That Was the Coup That Was

The prospective battle on the outskirts of Moscow did not promise to be massive. Far from involving the mass armies or huge crowds usually to the fore at such potentially transformational moments in Russian history, this was small beer. Wagner had taken over Rostov-on-Don, the main command and logistical base for operations in Ukraine, with a couple of thousand men. Other smaller groups were elsewhere. A few thousand, in an all-arms battle group, went off to face Putin’s own Praetorian Guard, the Rosgvardia. Their numbers were potentially over 10,000 but not necessarily with the capabilities or motivation to resist for long. More troops might have been drawn in – there were reports of some airborne troops being withdrawn from Ukraine while Ramzan Kadyrov promised to send his Chechen units against Wagner, although these troops approach to fighting can often be largely performative. As the drive to Moscow was unexpectedly quick reinforcements might have arrived too late if fighting had begun on Saturday evening. This might have ended up as a bloody encounter but that was not certain.

I suspect a bigger issue than the prospect of a fight for the city was that Prigozhin was unsure of where this adventure was taking him.  His plan, which had apparently been under development since the early spring, had gone further than he had expected. Perhaps it really was about getting rid of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, or ensuring the status, role, and funding of his Wagner group post-Bakhmut, with no intent to take out Putin. Putin, however, unsurprisingly took his withering criticisms of his military leadership (‘scumbags’, ‘should be shot’) and in particular his debunking of the rationale for the war, personally. Once denounced and threatened by the President Prigozhin had little choice but to use his military strength to protect himself and force some sort of deal with the Kremlin.

Superficially, at least, he was in a strong position, with the Southern Military Command HQ in Rostov surrounded and a real chance of pushing aside the defending forces aside to get to Moscow. The difficult question was what to do once he entered the capital. Storm the Kremlin only to find that Putin had hopped it to St Petersburg?  Declare himself President, but with what constitutional basis?

This is where I suspect the absence of the masses became relevant. Think of Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in October 1922 to which Prigozhin’s march on Moscow was naturally compared. The Italian Fascists were a large and established party with strong support. The march itself involved 30,000 men. When they reached Rome from Naples fascist paramilitaries were soon parading the capital’s streets. The Prime Minister Luigi Facta wanted to resist, but the King, fearing bloodshed, would not agree and threatened to abdicate unless Facta resigned. Mussolini did not need to seize power by force; he achieved it by constitutional means, though because of the threat of force.

Prigozhin’s basic problem was that he appeared to be demanding his King’s abdication but without mass support. In Rostov and elsewhere he could claim a degree of popular sympathy or at least acquiescence, but in terms of getting the levels of military backing that might have given him legitimacy and an aura of strength in an odd way he faced the same problem as Putin. The Russian was army was far away at the front-line coping with the Ukrainians and so unable to participate in a political struggle back home. Even if individual commanders and soldiers agreed with Prigozhin’s complaints about the incompetent and wasteful conduct of the war, and presumably many did, they were in no position to do much to help even if they were prepared to follow him into mutiny. This confirms the fundamental rule of strategy that there is no point in making an audacious move to catch your opponents by surprise if you have no idea what to do next.

One credible account has been provided by the well-informed Meduza, although there is as yet no settled story on Saturday’s events. This suggests that negotiations had begun with Putin’s aides in the Kremlin almost as soon as Prigozhin announced his march, but they found his demands, that Shoigu should go and his independent role be backed with more funding, unrealistic. They became even more unacceptable once he was conspicuously leading an armed rebellion. This failure to get an early agreement led to Putin’s formal denunciation of the treachery. It was now the Kremlin that refused to consider a deal. But as Prigozhin both made unexpected progress while realizing that he might be in over his head, the Kremlin worried that it might be hard to stop him by military means. Negotiations resumed. According to Meduza, the Kremlin’s team ‘ included the Kremlin’s chief of staff Anton Vaino, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, and the Russian ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov.’

Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko was given a lead role at Prigozhin’s  insistence because he wanted someone with political standing involved who he trusted and could help him save face. This could not be Putin. Lukashenko, who knows a thing or two about dealing with rebellions, was happy for the publicity. He could appear as the one ‘saving Russia from bloodshed, or worse — a potential civil war.’

Putin’s Weakness
The encounter may have left Prigozhin alive, at least for now, but no longer a political figure of consequence. There are still big questions about the future of his Wagner group, including its international branches.

The impact on Putin’s position is of more immediate relevance. He now looks weak. He has been fixated on an unwinnable war and squandered valuable resources in the process. He let the Shoigu-Prigozhin argument fester without dealing with it decisively, reflecting his preference for ‘divide and rule’ tactics to keeping his subordinates in check, and his management style of procrastination when faced with difficult decisions.

