In January of this year I noted that the hardline patriotic, state nationalist wing in Russia was being strengthened by the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war: “The Kremlin ‘tower’ of hardliners (party of war) could be strengthened by the extent to which the first phase of the war from the initial invasion up to mobilization and the new, apparent ‘full war’ strategy is seen as a failure and the result of influence of the ‘party of compromise’ on Putin. Winners will be Nikolai Patrushev, his sons, the ‘private’ military company Wagner’s Yevgenii Prigozhin, among others. At this point it is difficult to discern evidence of the war party’s strengthening, since Patrushev and his sons as well as Prigozhin were on the rise around Putin before February 2022, with Patrushev becoming the Kremlin’s chief ideologist and Prigozhin an increasingly powerful Russian actor abroad and at home. With Russia’s full turn away from the West and the war necessitating a harsher line at home and abroad, the consolidation of hardliners’ power is complete and the influence of Patrushev and Prigozhin each is growing” (https://gordonhahn.com/2023/01/20/developments-in-the-nato-russian-ukrainian-war/). Writing about the present moment as of May 2022, I proposed that there was no imminent or even mid-term threat of a regime split and revolt or revolution against the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin but if a threat was to emerge in future it would come from the nationalist, ultra-patriotic wing not from Russian liberals or society at-large. That is, there will be no pro-republican liberal uprising against the war or the regime, but a revolt, coup, or even a revolution from above waged by state-nationalist (not ethno-nationalist) hardliners would be eminently possible – not necessarily probable or inevitable – in the longer term, if Russia is perceived as having lost or to be losing an already long, costly war. I wrote: “The possibility of a move by hardliners against the Putin’s balance of power between hardline soliviki and regime liberal economic and financial officials or even against Putin himself is the most likely of the three possible, though still highly unlikely scenarios” (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/05/30/questions-of-regime-stability-in-wartime-russia/). Recent events involving Wagner chief Prigozhin cause me to reaffirm the views above.
There are different takes regarding Prigozhin’s ‘excellent expedition,’ and many are rather conspiratorial (https://edwardslavsquat.substack.com/p/oligarch-with-private-army-cancels?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=520963&post_id=130852332&isFreemail=true&utm_medium=email). Russian ‘Telegram’ channels ‘Rybar’ and ‘Military Summary’ as well as former CIA analyst Larry Johnson argued that the entire Prigozhin affair was a Russia ‘special operation’ (SO). Military Summary concluded Prigozhin’s ‘March of Justice’ was designed to smoke out the West’s real intentions, pointing to the declaration by the anti-Lukashenka Belarusian opposition unit fighting on Kiev’s side that it would begin military operations in Belarus and calling on Belarussians to support their revolution. In this view, the SO was used by the Russians also as a smokescreen for transferring large numbers of Wagner and other Russian forces to the north and provoke Kiev to upgrade its counter-offensive in the south to high gear (https://sonar21.com/russias-academy-award-winning-performance-for-best-coup-prigozhin-scores-best-actor/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email and (www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0GAF3Vez-I&ab_channel=MilitarySummary).
This hypothesis begs the question: Why redeploy large numbers of Russian forces to the north and simultaneously spark Kiev’s escalation in the south? The only possibly logical answer would be that Russian forces in the south still are sufficient, and the redployments to the north suggest a major Russian offensive from the Belgorod direction in order to take advantage of Kiev’s southern focus and establish Putin’s recently proposed cordon sanitaire and perhaps being operations against Kharkov (Kharkiv). But all this seems unlikely to me. There should be a better way to achieve these military goals without destabilizing the rear and risking delegitimization of the Russian system and its leader. Would the Kremlin stage the downing of its military’s helicopters and fighter jets for such an operation? Reportedly, 15 Russian servicemen, mostly in the air, were killed. One Il-18 aircraft was shot down, with at least eight on board (https://t.me/fighter_bomber/12903). A Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter was brought down, killing the entire crew of five (https://t.me/readovkanews/61465). How does the ubiquity of videos of inter-Russian conflict and the threat of civil war play with the public and rank-and-file soldiers at the front and in reserve? Does it strengthen or weaken confidence in Russia’s leadership? In other words, the costs of this kind of SO far outweigh any of the proposed benefits. Moreover, this ‘SO’ would be too large and was spread across too many localities from Moscow to Rostov to Wagner to Lukashenka to the Russian General Staff to be reliably implemented without leaks. No, the hypothesis of Prigozhin’s demarche as a clever Kremlin SO does not wash.
