In a stunning turn of events, the Wagner Group under Yevgeny Prigozhin has revolted against the Russian Army, and has turned eastward from Ukraine and taken the city of Rostov. Prigozhin justified his rebellion by asserting that the Russian military had bombed one of his units, but that is unconfirmed. Initially there didn’t appear to be serious fighting between Wagner and Russian military units, but Wagner’s mercenaries are now marching rapidly on Moscow and are being fired on by Russian military helicopters.
So, is it a coup against Vladimir Putin? It didn’t start out as such. Wagner has been seen as Putin’s private army, and Prigozhin has cast himself as a Russian patriot protesting the incompetent prosecution of the Ukraine war. He has directed his attacks against Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, whom he hates, not against Putin.
But Putin has denounced Prigozhin as a traitor and called for his arrest. It is hard to imagine the two of them meeting cordially if and when Wagner’s forces reach Moscow.
Is this the beginning of the end for Putin? Perhaps not. Wagner has around 25,000 men. Despite its weak performance in Ukraine, I assume the combined efforts of Russia’s Army and Air Force would be enough to defeat them. Assuming that is the case, or that some kind of truce is achieved, where would that leave Putin? When a dictator is discredited by his own incompetence, a common scenario is that the army turns on him and forces him out of office. On the other hand, when a dictator retains the loyalty of his armed forces–see Venezuela and Cuba–there seems to be no end to the disasters he can survive.
The Russian army’s poor performance in Ukraine has weakened it to the point that it may not have the moral authority to topple Putin. And, assuming Wagner’s forces can be neutralized in one way or another, the army’s goal presumably will be stability, an objective that seemingly would not be advanced by trying to force Putin out. So who knows, “the Tsar” might survive.
I suspect, on the other hand, that the Ukraine war may be close to being over. Wagner’s units were the most effective elements of the Russian forces. Now they, along with Army units, have marched out of Ukraine to the East, apparently on their way to Moscow. If Wagner is crushed or demobilized, and with Ukraine now armed, ready and presumably in possession of the field, it is hard to imagine Russia’s remaining forces launching another offensive against that country.
The situation in Russia is evolving rapidly, and all of this speculation may turn out to be wrong. But that is how things look to me, anyway, at the moment.
UPDATE: The Kremlin is denying reports that Putin has fled Moscow–never a gaod look. The rumors result from the fact that:
One of several planes that Putin uses for official visits took off from Moscow at 2.15 pm local time, according to Flight Radar, which tracks aircraft in real-time.
Less than half an hour later, it went off radar about 150 kilometres from Mr Putin’s official residence.
And, predictably, Ukraine is taking advantage of Wagner’s withdrawal and chaos on the Russian side to advance broadly along the Eastern front.
FURTHER UPDATE: Yevgeny Prigozhin now says that his forces are turning around and, I take it, abandoning their effort to overthrow Russia’s military leadership. The Telegraph reports:
“We are turning our columns around and going back to field camps,” Yevgeny Prigozhin announced after vowing to march on Moscow to topple the military leadership.
He said he understood the importance of the moment and did not want to “spill Russian blood.”
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin an end to the movement of his mercenary troops inside Russia in order to deescalate the situation.
Mr Lukashenko said he was acting in agreement with Putin, who had earlier vowed to crush the armed insurrection.
“Yevgeny Prigozhin has accepted the proposal of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on stopping the movement of armed individuals from the Wagner group on Russian territory and further steps on deescalating tensions,” Lukashenko’s press service said in a statement.
I have no idea where things go from here.