By Wayne Allensworth
Yevgeniy Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin (ideapod.com)
Here’s a preliminary take on the events in Russia this past weekend:
Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Putin crony from St. Petersburg who heads the Wagner Group mercenary organization, after claiming that regular Russian army units had opened fire on Wagner camps in the war zone, announced that he was organizing a column of Wagner fighters to march to Moscow to demand “justice.” He undoubtedly believed Putin would react by firing his enemies in Moscow, the Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu, and the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin, according to Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, a thoughtful and well-informed commentator, probably hoped he and Wagner would thereby secure their positions as important players in the war, as well as funding and a clearly defined legal status. This was not an attempted coup. Prigozhin had no plans to move against the Kremlin.
The “March for Justice,” however, did not have the desired effect: No Russian regulars came over to his side, no public outcry supported Prigozhin, and no one in a high position in Moscow voiced any sympathy for him. Prigozhin, who has been basking in the media limelight during the fighting in Ukraine, overestimated his popularity. Most importantly, his old patron, Putin, did not come to his aid, but instead called the march a treacherous stab in the back. And Prigozhin may have burned his last bridge regarding his future when he issued another statement saying he would not follow commands from anyone, including Putin, to give up and take the blame for this incident. In the end, he did halt the march and appears to be headed for exile in Belarus. What political fallout will follow remains to be seen.
As usual in Russia, wild rumors soon circulated on the Internet, including claims that Prigozhin was a Ukrainian-NATO tool or that Putin had been playing a 4-D chess game with Prigozhin aimed at forcing out Shoygu and revamping the approach to the Special Military Operation in Ukraine. Ignore such claims. Prigozhin was desperate and went for broke. It didn’t work.
Putin miscalculated terribly by allowing Prigozhin to publicly hammer Defense Minister Shoygu over the army’s corruption and incompetence. The scathing attacks had been going on for a long time. Wagner did a lot of the dirty work, and took big losses, in winning the battle for Bahkmut/Artemovsk (the Russian name for the city) and wanted the credit. Naturally, the Defense Ministry (MOD) didn’t want that and didn’t like Prigozhin becoming a public figure and leader of the critics of the MOD’s conduct of the war. Russian military bloggers (the “war correspondents” have a huge following on Telegram) and war supporters thought Wagner was the most effective fighting force Russia had. Putin’s usual modus operandi is to allow some political infighting, playing off major factions against one another as a means of “balancing” political forces. He steps in occasionally to act as mediator, restoring equilibrium to the system. The Russian president apparently liked to use the military bloggers (also critics of the MOD) and Prigozhin to “balance” the MOD and force it to make necessary changes in its operations and management of the conflict. In this case, he allowed the infighting to go on far too long. Prigozhin has made all sorts of accusations, including the claim that MOD had refused to supply Wagner with adequate ammo, and was generally a loose cannon who infuriated the military establishment.
The Kremlin was beginning to rein Wagner and Prigozhin in. The MOD formulated a plan to force Wagner fighters to work under its direction, which Prigozhin publicly denounced. He also (justifiably) feared the MOD’s high panjandrums would come after him. Though Western media often casts him as being a close Putin friend, Prigozhin has not communicated directly with the president for some time. The possibly staged incident of the army allegedly firing on Wagner personnel and the subsequent “March for Justice” were desperation moves for the one-time caterer, also known as “Putin’s chef.” The Wagner people surrounded the Russian army’s operational command post in Rostov, occupied part of the city, and may have taken some positions in Voronezh. The Wagner column came within 200 kilometers of Moscow. According to the generally reliable Rybar, the top military Telegram channel in Russia, the Wagner column was bombed by warplanes, and the Wagner people shot down army helicopters. Subsequently, we heard that Prigozhin, after speaking with Putin ally, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, will go to Belarus, the “March for Justice” will halt, and the Wagner people will be dispersed. Putin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov has said that criminal charges would be dropped as a result, though some reports claimed that an investigation is ongoing.
