Russia: 'Let's see who's alive in the morning'
The insurrection of the Wagner PMC Russian mercenaries threatening to take Moscow ended with a fizzle.
After taking over at least military facilities of Rostov and Voronezh, and marching to within 124 miles of Moscow, their piratical leader, Yevgeny Prigoshin, suddenly announced they'd all turn back, being concerned with bloodshed and all, which nobody believes.
According to Reuters:
Prior to that, he expressed defiance in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the nation, which called the mutiny "a stab in the back" and compared it to the disastrous revolution of 1917.
After Putin’s speech, Prigozhin said on Telegram that the president was “deeply mistaken.”
“We are patriots of our Motherland, we fought and are fighting,” he said in audio messages. “And no one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB or anyone else.”
According to Peter Baker at the New York Times, he had other nasty things to say about Putin, too:
Once a key lieutenant of the Russian president who orchestrated the interference into the United States election in 2016, Mr. Prigozhin publicly debunked Mr. Putin’s entire rationale for the war, refuting the notion that the invasion was a justified reaction to supposed threats to Russia by Ukraine and NATO.
So that was quite an about face. After calling his march a march for justice and making many nationalist noises, appealing to the little guy, he just stopped, and the entire march vanished, just like that.
The deal itself, supposedly brokered by Belarus's dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally and frequent puppet, is that Prigozhin would now live in Belarus. Wagner mercenaries and Russian troops who joined him would be granted amnesty from prosecution and offered safe passage to Belarus. Mercenaries who didn't join him would be offered contracts with the Russian army.
Prigozhin's main demand, that Russia's military leaders be removed from power, was not addressed.
It was strange stuff, because Prigozhin almost had control of Russia. His troops were within 124 miles of Moscow. Moscow had set up embattlements and roadblocks, and mined its bridges. Air support was revved up and jets streaked the skies. Prigozhin had already shot down three Russian army helicopters, and taken over two cities, where locals greeted his troops with food and flowers. Air traffic tracking showed that much of Moscow's elites, including at least the jet of Putin, had fled the capital.
If Prigozhin had the power, why did he just drop it, without any firings of generals announced?
The only explanation seems to be that perhaps he didn't have the power. His reportedly 25,000 mercenary force apparently only had 1,000 or 2,000 people. It lacked significant artillery. While Russian troops were peeling off to join Wagner, apparently it wasn't enough of them. Putin seems to have been on alert that something would happen and swept out and made arrests of Prigozhin's allies around the country a few days earlier. Meanwhile, other paramilitary irregular outfits, such of that of Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechens, had announced their fealty to Putin. And the road to Moscow is pretty open and bombable, meaning, the Wagner army may not have had a great chance of making it into the capital.
Insurrection is pretty hard.
But Prigozhin still seems to have had power within his grasp. Putin's response, citing all the deepest fears of Russian history and comparing his activity to the nightmare of Lenin, signaled that the Russians did seem to be alarmed.
But then came the deal, brokered by Putin's puppet in Minsk.
Prigozhin did a lot of damage -- not just the helicopters, but a mistaken Russian firepower assault on a car that was believed to hold Prigozhin -- which incinerated a Russian family. He took over the Rostov military headquarters which was a humiliation for Putin.
That he got off so easily -- into Belarus, is believed to be a sign of Putin's weakness, and perhaps his need for Wagner's competent troops on the Ukraine front still.
Still, Putin seems to be the winner here, the stronger one really, given that Prigozhin seems to have gotten nothing.
Why did he take nothing? Was he losing?
Bill Browder, a former financial services professional who writes riveting good books on Russia, summed it up well with bond traderly logic:
Whenever something doesn’t make sense on the surface, it means we just don’t have all the information https://t.co/rTCrgru6VW— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) June 24, 2023
If Prigozhin wasn't losing earlier, he sure seems to be losing now. His Wagner business is unlikely to gain new clients in places like Africa, given that busy despots there buy his services on the implicit suggestion that they have the backing of the Russian state. That won't be operational at this point. He's now going to Belarus? That's not exactly a Black Sea resort town. How safe is he going to be in Belarus, given that the regime there is, if anything, even more tyrannical and murder-inclined than Putin's Russia? Why did he take the deal -- and what did he get for it?
That's the big question, given that he had some power to rattle Moscow around with.
While Putin may seem to be weakened by this, and in some ways is, given that stable states don't deal with these kinds of mercenary problems, it's pretty obvious he's strengthened against potential revolt-minded gangs and mercenary groups that threaten his regime. The regime is still pulling together behind Putin, if for nothing else, their own self-interest. There may or may not be a military shakeup, as Prigozhin demanded earlier. Perhaps a general or two will fall out a window. On the other hand, perhaps Prigozhin will turn up with a bad case of radiation poisoning.
Mark Wauck had some pertinent observations:
So, all rather weird. However, two points that may be very important:
Putin did not speak directly with Prigozhin, if we accept the Belarus account. That comports with Putin’s speech, in which he never once mentioned Prigozhin by name. Prigozhin may officially now, in Russia, be a non-person—with an arrest warrant out for him, accused for the moment of fomenting armed rebellion but perhaps later of treason? If I were advising Putin I would certainly tell him not to back down in any way.
The Belarus accounts speaks of “security guarantees for Wagner PMC fighters.” It says nothing about security guarantees for Prigozhin. Strictly speculation: Is it possible that the Wagner rank and file dupes in these smallish “columns” took some attacks from Russian aviation and realized that they were being used by Prigozhin? Prigozhin then realized on his part that the jig was up and headed for the only exit that seemed available at the moment? I don’t know, but we should find out fairly soon.
This probably isn’t over—IMO the FSB will certainly be commissioned to root out any Prigozhin supporters.
One analyst on Twitter Spaces, named Jessica Berlin, summed it up pretty well: "Let's see who's alive in the morning."
Image: Twitter screen shot