The uprising of the Wagner Group

Image: Telegram reproduction


Yevgeny Prigozhin was a card player with nothing in his hands who decided to bluff his way out of a corner – until his bluff was called

The events of this past weekend (June 23-25, 2023) were so surreal and ghostly that they are difficult to narrate and defy description. On Friday, the infamous Wagner Group launched what appeared to be a veritable armed insurrection against the Russian state. They occupied parts of Rostov – a city of over a million inhabitants, the regional capital and the seat of Russia's Southern Military District – before moving in an armed column towards Moscow.

This column – packed with heavy military equipment, including air defense systems – got within a few hundred kilometers of the capital – virtually unmolested by Russian State Forces – before coming to an abrupt halt, announcing that a deal had been negotiated with the help of the President Belarusian Aleksandr “Uncle Sasha” Lukashenko, turn around and go back to the bases of Wagner in the Ukrainian theater.

Needless to say, the spectacle of a Russian group of mercenaries making an armed march on Moscow, and with tanks and infantry from the Wagner cordoning off the Ministry of Defense buildings in Rostov, elicited widespread confidence among Western commentators that the Russian state was about to die. to be overthrown and that the Russian war effort in Ukraine would evaporate.

Within hours, confident and extravagant predictions were released, including claims that Russia's global presence would disintegrate as the Kremlin called in troops to defend Moscow and that Russia was close to entering a state of civil war. We also saw the Ukrainian propaganda machine quickly kick into gear, with characters like Anton Gerashchenko and Igor Sushko bombarding social media with false stories about the mutiny of Russian army units and the “desertion” of regional governors to Yevgeny Prigozhin.

There is something to be said here about the analytical model that prevails in our time – there is a machine that comes to life instantly, receiving rumors and partial information in an environment of extreme uncertainty and spitting out stereotyped results that correspond to ideological assumptions. Information is not evaluated neutrally, but forced to pass through a cognitive filter that assigns meaning to it in light of predetermined conclusions. Russia is “supposed” to collapse and undergo regime change (Fukuyama said so) – hence Yevgeny Prigozhin’s actions had to be framed in reference to this supposed endgame.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we see similar aggressive model-fitting measures by Russia's supporters with the "trust the plan", who were convinced that the Wagner Group uprising was just an act - an elaborate ruse, which was created jointly by Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin to deceive Russia's enemies and advance "the plan". The analytical error here is the same – information is analyzed only for the purpose of reinforcing and advancing a pre-completed end game; but it is Russian omnicompetence that is assumed rather than the collapse of the Russian state.

I took an intermediate position. I found the idea that Russia was facing civil war or state collapse extremely bizarre and completely unfounded, but I also didn't think (and I feel that events vindicated this view) that Prigozhin was acting in collaboration with the Russian state to create an enigma. . If, in fact, the Wagner Group uprising was a psyop (psychological operation) to deceive NATO, was an extremely elaborate and complex operation, which has yet to show any clear benefits (more on this later).

My general conviction is that Yevgeny Prigozhin acted of his own free will and in an extremely risky manner (he risked both his own life and a destabilizing effect on Russia). This placed the Russian State in front of a real crisis (though not serious enough to threaten the existence of the State) which, in my opinion, was managed very well on the whole. The Wagner Group uprising was clearly bad for Russia, but not existentially, and the state did a good job of containing and mitigating it.

Let's get down to business, starting with a brief analysis of the chronology of events.

Anatomy of a riot

The amount of disinformation (particularly propagated by Ukrainians and Russian liberals residing in the West) that circulated throughout the weekend was extreme, so it will be prudent to review the progression of events as they actually happened.

The first sign that something was wrong came with some explosive statements by the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on the 23rd (Friday). In rather long and erratic interview, shockingly claimed that Russia's pretext for war in Ukraine was an outright lie and that the war was rife with corruption and the murder of civilians. Things got even crazier when the Wagner Group claimed that the Russian army had hit their camp with a missile.