There is simply no evidence to support the Scott Ritter’s and some others’ assessment that Prigozhin is being run by CIA (www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE2IqsAO-2M&ab_channel=JudgeNapolitano-JudgingFreedom). But neither is the revolt a coup seeking leadership no less ‘regime change’. It seems that while for some the West and Ukraine can do no evil or suffer defeat or from weakness, for others it is the Russians who are whole and pristine. There is ambition, conflict, lying, perfidy, and betrayal everywhere. This should never be forgotten no matter how regrettable it surely is.
Let us review the events in order to try and understand what drove Prigozhin’s ‘excellent expedition’ and what were its goals.
In the late evening of June 23rd Prigozhin issued a video. Once again demanding the resignations of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valerii Gerasimov in what has been a long-running dispute with the Russian military’s high command, he questioned the Russian leadership’s stated reasons for starting the war, stating the reason was to place in power Putin’s friend, Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, to whose daughter Putin is godfather. This contradicted Prigozhin’s claims of full support for the SVO when it began in February 2022 (https://t.me/stranaua/111113 and https://t.me/stranaua/111116). It appears Prigozhin then posted a fake of an alleged Russian armed forces’ attack on Wagner forces by Russian forces—the second time in recent weeks Prigozhin has made such a charge. Then Telegram channels began seeing posts calling for Shoigu’s and Gerasimov’s resignations (www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGnyi__DNHg&t=1191s&ab_channel=MilitarySummary). Prigozhin’s Wagner forces in strength of about 20,000 then left Luhansk and entered the city of Rostov-na-Donu, surrounded Russia’s Southern Military District Headquarters, where earlier Defense Minister Shoigu and General Staff Chief Gerasimov had been located, and essentially captured the capital of Rostov-na-Donu oblast or province. Shoigu and Gerasimov had been alerted and had been evacuated north. Prigozhkin had been deprived of the opportunity to confront and essentially coerce a change of Russia’s top military leaders. Discovering this, a part of Prigozhin’s expedition then headed north on the M-4 highway towards Moscow on the 24th and reached Voronezh Oblast still hundreds of miles from Moscow. There the noted Russian Ka-52 helicopter was shot down in fighting by Wagner forces. Another grouping entered Luhansk and captured a unit of Russian soldiers. Wagner air defense forces managed to down two Russian helicopters and one Su-25 fighter jet (three pilots killed). All in all, the Russian army lost some seven aircraft in the conflict with Wagner on this day (https://t.me/UkraineHumanRightsAbuses/27761). Near Serpukhov and on a highway farther east, Russian forces set up blockades and defense points prepared to fight the north-moving convoy as rumors of civil war spread across Russia.
In response to Prigozhin’s advance, the ‘Sila Akhmada’ forces of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who came out in strong support for the Russian state against Prigozhin’s rebellion, which he characterized as “treason”, encircled much of Rostov-na-Donu in strength with at least 150-170 truckloads of fighters and ammunition to confront Prigozhin’s forces there. At 8pm local time on the 24th Wagner halted some 200 kilometers south of Moscow somewhere between Yelets to the south and Bogoroditsk to the north.
(www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0GAF3Vez-I&ab_channel=MilitarySummary). Throughout the day of June 24th many Russian military units in Ukraine issued videos and statements calling upon Prigozhin to cease his actions, but no statements from Shoigu and Gerasimov, only Putin spoke condemning Prigozhin’s action as “treason”. Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka had to negotiate an end to the conflict after a full day of talks by phone on the 24th. All of the above illustrates the seriousness of the Prigozhin affair. The agreement brokered by Lukashenka and agreed upon by Putin and Prigozhin stipulated that Wagner forces would return to its camp barracks, probably in Luhansk and perhaps Belgorod, those who participated in the revolt would be pardoned for their previous military service, those who did not take part could join new private military companies and other units under control of the Russian military, and Prigozhin will go to Belarus subjected to some sort of semi-exile there (www.youtube.com/watch?v=63kqE_6EUU0&ab_channel=MilitarySummary).
