The Coup that Wasn’t

by Rafael Hoffman

Members of the Wagner Group military company sit in their vehicle on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023, as they prepare to leave an area at the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s troops who joined him in the uprising will not face prosecution and those who did not will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. (AP Photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin does not take domestic criticism lightly. Generally, those who take high-profile stances against him end up imprisoned or dead. As Russia’s war in Ukraine began, that crackdown extended further and, with the enactment of laws criminalizing opposition to the invasion, an untold number of Russian citizens have faced jail time for comments made in print or online.

That background made it doubly challenging for many in the West to make sense of the Wagner mercenary army leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny last month. The former convicted criminal and caterer to Russia’s leader had for months released videos criticizing the Defense Ministry’s war leadership, exposing what he depicted as incompetence and a disregard for human losses. At some points, he even questioned the wisdom of the war itself. These statements, seemingly unthinkable for anyone else in Russia to make, culminated in a 24-hour rebellion. Mr. Prigozhin’s troops captured the Russian base at Rostov-on-Don, a key center in directing the Ukraine war. Wagner guns shot down several Russian aircraft, killing those inside. A few thousand of his forces then began a march toward Moscow, with many Western media outlets labeling the event a “coup.”

That the rebellion fizzled might have surprised few, save possibly Mr. Prigozhin himself, but the cleanliness of its deflation left many questions. Mr. Putin initially condemned the mutiny as treason and threatened harsh punishments for participants. Yet, shortly afterward, in a deal that Belorussian President and Putin-ally Alexander Lukashenko claim to have struck, charges were dropped, and Mr. Prigozhin and his men were to be allowed safe passage to Belarus. 

Since then, Mr. Prigozhin has been seen little, save a few scattered video messages, but a report said that his plane was spotted in Belarus. Yet, only a week later, Mr. Lukashenko said that Mr. Prigozhin was back in Russia. Not long after, the Kremlin announced that Wagner’s leader, together with its highest-ranking commanders, met personally with Mr. Putin in the days following the rebellion, where they pledged loyalty and expressed a willingness to continue to fight for “Mother Russia.”

Ongoing developments led several commentators to compare the matter to the classic Russian matryoshka doll, with one doll nested inside the other. Though, even as evidence points increasingly away from a coup narrative, many in the West remain tied to conclusions that paint the Wagner mutiny as a sign of trouble ahead for the Putin regime. At the same time, a less popular, and less exciting, telling claims it might show just the opposite.

Wishful Thinking

Right and facing page: Members of the Wagner Group military company in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, prior to leaving the headquarters of the Southern Military District. (AP Photo)

A perusal of Western mainstream media on the Wagner mutiny, especially in the first week after its occurrence, largely read like an obituary for Mr. Putin’s rule.

“Putin’s weaknesses laid bare after 24 hours of rebellion in Russia,” read a CNBC headline. NPR’s read, “The mutiny in Russia may be over. But it still damages Putin.”

The Washington think-tank world drew similar conclusions: “Wagner fallout: Time to begin preparing for a post-Putin Russia,” was the title of a piece by The Atlantic Council, a theme repeated in many other institutions with similar globalist orientations. Foreign Affairs journal, Foreign Policy in Focus, and several media outlets all ran articles headlined with some version of “Why this may be the beginning of the end for Putin.” Articles abounded comparing Wagner’s mutiny to Cossack uprisings of the 16th and 17th centuries and to rebellions in 1917 that precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was more cautious in his assessment, saying it was too early to evaluate the real impact of Wagner’s rebellion, but he told an interviewer that “it adds cracks” to Mr. Putin’s hold on power. 

The facts that Wagner’s troops took Rostov without facing resistance and that footage shows crowds enthusiastically cheering their march support theories that their uprising bespeaks popular dissatisfaction with the war, or at least the way it is being conducted.

“This definitely shifted the narrative back to Russian vulnerability. Even if this doesn’t have significant effects on the military situation in Ukraine, it’s a political defeat for Putin,” said Peter Rutland, a scholar of Russian affairs and history professor at Wesleyan University. “[Putin’s] grip on power is very robust, and this does not reveal threats to his rule, but cracks can accumulate.”

Yet even as Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny was still active, nearly every prominent Russian political and military voice condemned his actions. More notably, none spoke out to support him.

“It fizzled pretty quickly,” said Colin Smith, a Russia analyst for the RAND Corporation think tank. “This is not close to over yet, but I’m more in the camp that people saying this was a real threat to Putin is wishful thinking.”