This was completely weird – the video that was released (which supposedly showed the results of this “missile strike”) did not show an impact crater, debris, or any injured or dead personnel on the Wagner. The “damage” caused by the missile consisted of two fires lit in a trench – apparently Russia has missiles that can start small, controlled fires without destroying surrounding vegetation?

The video obviously did not show the aftermath of a missile strike, but Yevgeny Prigozhin's rhetoric intensified after that, and he was quick to announce that the Wagner Group would initiate a "march for justice" to obtain redress for its various grievances. It was unclear exactly what he intended, but it appeared to center on personal grudges against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.

A short time later, some videos arrived from the Russian authorities (including one of General Surovikin), apparently imploring the Wagner Group to "stop the movement of their columns" and return to their posts, in order to avoid bloodshed and destabilization. This confirmed some of the rumors that Wagner was leaving the theater massively. News that the Russian National Guard had been activated in Moscow and elsewhere seemed to confirm fears that an armed confrontation in Russia was imminent.

At the end of Friday, armed convoys of the Wagner Group were in Rostov (with the red Z mark) and had taken control of several military installations in what constituted a bloodless coup in the city. The scenes were a little strange – tanks on city streets and security cordons around important facilities, but an apparent indifference on the part of the population. People mingled with Wagner's soldiers, the street sweepers did their job, Wagner members bought sandwiches and people took pictures with the tanks.

Late that afternoon, Yevgeny Prigozhin had a tense but civil meeting with two senior officials from the Ministry of Defense – Yanus Evkurov (Deputy Minister of Defense) and Vladimir Alekseev (Deputy Head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence Services).

Things really heated up the next day (Saturday the 24th) with the news that two important armed bodies were moving within Russia's pre-war borders. One was a column of personnel and weapons from the Wagner Group that left Rostov for Moscow, and the other was a Chechen force sent by the state to Rostov. With the news that Russian state forces were establishing roadblocks and defensive positions on the outskirts of Moscow, two separate battles – one by the Wagner column against state forces on the outskirts of Moscow and another fought between Chechens and the remnants of the Wagner Group by the control of Rostov – seemed imminent.

It was at this point that Ukrainian disinformation began to run rampant, with allegations that Russian military units and regional administrations were defecting to Yevgeny Prigozhin – in effect, postulating that this was not just a Wagner Group uprising against the state, but of a widespread revolt by the Russian establishment against the Putin government. In fact (and this is a key point I'll come back to later), there were no defections from any regular Russian military units or regional governments, and there was no civil unrest. The riot was limited to the Wagner Group, and even then, not everyone in the Group participated.

Be that as it may, in the early hours of Saturday night there were real reasons to fear that shooting would break out on the outskirts of Moscow or in Rostov. Vladimir Putin issued a statement denouncing the betrayal and promising a proper response. The Russian Ministry of Justice has opened criminal proceedings against Yevgeny Prigozhin for treason. Two Russian Ministry of Defense planes were shot down (a Mi-8 helicopter and an IL-22) by Wagner's column. The global atmosphere has become noticeably wetter due to the volume of saliva flowing from Washington.

Afterwards, Wagner's column stopped. The government of Belarus announced that an agreement had been negotiated with Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin. Lukahsenko's office said they had "agreed on the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloody massacre on the territory of Russia". The column turned off the road to Moscow and returned to the Wagner Group camps around Ukraine, and the Wagner forces left in Rostov packed up and left. Apart from the crews of the two downed planes, no one was killed.

Naturally, speculation immediately turned to the terms of the agreement between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the state. There were those who speculated that Vladimir Putin had agreed to remove Shoigu, Gerasimov, or both from their posts (perhaps that was the goal all along?). In fact, the terms were relatively loose and anticlimactic: (i) the treason case against Prigozhin was dropped and he was to be sent to Belarus; (ii) the Wagner soldiers who participated in the uprising would not be charged and would return to operations in Ukraine; (iii) Wagner soldiers who did not participate in the uprising would sign contracts with the Russian Armed Forces (essentially, they would leave Wagner and become regular contract troops); (iv) a vague reference to “security guarantees” for Wagner fighters.