WHY IT HAPPENED
This was a one-man show carried out by an out-of-control narcissistic gangster-like personality, with political aspirations. There was no indication that Prigozhin planned a military coup or to raise a popular revolt until Putin condemned Prigozhin for his actions as a “traitor.” At which point he sent troops in Moscow’s direction. Although Prigozhin has extended his curse-ridden attacks against corruption, the elite, numerous governors, he has never criticized Putin or his ‘sistema’ as such. Despite the political ambitions such critiques reveal, Prigozhin was in no way hoping to seize power by way of this expeditionary march. He sought Shoigu and Gerasimov’s removal from office.
Prigozhin is an adventurer with delusions of grandeur; hence his creation of a private military company that has fought in Africa, Syria, and now Ukraine. Yevgenii Prigozhin holds no loyalty to anyone or anything but Yevgenii Prigozhin – a Russian Trump or Biden on steroids. Napoleon comes to mind. Prigozhin is combative and drawn to conflict. He called Russian dissident Aleksei Navalnyi to duel. He has been in constant conflict with Shoigu and Gerasimov for a year. Prigozhin also seems to be incessantly, shall we say, stretching the truth, hot-tempered, and not very well-balanced. For example, he posted a faked up video to serve as the pretext for this conflict and announced on the eve of the revolt that he had filed a suit aginst Shoigu and Gerasimov charging them with “genocide of the Russian people” for the excessive war deaths he claims have occurred (https://t.me/stranaua/111159).
That Prigozhin’s ‘excellent expedition’ was not a global coup plot organized in order to overthrow Putin is evidenced by the facts that he published no political plan or manifesto, had no political support, ideological plan or support, and no military support (outside his Wagner forces, which are formidable albeit but not comparable to those the Russian military, the Russian National Guard, and other pro-Russian units such as those of the Chechens). The lack of a political objective despite his political ambitions and some popularity among the Russian public demonstrates the apparent lack of any political motive beyond a change of Russia’s top military leadership. Prigozhin appears to have moved on Moscow because he did not find Shoigu or Gerasimov in Rostov-na-Donu, the command center of both Russia’s Southern Military District and its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Prigozhin envies Shoigu and Gerasimov as military officers and resents them because it is on them that he, the Suvorov of today, must depend in order to achieve the military victories he feels destined or at least driven to achieve. Instead of being able to advance rapidly, he is constrained by having to submit to their assignments and supply limitations. This explains his tirades over the recent months about insufficient supplies for his Wagner troops. His quest for glory and quick military victories to hang his hat on are frustrated by Russia’s methodical military strategy, which focuses on destroying military targets rather than making rapid ground advance at all costs, using Russia’s potentially overpowering firepower. Finally and most importantly, in May Wagner’s contract with the Russian Defense Ministry ended, with the latter essentially refusing to renew it under previous conditions and instead requiring all PMCs’ commanders and rank-and-file fighters to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. This was rejected by Prigozhin, as it would have meant the company’s full subordination to the state and in particular the Defense Ministry and Minister Shoigu, so hated by Prigozhin. Thus, Wagner was given funds for June salaries; after June 30th – one week before Prigozhin’s gambit – Wagner’s war in Ukraine would be over, and Wagner fighters would have been transferred to new private military companies under Shoigu’s control.
Prigozhin had been checked and so decided to throw the game board over in the hope of forcing his opponents to play a new game, with Wagner awarded a new contract and Shoigu and perhaps Gerasimov fired. There was no coup plot, there was a military oligarch named Prigozhin trying to save his business venture through coercion of his competitors, who simultaneously were his suppliers. His demarche failed, but it leaves serious wounds on the Russian body politic.
In fact, Prigozhin’s demarche deals a significant, though far from fatal blow to Putin’s authority. After all, it is Putin who facilitated his chef’s rise up the ranks of Russian politics. It is Putin who failed to convince Prigozhin to cease his public laundry washing when he first spoke out and who failed to crack down on him after he repeated his gross violations of war time discipline yet again, despite his crudely berating Defense Minister Shoigu, his son, and General Staff Chief Gerasimov for unproven corruption in supplying weapons to Wagner and the armed forces. Moreover, in his June 24th emergency speech Putin claimed the conspirators would face “inescapable punishment” but none came (www.ng.ru/politics/2023-06-24/100_putin24062023.html). The criminal case opened against a traitor has been unceremoniously closed and Putin has given guarantees to a traitor to leave the country (https://ria.ru/20230624/prigozhin-1880264555.html). One deputy chief of the General Staff, Col. Gen. Vladimir Alekseev reportedly joined Prigozhin’s revolt, yet there has been no action taken against him. This
In the eyes of Russian military, intelligence, and security officials Prigozhin’s excellent adventure exposed weakness in the Russian state and even in the Russian leader himself, who should have reacted more harshly against such a major breach of discipline, orderliness, and above all unity in a time of war. Viewed as treason, Prigozhin’s actions should be treated so, many such officials would charge and correctly so. It cannot be forgotten that in addition to Wagner’s fighting against Russian troops on Russian territory in war time. It should also not be forgotten that the Kremlin was forced to declare a counter-terrorist operation across Moscow, Moscow Oblast, Rostov-na-Donu, and a few other regions in Russia and that a general panic occurred across much of Russia and among its allies.
