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Jamie Dettmer is the opinion editor of Politico Europe.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s insurrection – or « freedom march » as he describes it – does not look set to turn into Ten days that shook the world.
Indeed, the coup mutiny appears to share the half-hearted and ill-prepared characteristics of the failed coup to oust the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.
At least the KGB and Communist hardliners who tried to oust Gorbachev had the good sense and luck to start their campaign in Moscow, understanding that whoever controls the capital controls Russia.
In contrast, paramilitary leader Prigozhin’s Wagner forces are 1,000 kilometers away in Rostov. Although there are reports that his soldiers may have taken over some military facilities in Voronezh, which is still 500 kilometers from the Russian capital and there are now attempts to prevent him from proceeding along the highway to Moscow. Residents are telling Russian media that the road is blocked to the south and north of the city.
“It is impossible to leave the city, there is a huge traffic jam, even shuttle buses are not allowed,” one Vyorstka told the media.
Ominously to Prigozhin, some key allies and friends have drifted away, including General Sergei Surovikin, known in the West as General Armageddon for his destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo. Surovikin, the former commander of Russia’s ground forces in Ukraine, is popular with the country’s ultranationalists and his demotion last year dismayed them. On Friday he urged Wagner’s militiamen to cease their opposition to Russia’s military leadership and return to barracks.
“I urge you to stop,” he said in a video message posted on Telegram. « The enemy is just waiting for the domestic political situation to get worse in our country. »
The Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said Chief Wagner’s mutiny was « unlikely to succeed, » as Surovikin had denounced his call for rebellion.
Kadyrov stays with Putin
Even for much of last year, Chechen leaders Ramzan Kadyrov and Prigozhin were united in their condemnation of Russia’s top brass, firing broadsides at the country’s military commanders, men they despised as « peacetime generals. » Prigozhin joyfully approved Kadyrov’s appeal for the unfortunate commanders to be punished, deprived of rank and medals and sent to the front.
“Nice, Ramzan, keep it up,” Prigozhin cooed in a social media post last October. “These thugs should be sent barefoot to the front with machine guns,” she added.
But Kadyrov has distanced himself from his onetime friend in recent weeks as boss Wagner’s vituperative criticisms have come ever closer to censuring President Vladimir Putin. Three weeks ago, one of Kadyrov’s best allies, Adam Delimkhanov, cast Prigozhin as a blogger who shouts all the time: « Stop shouting, shouting and shouting, » he chided in a social media post.
And some other key players and security agencies have clearly sided with the Kremlin. They include the FSB intelligence service, which called on Wagner’s fighters « not to carry out Prigozhin’s criminal and treacherous orders » and to take measures to arrest him themselves. He also accused Prigozhin of stabbing Russian servicemen in the back in a statement published by state news agency RIA Novosti.
Influential pro-war Russian military bloggers also denounced Chief Wagner, although they never trusted him. “The country is on the verge of a military coup attempt. It is not yet clear who started it. It is possible that both warring factions of the ‘party of power’ are fighting for this,” said Igor Girkin, a Russian army veteran and former intelligence officer. He has been calling for Prigozhin to be downsized for weeks.
That said, some key players and military units appear to be passive – just as their counterparts did in 1991 – waiting to see which way the wind is turning, anxious not to be caught on the wrong side. Some prominent Russian politicians have also been remarkably silent.
Wagner Group forces clearly had no problem crossing from occupied territory in Ukraine into Russia in at least two locations, according to the British Defense Ministry. « In Rostov-on-Don, Wagner has almost certainly occupied key security sites, including the headquarters that manages Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, » the ministry said.
“More Wagner units are moving north through Voronezh Oblast, almost certainly aiming to reach Moscow. With very limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces, some have likely remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner, » he added in an assessment of the startling events in Russia.
Prigozhin says Russian guard units greeted his men happily.
In particular, the Russian deputy defense minister, the deputy head of military intelligence and the commander of the Western Military District, General Sergei Kuzovlev met with the Wagner boss on Saturday in Rostov, where he told them that he is sure to « save Russia « . Prigozhin looked confident and full of menacing bravado in a video posted online purportedly of the rally in which he denounced the country’s top generals.
It is not clear whether his interlocutors had the approval of the Kremlin for the meeting, perhaps charged with dissuading him. But could both sides play?
There is no question that the Prigozhin mutiny amounts to the biggest political crisis Putin has faced in his quarter-century as Russia’s leader. It is a « huge blow to Putin’s legitimacy, » said Russian opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Rostov’s rendition « won’t look good to his domestic audience, » he added in a tweet on Saturday.
“As strange as it sounds, I think anti-war Russians should support Prigozhin right now. He is not our ally, and this support will be very temporary and conditional,” Khodorkovsky said.
Russia’s opposition leaders are obviously eager to seize any evidence of cracks in Putin’s regime. But the signs are that Putin’s tough televised speech against Prigozhin and the accusation that he poses a threat to Russia’s very survival has stabilized « the system ».
“Any internal turmoil is a mortal threat to our state and to us as a nation. This is a serious blow to Russia and to our people,” Putin said. “What we faced is exactly betrayal. Extravagant ambitions and self-interest led to betrayal.
And no doubt those who have been dumb would have heeded a warning.
“Everyone who knowingly stopped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, stopped on the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishments, before the law and before our people,” Putin promised.
Farewell to Putin’s invincibility
As Putin spoke, reports began to arrive of heavy fighting in the Voronezh region between Wagner mercenaries and units of the Russian Army and National Guards, with Russian warplanes also engaged.
“The fight has now begun,” tweeted former US Ambassador Michael McFaul. « This is now a civil war. »
The brunt of the military is on Putin’s side, making it likely that it will be a short-lived civil war. It is significant that the National Guard is in action. Led by Viktor Zolotov, one of the most powerful in the country siloviki, or « strongman » security officials, the National Guard comprises hundreds of thousands of troops, including special police units and rapid response forces. If the fighting ever reaches the Russian capital, the National Guard will likely be the determining force.
Zolotov and Putin worked together in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, but since the invasion of Ukraine he has been among a few top officials who have been discreet, prompting analysts to question his loyalty or whether he is staying out of the limelight, keeping his dry powder. He is also close to Kadyrov and the Chechen leader’s estrangement from Prigozhin may have played a role in his loyalty to him now.
However, even if the mutiny is quickly crushed, the very fact that it can be mounted in the first place will raise doubts about Putin’s seizure of power. For any autocrat the appearance of invincibility and unquestionable strength is paramount, and what has been evident in Russia over the past 24 hours has been a sense of drift and indecision, even recklessness.
And it’s not out of the woods just yet, said analyst Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
“Putin has taken a clear stand to crush the rebellion,” he tweeted. “However, there are at least two main problems with this. The first is the civilian population. Would they dare to attack civilian facilities in Rostov? The second issue concerns the control of the army. Current loyalty is currently difficult to gauge. I am confident that the military hierarchy is on the side of the government and there will be no change of allegiance. Yet further down the ranks, it’s a different story. If the order to open fire is given, how will individual soldiers react? »
She suspects the Kremlin will try to get Prigozhin to surrender, but is skeptical that the plan will succeed, arguing it will likely lead to a prolonged standoff. “However, Prigozhin’s downfall seems inevitable,” she says.
The big question is whether his downfall will set the stage for Putin’s eventual defeat.