As the confrontation reached a critical stage, the masses were not running out onto the streets to support him. When Boris Yeltsin dealt with coups – first the one attempted against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 and second the challenge to his authority from rebellious parliamentarians, put down with military help, he made sure that civil society was fully engaged.

This time civil society was largely indoors. Those urging Prigozhin to back off did so in regretful tones, speaking of the need for unity at a such a testing time, without going out of their way to praise Putin as a glorious and irreplaceable war leader, whose judgement bordered on the infallible and whose bravery moved all those who witnessed it. Putin will be aware that at this vital moment when his position was under the greatest threat, many were watching to see what happened next.

Here is a man who demands that Russian grandmothers and children who speak for peace are reprimanded and has those who challenge his war charged and imprisoned. He insists on complete loyalty and a craven media. Yet when one of his own creatures turns against him, he talks of treachery and stabs in the back, but so lacks confidence in his ability to crush the mutiny that he tolerates others negotiating a deal on his behalf.

However relieved he might be about his survival his paranoia will now be working overtime. Must Prigozhin really be allowed his exile? What sort of decent interval can pass before he can be dealt with properly? Who amongst his own entourage was in cahoots with Prigozhin, and why were so many mute at his moment of peril? Then there are the intelligence agencies. The FSB have been hopeless when it comes to assessing the strength of his enemies and the threats to his regime and were bereft of ideas when it came to dealing with Wagner’s march on Moscow. The GRU have been Prigozhin’s allies and supporters. Surely they knew something, and if so why didn’t they speak up? As he has already surrounded himself with loyalists, who tell him what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to know, how can he have a decent purge?

And what should he do about the military? He could not allow Prigozhin to dictate his choice of Defense Minister and Commander in Chief. But Shoigu and Gerasimov have promised much and delivered little. The war is going even more badly than before with no end in sight, at least not on Putin’s terms. The response of other units to Prigozhin’s mutiny were at best passive but there are lists circulating of some that did endorse his complaints. After the July 1944 plot to kill him Hitler ordered purges, despite the allies having landed in France. With the war in such a delicate position can he afford to cull critical officers? If his lame response to Prigozhin’s march is followed by little action against other military dissenters then this image of weakness will be confirmed.

What Does this Mean for the War?
In the way these things work, the directness of Prigozhin’s challenge means that for now the position of Shoigu and Gerasimov may have been strengthened rather than weakened, despite their lackluster performance. Ukraine’s commanders will not mind if they stay in charge.

Prigozhin told his men to go back to their bases. Shoigu will want to enforce his past demand that all private military companies, and there are many in addition to Wagner, come under his command by 1 July. Those not directly involved in the mutiny are to be offered contracts with the Ministry of Defense but what take up there will be is hard to know. It is even harder to know what happens to the pardoned mutineers. Are they going to follow Prigozhin to Belarus? How dismayed were they by Prigozhin’s climb down. If they stick together, and hold on to their weapons, they could still cause trouble and who is going to volunteer to disarm them?

There are three further consequences for Putin.

First, what has been said cannot be unsaid. Prigozhin’s allegations are true: the case for war was fabricated and the strategies followed have been calamitous, with many dead as a result. Some of this will have been heard by ordinary Russians as they watched these events unfold.

Second, Putin must be wondering whether it is a good idea to have so much of his army committed to the fight in Ukraine. There has already been the embarrassment of Belgorod where far-right anti-Putin Russians entered the territory from Ukraine and caused mayhem with little resistance. Moscow has now suddenly appeared vulnerable to a well-armed but far-from-numerous gang. Back to Putin’s paranoia, and a world-view in which his enemies are in collusion, might he not want reinforcements closer to hand should there be more hostile acts on Russian territory?

Lastly, when his options looked bad, he chose negotiation, showing little interest in martyrdom and leaving flight as his last resort. He agreed a deal that made a nonsense of his promises to punish the mutineers.  If he was irresolute in this case then might he be so in another? If the fighting takes another turn for the worse can he really afford to reject negotiations when there is no serious hope of incorporating the claimed chunk of Ukraine into the Russian Federation? A lot of recent thinking about the likely course of the war assumed Putin’s intransigence and his ability to cope with regular setbacks so long as Russia could stay in the war. That assumption will be easier to challenge.

Putin cares about his survival, whether from Covid or coups. The unintended consequences of this war are now threatening his regime. Any suggestion that he wants to get out of the war will aggravate the image of weakness; sticking with the war regardless of losses will aggravate his actual weaknesses.  

Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. The article originally appeared on Lawrence Freedman’s Substack “Comment is Freed.”