So this is all very strange. A real armed insurrection, with tanks and heavy weapons (not a man in a buffalo horn hat), with the seizure of military installations, suddenly resolved by Lukashenko, and all Prigozhin seems to have gotten out of it was… free passage to Belarus? Strange indeed.

So let's try to interpret what happened here using an analytical framework that is not predeterministic – that is, let's assume that neither Russian omnicompetence nor Russian regime change and neoliberal complacency are guaranteed.

I would like to begin by addressing precisely these two ideologically predetermined theories. On the one hand, we have those who claim that Russia is on the verge of civil conflict and regime change, and on the other, those who think that this was all a psyop planned by the Russian government. The former have already been discredited by the fact that all their dramatic predictions collapsed within 24 hours – Yevgeny Prigozhin did not, in fact, lead a metastatic riot, overthrow Vladimir Putin and declare himself Tsar Eugene I. The other extreme theory – the psyop – remains viable, but I think it is extremely unlikely, for reasons that I will list below.

Psychological operations scenarios

It is relatively easy to simply say that “the riot was a psyop” without going into detail. AND trivially obvious that the Wagner Group uprising "misled" Western analysis - but that's not proof ipso facto that the uprising was staged with the aim of deceiving the West. We have to ask for something more specific – for what purpose could the uprising have been planned?

I have identified what I consider to be four discrete theories that are at least worth looking at – let's look at them and talk about why I think they all fail to explain the uprising in a satisfactory way.

Option 1: live bait

One possible explanation – one I've seen suggested quite often – is the idea that Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin staged the uprising with the intention of attracting conspiracy theorist networks, foreign agents and disloyal elements. I suppose the idea was that Yevgeny Prigozhin would create a sense of controlled but cosmetically realistic crisis for the Russian state, making Putin's government appear vulnerable and forcing treacherous and enemy parties across Russia to reveal themselves.

Conceptually, this is little more than the Putin government pretending to be a wounded animal with the intention of luring scavengers so they can be killed.

I think this theory is attractive to people because it portrays Vladimir Putin as an extremely cunning, Machiavellian and paranoid leader. That's also why I think she's wrong. Putin gained a great deal of legitimacy due to his ability to wage war without disturbing everyday life in Russia – no rationing, no conscription, no restrictions on movement, etc. Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms of Vladimir Putin comes from the war party, who claim that he is waging war too timidly out of fear and is too concerned with maintaining normalcy in Russia.

It therefore seems incongruous that a leader who has been careful to avoid putting Russian society on a war footing would do something as destabilizing as stage a fake uprising. Furthermore, if indeed the Wagner Group uprising was a staging to unmask other treacherous and terrorist elements, it failed miserably – there were no defections, no civil unrest, no denunciations of Vladimir Putin. So, for a variety of reasons, the live bait theory fails the nose test.

Option 2: mask mobilizations

A second theory is the idea that the Wagner Group uprising was essentially a giant smokescreen to enable the movement of military forces across Russia. I suppose the reasoning here is that if armed columns are apparently flying all over the place in a wild fashion, people might not notice if Russian forces get into position to, say, attack Sumy or Kharkov. This idea was cosmetically reinforced by the news that Yevgeny Prigozhin was going to Belarus. Was this all a ruse to mask Wagner's deployment to Western Ukraine?

The problem with this line of thinking is threefold. First, it does not understand the complexity of preparing a force for operations. It's not just about getting a line of trucks and tanks into position – there are huge logistical needs. Ammunition, fuel and rear infrastructure have to be prepared. This cannot be done in 24 hours under the temporary cover of a mock riot.

Second, the “distraction” effect is aimed primarily at the media and commentator world, not military intelligence services. In other words, the CNN and the New York Times were definitely focused on the Wagner Group uprising, but American satellites are still flying over the battlespace and Western ISRs are still functioning. Yevgeny Prigozhin's antics would not prevent them from watching the preparation to attack in a new front.

