It’s very hard to make sense of what Yevgeny Prigozhin thought he was accomplishing with his increasingly erratic behavior, particularly his attacks against senior members of the Russian military like defense chief Sergey Shoigu, where he’s gone from having an arguable basis for his complaints (it did look bad for Russia to pull out of Kharkiv and Kherson even though it was doctrinally sound and preserved Russian lives and materiel) to publishing complete fabrications to try to undermine leaders who controlled most of his resources.
What is even more bizarre is that Putin tolerated this public attack on the bona fides of the regular forces, for what has now been shown to be too long.
To give a very brief and hopefully not oversimplified recap of immediate events, Prigozhin accused the Russian regular forces of killing a lot of Wagner troops. He provided some film that didn’t even amount to evidence in terms of what it showed and even that was quickly dissected on social media as an obvious fake, as recapped even on Russian TV.
Prigozhin then announced his forces (at most 25,000, recall with limited supplies and materiel) were marching on Rostov, which is not only where a military base is located but also a center for conducting Ukraine combat operations. Prigozhin claimed to have taken control. The Western media is dignifying those statements but Twitter is casting a lot of doubt:
Well that was the most lame attempt at a coup d'etat I've ever seen. A couple old tanks and a couple dozen trucks carrying a couple hundred disheveled "soldiers" in ill-fitting uniforms.
The modest parade was escorted by Rosgvardia into Rostov; Prigozhin pretended to "occupy"…
— Will Schryver (@imetatronink) June 24, 2023
This doesn't look like a civil war or a coup. Prigozhin might want to hold Rostov hostage and leave if Shoigu resigns. If that's so, many would see that kind of behaviour as treason, especially during wartime. Prigozhin would probably see Shoigu's leadership as treason and… https://t.co/9SiZyfl0Zs
— Mikael Valtersson (@MikaelValterss1) June 24, 2023
The video with AI translation to English. It's very fascinating if all this is done, just for Prigozhin to get a meeting with Shoigu and Gerasimov. If so, it's very unbalanced overkill for a "date"
It's like when a former collegue of mine stopped printing the newspaper he was… https://t.co/a42PnKQEgE
— Mikael Valtersson (@MikaelValterss1) June 24, 2023
The multi-author Rybar blog also raised doubts as to what actually was afoot:
In other words, when you look at what Prigozhin has done, which so far has a high bluster-to-action ratio, it looks like weird form of hostage-taking, perhaps over-relying on the idea that because of his stature and having some men around him, Russian forces won’t engage with him because it will make the bad optics worse and probably kill some people, potentially including civilians.
However, recall also the West has been talking ad nauseam about an uprising versus Putin. So whether by action or design, Prigozhin’s move will serve as a trigger for Ukraine sleeper cells in Russia to swing into action. And again, Rybar suggested the Russian security forces had been put on alert for that type of operation BEFORE the Prigozhin gambit:
So even if the Russian officialdom told themselves Prigozhin could be contained, the rousing of Ukrainian opponents in Russia might be another matter. Even with Prigozhin going rogue, the Western media seemed a bit surprised as to how Russia swung into high alert mode. And Prigozhin was quickly targeted for arrest and almost certain prosecution. Putin also quickly described the uprising as treasonous. The translation of this video sadly is halting:
This gives the essence:
Vladimir Putin: Actions that split our unity are, in fact, apostasy from one’s own people, from comrades-in-arms who are now fighting at the front. This is a stab in the back of our country and our people. It was such a blow that was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country… pic.twitter.com/i0DFsv3Kvc
— Victor vicktop55 (@vicktop55) June 24, 2023
Or even shorter:
Putin's address to the nation, with English subtitles, courtesy of Slavyangrad channel on Telegram.
God only knows what Prigozhin was thinking, but he is now officially a dead man walking. https://t.co/dLawZA4LRF
— Richard Bardon (@RichardJBardon) June 24, 2023
Now even if this rebellion is as weak as the tweets above suggest, it still makes for great bad press in the rest of the world, undermining Russia’s efforts to win friends and influence countries.
To keep this post from getting overlong relative to the high dynamism of current events, please see Simplicius the Thinker who catalogues in detail how Prigozhin’s recent rants about betrayal and battlefield failures are utter fabrications. Prigozhin has been so visibly overstating and more recently just making up “failures; that some Russia experts like Mark Sleboda were convinced that this was a big psyops to make Ukraine and the Collective West think Russia was weaker and more divided than it is so as to encourage them to continue to do stupid things like doggedly hold on to positions and even attack Russian lines. And that might even have been the earlier plan but then Prigozhin got the bit in his teeth.