Mercenary Autonomy

Mr. Prigozhin was long viewed as a Putin loyalist whose motley band of convicts and others who chose to join the mercenary army, known for its brutality, played a vital role in advancing Russian power in Syria, parts of Africa and, most recently, Ukraine. Leading up to the mutiny, many were mystified by the apparent brazenness that the man known as “Putin’s chef” showed in his criticisms of Russia’s conducting of the war. Despite his value to the regime’s military operations and past as the Kremlin’s caterer, Mr. Prigozhin’s videos released over his social media channel went far beyond the lines average Russians publicly cross.

As consensus emerged that Wagner’s rebellion had not been a coup aimed at overthrowing Mr. Putin’s government, most agreed that the object of his risky endeavor was clearly spelled out in his messages criticizing Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the military’s chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov.

“He wanted to get Shoigu and Gerasimov fired,” said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Prigozhin’s feud with the defense minister is long-running. In 2018, dozens of Wagner soldiers were killed by U.S. missiles in Syria after Mr. Shoigu denied there were any Russians operating in the area. The sentiment was compounded during the Battle of Bakhmut in Ukraine. There, Wagner’s troops conquered the city, all while Mr. Prigozhin claimed that the Kremlin was not giving his men enough ammunition and that incompetent commanders showed no regard for losses in his ranks. In another instance, he claimed that carelessly fired Russian missiles struck Wagner camps.

It was a bizarre complaint from the man famous for building an army fueled by cruelty and fear, where disobedience or insufficient fierceness can be punished by a fatal sledgehammer blow to the head.

“[Prigozhin] wants to go legit,” said Mr. Smith. “He operates a massive criminal organization but wants to show that he cares about his soldiers.”

Central to Mr. Prigozhin’s actions was also a power struggle between him and Russia’s military institutions. Wagner has been integral to Russia’s operations for several years, while operating quasi-independently. That status was threatened by an insistence that its troops sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense by June 10.

“Prigozhin was desperately trying to preserve his autonomy,” said Professor Rutland. “Everybody agrees he was not trying to seize power; this was not a coup. He was trying to cajole his friend Putin to back him over Shoigu, and felt the use of force would back him into a corner to say, ‘Wagner is a hero and we need new leadership.’”

The Groundswell That Sank

Mr. Prigozhin has been praised for his successes, most recently in winning Bakhmut, an accomplishment magnified by contrast to many failed Russian assaults in Ukraine. He was held in high regard by Mr. Putin, but has also become a folk hero among nationalist Russians who admire his battlefield prowess and anti-elitist rhetoric.

That presumably gave Mr. Prigozhin confidence in his rebellion and might be protecting him in its aftermath.

“Prigozhin was built up as the hero of Bakhmut; he has a lot of fans in Russia,” said Mr. Smith. “Putin needs to walk a fine line since there are no other generals that can hold themselves up to Wagner’s successes.”

The regard Mr. Putin had for Wagner might have been the key to the confidence Mr. Prigozhin had in his critical statements and ultimately that his rebellion would accomplish its goals.

“Over the last three or four months, Prigozhin has been able to say things no Russian could get away with. The question became, who was covering for him? The only assumption that made sense was to say that it was Putin himself,” said Mr. Smith.

With that confidence, most posit that Mr. Prigozhin expected support from a groundswell of senior military staff who shared his frustrations with Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov. His bloodless takeover of Rostov-on-Don seemingly betrayed discussions with some commanders before his mutiny began. Expectations of support are also apparent from the relatively modest size of the few thousand Wagner fighters who led the mutiny, unable to pose any threat without allies.

Within hours of the rebellion’s start, however, military and civilian leaders universally condemned Wagner’s actions and called on them to surrender.

“He gambled and was wrong. By 10 a.m., Putin addressed the nation, calling these people traitors. That’s when Prigozhin must have known that he’d misread how far to push,” said Professor Rutland. “The truth is often very strange. We all know Putin and Prigozhin. They are both behaving in character, just their interaction went haywire. Putin was trying to rein in Wagner and ended up pushing Prigozhin to take desperate measures for autonomy. It looks like a miscalculation by both of them.” 

In some of Mr. Prigozhin’s more ambitious statements, he had come to question the wisdom of beginning the war in Ukraine. His statements might betray a gap between the Kremlin’s view and that of the Russian street, but not as wide as some Western narratives presume.

“[Prigozhin] has criticized the war and said that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky was willing to make a deal. By all accounts, Prigozhin’s position is closer to the average Russian than Putin’s,” said Professor Rutland. “They agree that now that they are in it, they have to win it, but it’s a different narrative, one that is open to blaming elites and oligarchs for leading Russia into the war for their own interests. It’s a populist critique that’s appealing to the ordinary Russian.”

Historically, Russia’s military has a high tolerance for losses. Yet, Mr. Prigozhin’s public statements might have hit a nerve in revealing that numbers of soldiers killed, released by the Kremlin, are painting a falsely rosy picture.