Third and finally, it doesn't look like much of Wagner will accompany Yevgeny Prigozhin to Belarus – his trip to the land of Lukashenko reads more like exile than a redeployment of the Wagner Group.

Option 3: Artificial radicalization

This is the usual “false flag” theory that goes around whenever something bad happens anywhere. became quite blasé and commonplace: “Putin staged the uprising in order to escalate the war, increase mobilization, etc”.

This doesn't make any sense and is very easy to dismiss. There have been actual Ukrainian attacks inside Russia (including a drone attack on the Kremlin and cross-border raids by Ukrainian forces). If Putin wanted to escalate the war, he could have taken any of these opportunities. The idea that he would choose to orchestrate an internal uprising – at the risk of widespread destabilization – rather than focusing on Ukraine is ludicrous.

Option 4: Consolidation of power

Of all the psy-op theories, this one probably has the most merit. There were two different varieties of theories, which we will deal with below.

At first, there were those who speculated that Putin was using Prigozhin to create a pretext to force out Shoigu and Gerasimov. I thought this was unlikely for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I don't believe these men can be said to deserve to be fired. At the beginning, Russia's war had conflicting elements, but there is a clear arc of improvement in the armaments industry, with key systems like the Lancet and Geran becoming available in ever-increasing quantities, and right now the Russian armed forces are covering the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Second, if Putin wanted to oust Shoigu or Gerasimov, doing so in response to a fake uprising would be the worst way, because that would give the impression that Putin was giving in to the demands of a terrorist. Let's not forget that Putin has not publicly criticized either Shoigu or Gerasimov for their handling of the war. Publicly, they seem to have his full support. Could the president really fire them in response to Yevgeny Prigozhin's demands without appearing incredibly weak? It would be much better if Putin simply dismissed them of his own free will – making himself, not Yevgeny Prigozhin, the regent.

Indeed, it does not appear, at this point, that Shoigu or Gerasimov will lose their positions. This fact led the theory of “consolidation of power” to pass to a second line of thought, according to which Vladimir Putin wanted to use Yevgeny Prigozhin to test the Russian political system, seeing how the regional administrations and army leadership would react.

This treats the uprising like a fire drill – raise the alarm, see how everyone reacts and make a note of who followed instructions. It is true that Russian political figures have come crawling out of the woodwork to assert their support for Putin and denounce Wagner – with characteristic Russian flair, as the governor of Tver calling for Prigozhin's suicide. This perhaps lends credence to the idea that Putin wanted to test his subordinates.

However, again, I think this theory fails on some fundamental points. First, Russia appeared to be very stable internally. Putin faced no opposition or resistance, no civil unrest, no mutiny in the army, no criticism from high-level political figures – it's not clear why he would feel the need to stir up the country just to test the loyalty of the political apparatus. Perhaps one thinks of him as the hyperparanoid Stalin figure who feels compelled to play mind games with the country, but this is not, in fact, his pattern of functioning.

Second, the trajectory of the war is overwhelmingly in Russia's favor at this point, with the Bakhmut victory fresh in the public's memory and Ukraine's counteroffensive looking increasingly like a world-historic military failure. It doesn't make much sense that, at this particular time, when things are going very well for Russia, Putin would want to throw a grenade just to test reaction times.

Ultimately, I think all these theories "psyop” are very weak when evaluated in good faith on their own terms. Their mistakes share a common thread. Things have been going very well for Russia, with the army performing excellently in the ongoing defeat of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, with no internal turmoil or unrest and a booming economy. the train of thought psyop assumes that, at a time when things are going well, Putin would be taking a huge risk by staging a fake mutiny for insignificant gains, risking not only civil unrest and bloodshed, but also Russia's image of stability and reliability in the world. outside.

The assumption is that Vladimir Putin's team is omnicompetent and capable of mounting a highly complex deception scheme. I do not believe that the Russian government is omnicompetent. I think they're just at a normal level of competence—too competent to do a high-risk, low-reward maneuver like this.