Keep in mind that per Prigozhin, what he is attempting to do narrowly is not a coup. He’s not trying to overthrow Putin (or arguably not at this juncture). He is trying to get major changes in Russian military leadership to among other things advance his position and prevent Wagner from being integrated into the regular Russian force. The deadline for signing new contracts is July 1 and Prigozhin has refused to go along. But as far as Putin is concerned, destabilizing the military during a war might as well be a coup since it jeopardizes Russia, not just him.
And one has to wonder about his conduct in light of this RT story from last month, on the rumors circulating that Prigozhin was in contact with the Ukraine secret service, which were never really denied. Key section from Here are the Zelensky ‘treason’ quotes the Washington Post deleted:
WaPo: The documents indicate that GUR, your intelligence directorate, has back-channel contact with Evgeny Prigozhin that you were aware of, including meeting with Evgeny Prigozhin and GUR officers. Is that true?
Zelensky: This is a matter of [military] intelligence. Do you want me to be convicted of state treason? And so, it’s very interesting, if someone is saying that you have documents, or if someone from our government is speaking about the activities of our intelligence, I would also like to ask you a question: With which sources from Ukraine do you have contact? Who is talking about the activities of our intelligence? Because this is the most severe felony in our country. Which Ukrainians are you talking to?
WaPo: I talked to officials in government, but these documents are not from Ukraine, they are from…
Zelensky: It doesn’t matter where the documents are from. The question is with which Ukrainian official did you talk?…
WaPo: And I can read you what information exactly there is about Prigozhin and the GUR. On February 13, Kirill Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, informed you about a Russian plan to destabilize Moldova with two former Wagner associates. Budanov informed you that he viewed the Russian scheme as a way to incriminate Prigozhin because “we have dealings” with him. You instructed Budanov to inform Moldovan President Maia Sandu, and Budanov told you that the GUR had informed Prigozhin that he would be labeled a traitor who has been working with Ukraine. The document also says that Budanov expected the Russians to use details of Prigozhin’s secret talks with the GUR and meetings with GUR officers in Africa…
Yours truly is not able to unpack this. Reading the entire section, it appears Zelensky was upset that the Post had this information and didn’t try denying its accuracy, and the Post patter made it seem likely these were among the 300 Discord leak documents the Post said it saw, curiously of which not all that many got beyond the Post. However, one might surmise that Prigozhin was trying to be a double agent and it had become way too public.
Again one wonders why Putin waited too long to act. Perhaps he and the military leadership viewed Prigozhin as a self-limiting problem, dependent on Russian logistics and so not capable of much independent action. But not much is far from “not any”. And they did nothing to check his outbursts or try to limit his reach. Maybe they thought his open warfare with and denigration of the regularly military (which BTW is very well paid, hence the continuing high number of enlistments) would unify them. That might be accurate, but if Prigozhin had not been authorized to engage in a monster psy-op, which he decided to repurpose late in them, how could they not see he was becoming wildly unhinged?
Even though Russia had the Chechens and the Donbass militias take the brunt of clearing Mariupol, so they are not the only forces Russia has for close quarters operations, it appears Wagner had a contract for Bakhmut (their lock on that gig was weird) and then that became the focus of Operation Meat Grinder. Prigozhin despite giving lip service to Surovkin, who I have read was the mastermind, was unhappy with the grinding and the resulting high cost to his men and had wanted to move faster. This may account for his regular lashing out at the leadership.
So it was impractical to displace Prigozhin during the Bakhmut operation. Putin may have delegated the leashing and collaring of Prigozhin to senior military and intel officers who overestimated their ability to contain him. Perhaps we’ll find out how this cockup happened. But per above, there will be a press tendency to depict the actions of Ukraine sleeper cells, which were already underway, to Russians. It will also be hard to pick that apart.
The fresh updates indicate that some of what is happening is more psychological than real. From the latest Rybar update:
But there are also reports of private jets departing Moscow and some more serious looking action:
Nevertheless, Simplicius the Thinker’s warning of last night still seems largely operative:
The thing is, despite the actual criminal proceedings being set in motion and various Russian regions going on heightened alert, as of this writing there is no proof at all that Prigozhin is actually marching any “column” of Wagner troops to Rostov or anywhere else. One would think the claimed 50km long column would be visible and documented from a variety of sources at this point.
Ultimately Prigozhin can’t go any distance. But a crazy guy in a mall with a machine gun and a belt of ammo can do a lot of local damage and create considerable trauma before he is subdued.