There are two possible scenarios for what just happened in the Wagner/Prigozhin events: it was a piece of theater, one that involved collusion from the top, and possibly went wrong, or it was a genuine rebellion, an eruption of chaos that dissolved away mysteriously. Let’s look at both options, and at the possible aftermath in the coming days and weeks.
It’s almost impossible to determine the authenticity of any political incident in Russia these days – the effect of Putin’s disinformation wars over decades. To adapt Pomeranzev’s famous book title, in Russia everything is possible and nothing is real. It seems, at first glance, to be highly improbable that what we witnessed, the breakout of Wagner and their unimpeded march on Moscow, ending with Prigozhin’s deal to retire in Belarus – it seems unlikely that any such chaotic sequence of events was choreographed. What could possibly be the point? What was achieved? We’ll get to that but let’s keep in mind that, if it was a kind of kabuki, this sort of mind-bend is nothing new in Russian history going back to Czarist times. Take a look at Lermontov’s classic 19th century novel about the Caucasus, A Hero Of Our Time – all about the deliberate befogging of reality by authorities to the point of inducing widespread paranoia as an instrument of rule.
Then, also, Stalin allowed mini-rebellions to occur so as to determine who posed a threat to his power. He would disappear from office without explanation for a few weeks and whatever began to emerge from the undergrowth to take over would be ruthlessly culled. The Putin approach is slightly different. He has always encouraged internal enmity and jockeying among the Siloviki, the Boyars of our day, with him acting as referee. He uses one side to keep the others in check. If you don’t know that, Prigozhin’s case might seem mystifying because Prigo has publicly blurted searing truths to power for weeks and months without being muted or punished. Putin clearly found that tolerable, even useful, otherwise Wagner assets and information channels would have suffered before now.
US intelligence analysts, according to the Washington Post, knew of Prigozhin’s plans to rebel since mid-June. If they knew, you can be sure Moscow did. But the Kremlin did nothing to stop him early. Prigozhin claimed that the Russian army had attacked his forces. The photographs of the attack’s location, recently analyzed, showed no such depredation. Prigozhin also railed against the Generals for incompetence, bad planning, undersupply of troops and much else. Wagner duly busted out, some 25,000 mercenaries with heavy equipment, tanks, missiles, and very dramatically drove deep into Russian territory almost reaching Moscow. Oddly enough, we’ve seen no evidence of mass casualties. A couple of combat helicopters and a spy-plane on the Russian side. Apparently the Wagnerites were bombed once they took over the strategic Southern Military District HQ in Rostov. But no visual evidence was provided by either side. And as Wagner progressed northward, one would have expected resistance, saturation bombing of the highway packed with their vehicles or some such. But no. Putin made a speech denouncing the mutiny. Belarus strongman Lukashenko, who according to earlier reports had fled to Turkey, apparently called Prigozhin and persuaded him to step down. And go to live in Belarus unmolested. Having abandoned his thousands of Wagner fighters in mid-mutiny.
Altogether very unsatisfactory. If it’s all choreographed theater, what was intended? Let us first acknowledge that such things do happen. Two examples: Venezuela in 2002 and Turkey in 2016. Both looked like fake half-cocked coups and had the effect of strengthening the incumbent President’s hold on power. In this case, what would be the point? To re-empower Putin? If so, against who? Perhaps he wanted to see who would hesitate to support him in extremis and cull them a la Stalin. Or perhaps the idea was to humiliate the military leadership in the public’s eyes, so that he can purge them and blame them for the disasters in Ukraine. Presumably, the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu and his generals are now even more weakened after this public farce, they having already performed so badly in Ukraine. But again, if Putin wanted to ditch Shoigu, he surely didn’t need Prigozhin to spur it.
Yet it’s mysterious because somebody surely restrained the regular military from rocketing or aerial bombing Wagnerites on the road to Moscow or it would be dense with charred Wagner bodies and trucks. Perhaps the coup de theater‘s last public act was always meant to peter out there without bloodshed. But we are still missing the moral of the story. What was it all for? Possibly, Putin wanted the Wagnerites to be extracted, then to go legit and be absorbed into the regular army. That way he delays the need for another nationwide civilian conscription. Plus, he has often reshuffled various ministries with almost private armies so as to shake up their allegiance to the boss of their ministry. But then, latest news was that the Wagnerites were not being forced to enlist in the regular army.
And what if it was all an authentic act of mutiny? To what end? If Prigo planned this for two months, he surely didn’t intend all along to end up alone in Belarus. Did Prigo merely want to extract his fighters and transfer them to some country in Africa where he could live like Joseph Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, all powerful and tyrannical? If so, why ultimately abandon them wholesale? And he surely doesn’t believe he will be allowed to live out his days peacefully in Belarus. If the FSB doesn’t defenestrate him there one day, a Ukrainian hit squad certainly will. Will he keep his mouth shut in exile – is that part of the deal? Because if he doesn’t he won’t last long. There’s no chance that Lukashenko will protect a publicly ranting Prigo who constantly offends the Kremlin. On the other hand, the example of Igor Strelkov might provide a clue. Strelkov played a leading role in the annexation of the Crimea and Donbas, then had a hissy fit akin to Prigo, went underground and now snipes at Putin on Telegram channels.
If Prigo’s mutiny was just that, a mutiny with short term planning but no long term vision, it’s possible that he got genuinely tired and sickened by the incompetence and horror around him, and just wanted out. It blew up into something much bigger than he intended. Perhaps he’s happy to fade away and drink himself to death in Belarus before the assassins get him.