What does Prigozhin want

I sometimes like to think of Western “end of history” predeterminism (where all of history is an inexorable march towards global neoliberal performative democracy and where the final liberation and happiness of all mankind is heralded when the flag of victorious pride shimmers in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang) as being essentially a geopolitical corollary of the Jurassic Park – a poignant story of hubris and downfall (and one of my favorite movies).

The analytical model of the creators of the Jurassic Park he assumed that dinosaurs—creatures about which they knew virtually nothing—would, over time, submit to routine controls like zoo animals. Blinded by the illusion of control and the theoretical stability of its systems (which were assumed to be stable because they were designed to be stable), no attention was paid to the fact that Tyrannosaurus had intelligence and will of its own.

I think that Yevgeny Prigozhin is a bit like the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park . Both the Western neoliberal apparatus and the Russian sponsors of four-dimensional planning seem to think of Prigozhin as a cog that exists to perform the function of their world model. Whether this model is history's long march towards democracy and the last man, or whether it is Vladimir Putin's brilliant and nuanced master plan to destroy the unipolar Atlantic world matters little – both tend to negate Yevgeny Prigozhin's action. and turning you into a slave to the model. But perhaps he is a Tyrannosaurus, with intelligence and will that have an internally generated direction, indifferent to our models of the world. Maybe he took down the fence for reasons of his own.

We have to go back to who Yevgeny Prigozhin is, and what the Wagner Group is.

For Prigozhin, Wagner is, above all, a business that has earned him a lot of money, especially in Africa. The value of the Wagner (in the most fundamental sense) comes from its high degree of combat effectiveness and its status unique as an independent entity of the Russian armed forces. Any threat to these two factors represents a financial and status to Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Recently, developments in the war have highlighted an existential threat to the Wagner Group as a viable private military enterprise. They are, namely: (a) A concerted effort by the Russian government to force Wagner soldiers signing contracts with the Ministry of Defense. In effect, this measure threatens to liquidate Wagner as an independent organization and subordinate it entirely to the regular Russian army. (b) The Wagner Group is missing the peak of manpower resulting from last year's enlistments (including inmates). These recruits provided a huge pool of manpower that allowed Wagner to face the full-scale fighting in Bakhmut, but many of them have already finished their missions.

This means that Wagner faces potential destruction on two fronts. Institutionally, the Russian government essentially wants to neutralize Wagner's independence by integrating him into the Ministry of Defense. From Yevgeny Prigozhin's point of view, this essentially means the nationalization of his company.

Furthermore, a reduced Wagner Group (having disposed of most of the recruits that made it an Army Corps) is not something Yevgeny Prigozhin wants to send into Ukraine. Once Wagner is down to its core of operators experienced in the dirty work, casualties in Ukraine will begin to directly affect its viability.

In other words, Yevgeny Prigozhin and the authorities were at an impasse. What Prigozhin probably wanted most, to be honest, was to use the fame he gained in Bakhmut to take Wagner back to Africa and start making big money again. What he didn't want was for his private military company to be absorbed into the Russian military, or for his core of lethal professionals to be harmed in another big battle in Ukraine. The Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, is very keen to absorb Wagner's fighters into the regular army and use them to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield.

Therefore, we have a clear conflict of interest.

But what can Yevgeny Prigozhin do? It has no institutional power and Wagner is dependent on the Ministry of Defense for equipment, supplies, ISR and more. Furthermore, the personal wealth of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his family is under the jurisdiction of the Russian state. His power of influence is very limited. There are only a few things he can do. He can record videos to embarrass, harass and degrade the Ministry of Defense. Of course, it is probably not wise to directly attack Putin in these speeches, and it may not work well to insult ordinary Russian soldiers, so these attacks have to be directed precisely at the kind of senior bureaucratic officials that the Russian public is predisposed to avoid. like – men like Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Apart from these video tantrums, Yevgeny Prigozhin had only one other move to prevent Wagner's institutional absorption: organize an armed protest. Gather as many men as possible to join him, make a move and see if the State could be shaken enough to give him the deal he wanted.