This brings up the issue of the rule of law. For decades Putin has claimed that he supports dictatorship of the law in a system that from as early as 2003 could be seen to be a stealth authoritarian one that become less subtle and stealthy over time (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/21/republication-stealth-authoritarianism-setting-the-stage-for-the-federal-election-cycle-in-st-petersburg/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2004/02/02/putins-soft-or-stealth-authoritarianism-2003the-results-of-the-2003-russian-state-duma-elections-in-st-petersburg/). He was careful early on to couch all his decisions and later even those few illegal or unconstitutional ones in a legal and constitutional veneer. As a result of the last week’s events that veneer is stripped away, and any Russian can see that Putin’s not so stealthy authoritarian order is built not so much on strict application of the law as on a series of informal power- and wealth-sharing agreements among leaders of various institutional, business, ethnic, and religious clans. Putin has pioneered a form of rule that has now spread to one extent or another across the globe from Moscow to Washington to Ukraine (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/01/06/working-paper-comparing-the-russian-and-american-revolutions-from-above-part-3-conclusion/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2021/12/03/is-zelenskiys-ukraine-on-the-path-of-putins-russia/).
The Russian elite rallied to Putin’s side, but the Russian president is weakened by the affair. Putin’s decision to allow Prigozhin to remain free and go to Belarus under the protection of the latter’s good friend was necessitated by Prigozhin’s popularity, especially on the right, but it leaves Putin looking weak to many. A blow has been leveled against Putin’s authority and the image of a more or less law-based state, and this can make further diminution of both more possible (https://vz.ru/society/2023/6/24/1218042.html). Portions of the elite, not just rank-and-file hardline ‘patriots’, must be must be outraged either at Putin’s failure to defend Shoigu and Gerasimov or at Prigozhin’s defeat, as he and his Wagner forces had become highly popular among them as a result of their successes in Bakhmut/Artyomevsk and elsewhere in Ukraine. Even Shoigu and Gerasimov may be questioning Putin’s judgement regarding the promotion of Prigozhin and his failure to adequately defend them from the renegade’s verbal assaults, which they must have brought up with the president at some point over the last few months.
Such consternation in military and patriotic ranks makes the possibility of a military coup that more robust. This will be especially true in the future should the war be seen to be going badly or other untoward events occur on the background of battlefield for which Putin is perceived to be primarily responsible. A situation not so dissimilar to the civil-military dynamic in Kiev has thus emerged in Russia, with military leaders questioning the political leadership’s acumen, and agitated ultranationalist forces as their allies in any coup venture. The Russian regime cracked a little on its right-side last week, but it remains stable for now. The extent of the crack is significant but not critical or representative of an as yet larger fissure. Last week’s events were largely the response of one irate rogue actor with a unique position in the Russian polity and not a reflection of a major split within the Russian state or in civil-military relations. But they may be a cause and harbinger of such a split, depending on how matters develop for Russia on the battlefield.
Regarding the larger picture, all this makes it less likely that NATO will give up on its mission to remove Putin from power and bring Ukraine into the US-led Western military alliance. This is precisely the kind of event that will encourage the July 10th NATO summit to increase military assistance to Kiev to the extent it is able or to compensate for its emptying stockpiles by other measures to intensify the pressure of the war on Moscow. The unfortunate timing of the revolt is even greater when one considers that the much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive backed by NATO was going poorly, with Kiev’s forces unable to reach even the first line of Russia’s defenses in the south and Russian forces making gains the east and north, most notably in the direction of Kupyansk. In sum, Prigozhin’s demarche tends to lengthen the war and make it slightly more difficult and dangerous for Moscow. Nevertheless, as before the key to regime stability in both Russia and Ukraine remains progress or any lack thereof on the battlefield.
EUROPE BOOKS, 2022
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018
About the Author –
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.