Rybar reported that Prigozhin has issued another statement, saying that “intrigues” aimed at breaking up Wagner were what prompted the march, which was meant as an act of protest. When the “March for Justice” led to bloodshed, he halted it, though he said that Wagner’s forces firing on Russian military aircraft was an act of self-defense. He claims 30 Wagner fighters were killed by the aerial attacks. Prigozhin added that Lukashenko had proposed that the Wagner people come to Belarus. He said nothing about Shoygu or Gerasimov.
The “March for Justice” episode is a major embarrassment for Putin, even as the much ballyhooed (by Western media) Ukrainian counter offensive hasn’t actually gotten very far following the major Russian victory in Bakhmut/Artemovsk. To add some context, Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s administration has been chaotic, his country is dependent on Western aid, and hardliners in Ukraine have arrested and assassinated those they saw as being soft on Russia—Kiev is a more dangerous and potentially unstable capital than Moscow.
Putin has moved to contain the crisis quickly. He plans a presidential run next year, another reason for concern in the Kremlin. His hawkish critics have been claiming all along that he should have fully mobilized at the start of the conflict and finished the war much more quickly. Putin has moved with relative caution during the Special Military Operation, probably because he was concerned that a breakthrough in Ukraine by a fully mobilized Russian army might prompt a panicked response from NATO. The country has been largely supportive of the president, but at the same time, polls conducted by the reliable Levada Center in May indicated that 45 percent of those surveyed would like to see peace talks. Nevertheless, 76 percent said they supported the war. What impact the “March for Justice” may have on those numbers remains to be seen. Putin’s public statement on the Wagner rebellion was harsh and even brought up the collapse of the Russian army and the revolution of 1917. That will not be lost on the public or on Russian elites. Putin meant those remarks as a warning about the risks of division. Russians, to be sure, harbor an understandable fear of chaos and revolution. The public and elites could view the crisis as a sign that Putin is faltering—but they may simply breathe a sigh of relief and move on, glad that Putin is in charge and contained the crisis. Indeed, some Russian analysts, both pro- and anti-Putin, believe that will be the case.
In a subsequent speech, Putin applauded the heroism of Wagner personnel who had fought in the war and said that those who wished to could sign contracts with the MOD or other “power” organs—or simply go home or move to Belarus. He implied that Russia’s enemies were behind an effort to trick Wagner personnel into a fratricidal action against their own country, but most had not fallen for the ploy. Putin also noted that society had consolidated and had not joined in an armed rebellion. Nevertheless, it appears that the Wagner fighters who took part in the march saw themselves as the victims of the proverbial stab in the back. It was they, not Putin, who were betrayed. How widespread is that sentiment in the pro-war camp?
Many other questions cry out for answers. Did the army actually fire on Wagner units in Ukraine, and, if so, who gave the order? Who ordered the aerial attacks on Wagner? Putin? The MOD? Why didn’t the Kremlin intervene in the MOD-Wagner conflict before now? As far as Prigozhin, Russian observers have often written that Putin divides players on the political scene into friends, opponents, and traitors. Friends are taken care of, as Prigozhin was for far too long. Opponents can still be negotiated with and are free to operate within certain parameters. But traitors must pay. Prigozhin had been a friend—but has become a traitor. Putin may feel constrained by circumstances to forego punishing his onetime friend in the near future. But if past experience is a guide, he will eventually feel Putin’s wrath. Someone must take the fall for this incident–Putin knows that his actions are being watched closely by elites. He cannot afford to look weak. Putin has a reputation of refusing to yield to demands under pressure. He has taken Shoygu and Gersimov’s side—for now—and refused to remove them. But their future may be in question.
What’s more, the aborted “March for Justice” will embolden the neocon/neoliberal hawks in Washington who want the war to go on–bringing us closer to the brink of a direct conflict with Russia. Lindsey Graham, who recently told Zelenskiy that support for a war in which Russians are dying was money well spent, must be smiling. The “March for Justice” wasn’t only a potentially disastrous incident for Putin, but for normal Americans who want to prevent WWIII.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.