Attempted Russian Coup Shakes Moscow Politics, Ukraine War
A crack unit of Russian mercenaries marched on Moscow Friday, the boldest challenge yet to the leadership of Vladimir Putin, which has already been tarnished by the nation’s failure to conquer Ukraine. The armed column turned around only hours from Moscow, after Belorussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko negotiated an agreement between Putin and the mutineers’ leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. While the immediate crisis has passed, the aftershocks will likely continue.
Prigozhin leads a private military outfit called the Wagner Group, which National Review’s Noah Rothman described as “something like Blackwater private contractors, but far more cultish and ideologically nationalist.” The 25,000-strong organization controls its own tanks and other heavy weaponry and has seen heavy fighting on the frontlines in Ukraine. “They are very well trained for the atmosphere that they are in,” said Lt. General (Ret.) Jerry Boykin on Monday’s “Washington Watch.” “Putin’s regime has relied heavily on this group of mercenaries as a key allied fighting force in their unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine,” agreed Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
For years, Russia has employed the Wagner Group to do dirty work it wanted to keep at arm’s length. They have deployed to Syria and Libya, among other places, and Prigozhin also oversaw troll farms that sought to intervene in the U.S. election in 2016. The Wagner Group, which recruits hardened criminals out of prison, is also known for glorifying cruelty and brutality, such as performing executions by sledgehammer. “They are the most brutal. They are the ones that have killed more people, have slaughtered innocent people. They are not good guys,” said Boykin. “And that’s what we need to remember: there are no good guys here.”
In recent months, the Wagner Group has grown increasingly frustrated with the Russian military’s conduct in the war. Prigozhin “decided that his troops were not being taken care of. He decided that he was not getting the ammo, the material, the food, or any kind of priority,” Boykin explained. He also suspected that Military Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were setting Wagner Group up to take the blame for the invasion’s failure. Apparently, the final straw came when Russian bombs hit Wagner Group’s positions — a move they saw as deliberate.
In response, Prigozhin declared a “March of Justice” Friday evening and urged his soldiers to travel directly to Moscow. He demanded the ouster of Gerasimov and Shoigu. “If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything,” the mercenary chief declared. From there the details get murky, with Western onlookers peeping at the internal Russian struggle through a veil of censorship and state-controlled media, or grainy, unconfirmed videos posted to sites like Telegram.
From what we have ascertained, it seems that, within hours, the Wagner Group had marched without resistance into Rostov-on-Don, a city of over one million inhabitants to the southeast of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and which has served as a key logistics hub for Russia’s war effort. The insurgent column then turned north for Moscow, travelling nearly 500 miles overnight and circumventing most of the Russian army which remains tied down in Ukraine. They encountered light air resistance — Putin said Monday the Wagner Group had killed Russian pilots — but no other opposition on their march.
But then, only 125 miles from Moscow, the column of troops turned around. In a video message release Monday, Prigozhin denied attempting a coup, saying instead, “We didn’t march to overthrow Russia’s leadership and turned around to avoid spilling the blood of Russian soldiers. … Our march aimed to prevent the destruction of Wagner.” Boykin remarked, “I don’t think that it was a serious effort to bring down Putin. I think it was a serious effort to bring down those two people,” referring to Gerasimov and Shoigu.
Yet before the march was called off, Putin’s plane left the capital as the Moscow mayor declared Monday a “non-working day” and the city deployed troops and strengthened checkpoints.
Apparently, Putin and Prigozhin came to an understanding with Lukashenko acting as a middleman in the negotiations. Progozhin agreed to call off the armed march on Moscow, while Putin promised no prosecutions for the mutineers. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the infamous KGB, declared the criminal investigations closed on Tuesday. Prigozhin departed for Russian-allied Belarus, while the rank and file of the Wagner Group was given a choice between joining the regular Russian army, laying down their arms, or joining their chief in Belarus.
While individual members could choose different options, Boykin said he couldn’t see why any members of the Wagner Group would join the regular Russian army. “They don’t fight for a cause. They fight for money,” he explained. “I don’t see why any of them would do that, because they’re not going to get paid what they’re getting paid now. They’re going to be at the bottom of the totem pole. Everybody is really angry with them.” As to laying down their arms, these veteran soldiers for hire could face retribution for their war crimes from international tribunals, Boykin pointed out, and that might be made easier if they laid down their arms. However, the group was preparing to hand over their heavy weaponry, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday. On Monday, independent Russian media reported that Belarus was constructing camps for members of the Wagner Group.
That doesn’t mean the issue is settled, however. Such an anti-climactic settlement between such ruthless and ambitious figures only indicates mutual weakness. Until Putin can reassert his strength, he only makes himself a target for other unscrupulous and ambitious subordinates. Boykin said the weekend’s events would “really rock Putin. They’re going to rock him back on his heels.” He cannot afford to let “the biggest challenge to his power in decades,” as Perkins put it, go unpunished.
But Prigozhin may not accept an uneasy exile, still within Putin’s reach. “He may not even know what he’s going to do, but I don’t think he’s going to stay in Belarus,” said Boykin. “He’d better wind up buying the very best taster that he can find.”
Count on Putin to at least try to manage a quiet assassination for Prigozhin if he remains in Belarus. And if he doesn’t succeed, count on Putin to face more insurgency among his high-ranking officials.
“Most assuredly, this shows the factions” within the Kremlin, said Boykin. “This shows a couple of them. There are others too.” He suggested other mercenary outfits may step into the void left by Wagner because of the money to be made.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken suggested that Moscow’s disarray could give Ukrainians an advantage in their efforts to push Russian invaders out of their territory. “To the extent that Russia is now distracted — that Putin has to worry about what’s going on inside of Russia as much as he has to worry about what he has to do not successfully inside Ukraine, I think that creates an additional advantage for the Ukrainians,” Blinken said Sunday. Ukraine’s counteroffensive is attempting to take advantage of the confusion.
However, Russia’s internal turmoil is unlikely to entice Moscow to end the war, either under Putin’s hand or under any government that might replace him. Putin remains as committed as ever, and the potential replacements are also unscrupulous strongman-types. “The men who rise to the top of the Russian system tend to be like Putin and Prigozhin — egomaniacal, ruthless, brutal, paranoid, shameless — an odious combination of cold-blooded ambition and wicked comfort with violence,” remarked National Review’s Jim Geraghty.
Even aside from his incentives to punish Prigozhin, “Putin doesn’t seem to forgive very easily,” Perkins said. Most of his domestic political opponents over his long rule have spent years or decades in prison and penal colonies — and that was while Moscow was trying to win international legitimacy. Putin has even attempted to assassinate former Western spies living in Western countries as recently as 2018. On Saturday, he described the Wagner Group’s march on Moscow as an “armed rebellion” and “a stab in the back of our country and our people” that he would meet with “decisive actions.” So far, Putin has made no decisive move against Prigozhin.
The Wagner group mutiny has been brewing for some time. Ever since Putin’s first blitz in February 2022 failed to decapitate the Ukrainian government, Russia’s underperformance on the battlefield has generated pressure on the aged leader as his strongman image faced increasing contrary evidence. Combined with the semi-independent Wagner Group’s perception of mistreatment by top Russian brass, an eventual revolt seemed inevitable. Now, it has happened, and the uncharacteristically (by Russian standards) bloodless resolution strongly suggests there are more dominoes yet to fall.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.