“Russia can absorb losses, but they don’t like being lied to about it, and that could make people question the Kremlin’s motives,” said Mr. Smith. “If Russia can maintain its spin on this, it will blow over, but the army might be left with recruiting issues.”

Whither Wagner?

Shoigu (L) and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov attend the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to the joint staff of troops involved in Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, at an unknown location, Dec. 17. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

What remains unclear is the future of the Wagner Group itself. Early reports said that its units would be allowed to either join the Russian army or relocate to Belarus. Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that Wagner forces were completing their handover of weapons to the military. A statement accompanied by video of tanks and heavy equipment being surrendered said that 2,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 2,750 tons of ammunition, and 20,000 small arms were turned over. 

Yet given the role Wagner has played in Russia’s military operations in recent years, it is unknown how that shift will affect its future.

“In the near term, it will have no major effect on the Ukraine war. Wagner was off the front lines already,” said Mr. Smith. “In the longer term, Russia had a fighting force that was more competent than its army. Wagner could have been pulled back and inserted somewhere else in the battle. They’ve now lost that tool.” 

What remained less clear was the future of Wagner’s forces operating in Syria and Africa. In Syria, they have proven brutal and effective in defending Bashar Assad’s regime. In Mali and the Central African Republic, they have played a key role in helping governments fight off threats from rebel groups. Wagner’s overseas operations were profitable for the group itself and allowed the Kremlin to spread its influence while retaining the ability to deny direct involvement.

“The presumption is that Prigozhin’s been put in time-out, but Wagner is still a useful tool,” said Mr. Smith. “If Wagner needs to be withdrawn from Africa or Syria, that hurts Russia’s hold there.”

‘Not Available for Now’

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the national anthem prior to delivering a speech to the units of the Russian Defense Ministry, the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), the Russian Interior Ministry, the Russian Federal Security Service, and the Russian Federal Guard Service, who ensured order and legality during the mutiny, at the Kremlin in Moscow, June 27. (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

While the mutiny led to no large-scale putsch, according to reports, Russia has detained several military leaders it suspects of complacency with Wagner. General Sergei Surovikin, who serves as a deputy commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, is alleged to have had knowledge of the mutiny before it occurred and has not been seen since. A Duma spokesman recently said that the general was “resting” and was “not available for now.” Several sources said that he is being held for interrogation.

If, indeed, General Surovikin was one of Mr. Prigozhin’s presumed supporters, actual events prove how far his miscalculation went, as the general was among the first to publicly call on Wagner to lay down arms and call off its uprising. 

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, at least 13 other high-ranking officers were being held for questioning, and 15 were relieved of their positions. Among them are General Surovikin’s deputy, Colonel General Andrey Yudin; Deputy Head of Military Intelligence Lieutenant General Vladimir Alexeyev; and former Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who formally joined Wagner this past spring.

There are few signs that the rebellion rocked the Kremlin’s grip on power, but most felt that Mr. Putin’s trip to mingle among crowds of admirers in the southern province of Dagestan was part of a public relations effort to forfend any feeling of instability in the wake of the Wagner incident. Mr. Putin has made very few public appearances since the COVID pandemic, and his insistence that officials sit at the other side of a long table became something of a joke about his hyper-concern over germs. So unusual was his mixing with the crowd in Dagestan that some posited the Russian President had enlisted a body double.

Russian authorities also released video of raids on Wagner’s offices and Mr. Prigozhin’s residence depicting the luxurious conditions that years of payments to the mercenary army funded, in an apparent attempt to turn public opinion against the group.

As Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts remained a mystery, rumors swirled, including unsubstantiated theories that he was dead. More assumed that, while details might still be elusive, he was still protected by the deal sealed with the Kremlin after the rebellion failed.

“The deal solved a problem for Putin,” said Professor Rutland. “Instead of risking street fighting in Moscow, he just ended it, and uncharacteristically, both compromised.”

While it seems increasingly clear that Wagner’s uprising posed little threat to Mr. Putin’s reign, the instability it implied was not welcomed by the Kremlin. Many Western narratives celebrated that instability, with the unspoken assumption that Mr. Putin’s downfall would end the Ukraine war and herald liberal reform in Russia. Yet, with no credible opposition in the country, a more likely scenario many posited would see Mr. Putin replaced with an even more hardline nationalist leader.

“I don’t think a shaky hold on power for Putin is good for the West,” said Mr. Smith. “I think the West is better off sticking to what it wants to gain from any weakness that emerges; use that to get him out of Ukraine. Anything else risks too many unintended consequences. Putin is the devil we know, and that’s probably the best we can hope for in Russia now.”

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