An enigma stuffed with a riddle wrapped mystery.
The mood among the staff at the Ambar restaurant in Washington DC was effervescent. It serves Balkan cuisine that is what the Spanish call Tapas, and the waitress kept bringing us small plates that hadn’t been picked up. Moscow doesn’t seem all that good at fighting wars without US support, but they are great at distracting the world by sowing chaos in places like the Balkans. This weekend, along a 1,000 km line from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow, those in the old Soviet Union heard a snap, and liked the sound of it. True, it may not have been fatal crack, but it was probably mortal.
Vladimir Putin’s Plan B for his war in Ukraine was to settled into a long, grinding conflict that would outlast the West’s remarkably short attention span. What it did not account for were the dark rumblings within the bowels of the Russian system. Putin has always had a “divide and rule” management style which is you are enough of a bastard, works well until it inevitably doesn’t. On Tuesday addressed the nation to assure the people that he was still firmly in charge. But no leader who has to explain that he is in charge ever really is. The chatter was escaping from Moscow was that the military elite was betting that the only way to come down from the Ukraine disaster would be political infighting and chaos that would topple Putin for them.
On June 23rd, that just may have been what happened when Yevgeny Prigozhen and his Wagner mercenary group mutinied and invaded the Motherland. Over the next 24 hours Wagner troops captured the city of Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters of the Southern Military command with almost no resistance from the army, and then started a 1,000 km lighting march on Moscow. The mutiny teetered on the edge of civil war when Moscow sent the air force to pick the invaders off while in transit. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a group of attack helicopters do not have a nearly complete advantage over trucks and tanks on the ground, but Wagner managed to shoot down up to six helicopters and an Airborne Command Post (a converted airliner) sent to stop them, killing somewhere between 20-30 men. It is even harder to imagine why an airliner was that close to a convoy armed with anti-aircraft ordinance – unless of course you hoped to use the Command Post’s communication links to live stream the destruction of the mutineers. Which is not at all what happened.
Like the Russian officers who packed their parade uniforms for an invasion, and state media that pre-recorded mission-accomplished announcements, Putin seems much better at organizing victory parades than actual victories.
As it was, the march kept moving towards Moscow largely unfazed. Then, as fast as the fracas started, some 200 km outside of Moscow, Prigozhan ordered Wagner column to stand down and promised to go back the way they came.
Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and he would know. Even in a modern world of instant communication, they are a tricky bunch. Still, we can speculate the what and the why that led to the first Tik Tok coup d’état, born out of the first Tik Tok war.
Vladimir Putin’s Plan B for his war in Ukraine was to settled into a long, grinding conflict that would outlast the West’s remarkably short attention span.
Until the spring of 2022, the man known as Putin’s Chef had remained a shadowy underworld figure. Understand that Yevgeny Prigozhen and Vladimir Putin go back a long way, emerging as they did out of that gangster gold rush that was St. Petersburg in the 1990’s. He started out as a violent criminal, and his stint in prison didn’t reform him much. After that he was a hot dog vendor, then restaurateur and ultimately mercenary warlord. When Moscow needed plausible deniability for some chaos it was sowing abroad, Wagner Group provided it. Conveniently, the group didn’t legally exist. Putin more or less made the Prigozhen and his fortune, yet his profile was so low that, according to one story, a junior Wagner executive didn’t recognize him and introduced himself. Prigozen took him outside the conference room and punched him in the face. The problem was that once the invasion became official in February of the 2022, Moscow didn’t really need Wagner anymore.
Prigozhen knew it. He attempted to make himself an ‘real’ general safely inside the system by replacing the minister of defense Sergei Shoigu. It didn’t work, and Shoigu resented the maneuver. So, when the magnitude of the miscalculation became clear, Prigozhen took to Telegram, a popular Russian social media platform, to hit that high note of 21stcentury being; the social media “influencer.”
