marked’). What happens to the Wagner troops is less clear although it is likely that some will be subsumed into the regular Russian military and while others will just disappear back to Africa.
As for Prigozhin, well, who knows. His biggest problem is that he remains a beacon that cannot be allowed to shine brightly again. It is also clear that the support he thought he had failed to substantially materialise. What’s more, in his 30-minute video rant before the “March of Justice” began, Prigozhin made a curious remark.
Just a few weeks ago Prigozhin had been calling for full mobilization in order to defeat Ukraine and put down the threat of NATO but in his rant on Friday night said that “the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not going to attack Russia in conjunction with NATO.” Which of course begs the question, what changed?
I will examine this issue and numerous other aftermath elements in another post but I will make one final observation.
Russian politics is never what it seems. Under normal circumstances we would assume that Prigozhin would be a ‘dead man walking’ and will mysteriously ingest some polonium 210, but it isn’t that straight forward. Prigozhin was very powerful in the Kremlin and Putin and Prigozhin have been close allies for decades. Prigozhin had his own power base which is still powerful notwithstanding his exile to Belarus.
Putin is the ultimate puppet-master and he must neuter Prigozhin’s power base before making any move (if he does at all) but doing so may come at another price. Meanwhile, the conflict in Ukraine drags on.