It sounds strange, of course. You've heard of gunboat diplomacy – now we see tank-based contract negotiations. However, it is clear that the dispute over independence and status of Wagner in relation to Russian military institutions was at the heart of this process. Earlier this month, Yevgeny Prigozhin announced his intention to disobeying a presidential order that required its soldiers to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense by July 1.

A Prigozhin's statement on the morning of Monday, June 26th, was, however, extremely instructive. It focused almost exclusively on its chief complaint: the Wagner Group would be absorbed into the institutional military. He does not consider this in his conclusion and notes that it would nationalize his highly profitable business, but his comments leave no doubt as to his motivation. Here are some key points: (1) Wagner did not want to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense; (2) absorption by the Ministry of Defense would mean the end of Wagner: “This unit should end its existence on July 1st”; (3) "The aim of our campaign was to prevent the destruction of the Wagner Group".

But what did Yevgeny Prigozhin think would happen? What was his optimistic scenario? He probably hoped that general anti-bureaucratic and anti-corruption sentiments, combined with Wagner's popularity and fame, would lead to a wave of support for the group that would put the government in a position to accept Wagner's independence.

It was a bold decision. Facing institutional absorption, Yevgeny Prigozhin gambled on a measured destabilization campaign that would shake the country enough to scare Putin into a deal. Yevgeny Prigozhin may have convinced himself that this was a clever, decisive throw of the dice that could turn things in his favor. By no means do I think they were playing dice. They were playing cards, and Yevgeny Prigozhin had nothing in his hands.

Russia's crisis management

This is the part of the article that I suspect will cause annoyance and earn me accusations of “coping" - so be it. So let's get this straight: Russia handled the Wagner uprising extremely well and its management of the crisis points to a high degree of state stability.

Now, what I'm not saying is that the revolt was good for Russia. It was clearly negative in several respects. Russian planes were shot down by Wagner and Russian pilots were killed. Yevgeny Prigozhin was then allowed to walk free after causing these deaths – a stain on the government. There was widespread confusion, which is not good for morale, and operations in the Southern Military District were disrupted by Wagner's occupation of Rostov.

All in all, this has not been a good weekend for Russia. It was a crisis, but it was a crisis that the state managed very well and mitigated the downsides – maybe even made a glass or two of lemonade out of Yevgeny Prigozhin's lemons. It is perhaps a little fitting that Shoigu was Minister of Emergency Situations (essentially disaster relief). Catastrophes are never good, but it's always better to handle them well when they happen.

The state's response was actually quite simple: calling Yevgeny Prigozhin's bluff. Prigozhin headed for Moscow with his column – but what would he do if he got there? The Russian national guard was preparing to prevent them from entering the city. Would the Wagner group attack Moscow? Would you shoot the men of the national guard? Would you attack the Kremlin or bomb St. Basil's Cathedral? If they did, the death of all the men involved would be inevitable. The Wagner Group, without any kind of supply or provision of its own, cannot successfully fight the Russian Armed Forces and would probably not be supplied for more than a day or two.

The problem with Yevgeny Prigozhin's approach is that the pantomime of a coup d'état doesn't work if we're not willing to actually attempt a coup d'état – and a coup d'état only works if the institutional authorities are on your side. It's not as if Yevgeny Prigozhin could drive a tank to Lenin's mausoleum and start giving orders to federal ministries and the armed forces. Coups d'état require control of the institutional levers of power – regional governments, ministries and the officer corps of the Armed Forces.

Yevgeny Prigozhin not only did not have all this, but the entire apparatus of power denounced him, despised him and classified him as a traitor. Having mutinied to a dead end, his only options were to initiate a firefight on the outskirts of Moscow and ensure he died and be known to history as a terrorist traitor, or surrender. It is likely that the Wagner Group column that shot down the Russian planes (which Yevgeny Prigozhin later claimed was a “mistake”) scared him and confirmed that he was going too far and that he did not have a good way out. When your opponent calls you and you have nothing in your hands, there is nothing to do but give up.