The Wagner chief was never really railing against Putin so much as against the higher ups in Russia army, Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov. The criticism was more vexing because it was so obviously true; the army was probably lying the Putin about the war. Neither Shogiu nor Gerasimov wanted some freelancing yahoo whispering in the boss’s ear that they’d cocked his grand Imperial plan up: Certainly not one who’d been selling hot dogs when they were rising through the ranks. To cover their flank, the generals started pushing Putin to fold Wagner into the regular army to control the man and put a stop from his social media campaign to make fools of them.
It’s an underrated law of human nature that no one goes hawking a food cart to running a private army by being a fool. Prigozhen knew that forcing his irregulars to sign Ministry of Defense contracts had nothing to do with pensions as claimed; it was to take away his army. There was a perverse honesty to Prigozhen’s muntiny, if not in labeling it a “March for Justice” at least in he said that the campaign wasn’t an attempt at regime change but to save Wagner Group. Prigozhen pushed Putin and Putin stepped back. Then Prigozhen blinked.
Why he stopped his largely unopposed march on Moscow is another serving of Russ mystery-wrapped riddle. Prigozhen agreed to go into exile in Belarus, which would be more accurately described as house arrest (he arrived on Tuesday, but little else is known). Wagner’s irregulars now face a choice of being rolled into the army, going home (this seems very off-brand) or going into exile into Belarus with Prigozhen. Hardly a show of strength by Putin.
As of this writing, I happen to be researching a book about coup d’état, so perhaps that’s where my mind naturally goes. My theory is this: Prigozhen thought he had the support of some second-tier warlords in the Moscow elite, perhaps Ramzen Kadyrov, leader Chechen Republic whose militias fought alongside Russia’s army to equally mediocre results. Some 200km outside of Moscow, Prigozhen realized that Kadyrov was not switching sides, but preparing to defend Moscow from the approaching column. Which makes the whole ordeal sound like American reality television with the spectacularly casual sex swapped out with spectacularly casual violence.
The danger for Putin is that his rule was always based on a certain grand delusional bubble, the walls of which were stretching thinner and thinner as it grew larger. After 23 years in power he’d managed to strangle most of the institutions of state, bending them to his own personal brand. By June 24th the delusion had stretched so thin as to become transparent.
Soldiers, even poorly trained ones, are not passive by nature, conflict zones will do that to you.
The effect on the Russian war effort is something else. The Russian military has always been very good at retreating – a quick backward march through history reveals a very distinct pattern: in 1989 the Russians came back from Afghanistan in such a mood that the Kremlin just sort of threw in the towel. A more strategic retreat was the Soviets preferred weapon of mass destruction against the Nazi invasions, and when they finally stopped retreating, it really was something. After World War I, the Imperial Russian army retreated with such gusto that it managed to overthrow the Czar in the bargain. That’s just 20th Century. In 1812, an epic Russian retreat spelled the end of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. I’m not even entirely sure I mean to be insulting: If Russia didn’t exactly “win” three of those match-ups, they did manage to be on the winning side, and that counts for something.
Meanwhile back in Ukraine, the Russian offensive seems to show that the army has shot its wad. The Ukrainian counter-offensive has been slower that hoped – but the Ukrainians are still probing for weakness in defensive Russian lines, “reconnaissance by fire.” Rolling previously mutinied Wagner soldiers into the forces is only going to sow chaos in the Russian lines. If Kyiv is able to take advantage of the chaos and punch a hole through the positions it well may trigger a flood of well-armed and aggrieved soldiers back to the Motherland. Soldiers, even poorly trained ones, are not passive by nature, conflict zones will do that to you.
As for the Russians still on the home front, whether or not Putin actually fled Moscow for St. Petersburg over the weekend (and it looks like he did), no longer matters – the population thinks it happened. That’s why he came out in the day Prigozhen arrived in Belarus to announce that he was in charge and the thank the army for saving the people from a civil war. He failed to mention that they did this by offering no resistance to the invasion.
Putin’s days are probably numbered even if we don’t know how many, but don’t go cheering for a power-vacuum just yet. Someone needs to sit on all those nukes. Ramzen Kadyrov’s Chechen militia is still prowling around Moscow and we can assume that the exiled “chef” Prigozhen isn’t going to content himself selling Lucky Dogs in Minsk.