So let's consider for a moment the current scene in Russia. A column of armored vehicles was heading towards the capital. What was the reaction of the Russian state and people? Authorities at all levels publicly denounced the uprising and declared their support for the president. No desertions were recorded, either in the military units or in the civil administration. There was no civil unrest, no looting, not even a loss of basic government control of the country. Compare the scenario in Russia during an armed rebellion with that of the United States in the summer of 2020. Which country is more stable?

In the end, the government managed to defuse a crisis situation, which could easily have escalated into substantial bloodshed, without any loss of life other than the crews of the two downed planes (deaths which we must not minimize and which must be remembered as victims of Yevgeny Prigozhin's ambition). Furthermore, the terms of the “agreement” are little more than a surrender by Yevgeny Prigozhin. He himself appears to be destined for a sort of semi-exile in Belarus (potentially awaiting the moment of Trotsky's ice pick) and it seems that the majority of Wagner will sign contracts and be absorbed into the Russian institutional army.

Based on the speech Putin gave on Monday, Wagner's soldiers have only three options: sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, disperse and return home, or join Yevgeny Prigozhin in Belarusian exile (presumably without your equipment). As far as the Wagner Group's institutional status is concerned, Yevgeny Prigozhin lost and the state won. Wagner as an independent fighting body is finished.

We have to be honest, of course, about the damage of revolt. Yevgeny Prigozhin killed Russian servicemen when his column shot down those planes and later had his treason charge dropped. We can say, of course, that the peaceful resolution of the conflict avoided further bloodshed, but that does not change the fact that Yevgeny Prigozhin killed Russian soldiers and walked free. It is a failure with a dimension of moral and institutional legitimacy.

Furthermore, this entire episode should serve as a poignant lesson in the inherent instability of relying on mercenary groups that operate outside formal military institutions. There are many such groups in Russia, not just Wagner, and it would be remiss if the government did not take decisive steps to liquidate their independence. Otherwise, they are simply waiting for something like this to happen again – potentially with a much more explosive outcome.

However, overall, it seems undeniable that the government handled an extreme crisis quite competently. Contrary to the new Western version that the Wagner Group uprising revealed the weakness of Putin's government, the unity of the state, the calm of the people and the cool-headed, de-escalated strategy suggest that the Russian state is stable.

Completion: 1917

One of mankind's most universal and beloved pastimes is making bad historical analogies, and that process was certainly in high gear this past weekend. The most popular, of course, was the comparison of Yevgeny Prigozhin's uprising with the fall of the Tsar in 1917.

The problem is that this analogy is a perfect inversion of the truth. The tsar fell in 1917 because he was in an army headquarters far from the capital. In his absence, a mutiny by the Petrograd (Petersburg) garrison led to a collapse of governmental authority, which was later retaken by a new cabinet formed by the Duma. Coups d'état are not carried out through senseless bloodshed. What matters most is the basic issue of bureaucratic authority, for that is what it means to govern. When you pick up a telephone and give an order to block a railway line; when a military unit is called to readiness; when issuing a purchase order for food, cartridges or medication – are these instructions respected?

It was trivially obvious that Yevgeny Prigozhin had neither the strength nor the institutional backing nor any real desire to usurp authority, and the idea that he was attempting a genuine coup d'état was preposterous. Let's imagine, for a moment, that Wagner managed to fight his way through the Russian National Guard to Moscow. Prigozhin breaks into the Ministry of Defense, arrests Shoigu and sits in his chair. Do we really believe that the army on the ground will suddenly follow his orders? This is not a magic chair. Power only becomes available in the event of a total state collapse, and what we saw in Russia was the opposite – we saw the state closing ranks.

So, in the end, both the neoliberal commentator and the sponsors of the Russian plan are left with an unsatisfactory view of events. Yevgeny Prigozhin is neither a harbinger of regime change nor a piece in Putin's four-dimensional chess game. He is simply an impulsive and extremely irresponsible man who realized that his private military company was going to be taken away from him and decided to go to extreme and criminal measures to prevent this. He was a card player with nothing in his hands who decided to bluff his way out of a corner – until his bluff was called.

*Big Serge is a journalist.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on Newsletter  by the author.

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