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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

A Very Russian Coup

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mastermind behind the coup

24 June 2023

Some of the most extraordinary events in recent Russian history are unfolding before our eyes. On the morning of Saturday 24 June 2023, a man called Yevgeny Prigozhin, once believed to be a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, who had created his own quasi-military organisation inside Russia's military, effectively initiated a coup d'état attempt against the Russian President over the latter's mishandling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We have already written about Mr Prigozhin as a possible successor to Mr Putin, an extraordinary individual responsible for managing Mr Putin's catering arrangements when the latter was Mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990's.

Prigozhin's complaint motivating his coup attempt is not that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was misconceived, but that it was being ineptly handled by the regular Russian military and instead his own paramilitary organisation the "Wagner Group", about which we have written previously, should take over operations in the war in Ukraine in order to secure a Russian victory. At the same time as making various extended rants on Russian television and in the media about the Russian Armed Forces - but being extremely careful to avoid any criticism of Mr Putin personally - Mr Prigozhin's Wagner Group has undertaken a military occupation of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the military centre for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has even had his own troops surround Rostov's FSB building, the FSB being the state security service loyal to Mr Putin. He has also sent 1,200 troops north to Moscow, apparently to oust the military leadership there. Mr Prigozhin seems not to have taken heed of the words of Lord Montgomery, the British World War II military leader who famously said:

We must be clear about certain rules of war. Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: do not march on Moscow. Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good.

Mr Prigozhin has been engaging in his own pithy quotations. He said this morning:

All of us are ready to die. All 25,000, and then another 25,000. We are dying for the Russian people.

It has not so far been clear how many soldiers comprise Mr Prigozhin's Wagner Group, but he seems just to have told us: between 25,000 and 50,000. Unfortunately this is probably not enough to march on Moscow; the Russian Armed Forces have some 1.15 million troops in active service and approximately an additional 2 million reserve personnel (although exact figures are not known). There are already reports that Russian air strikes have been executed against Wagner Group armoured columns moving towards Moscow. The odds of any Wagner Group troops reaching Moscow seem rather unlikely. Mr Prigozhin seems to have gone quite mad, sending his own troops off towards inevitable massacre.

A map showing the route from Rostov-on-Don (where Mr Prigozhin has seized military control) to Moscow; The Russian air strike on Mr Prigozhin's forces took place near Voronezh, at about the half-way point between the two cities.

Mr Putin has responded with his own mysterious set of comments in a televised address to the nation this morning, saying that the Russian armed forces "have been given the necessary orders" (typically for Mr Putin, he did not describe what these orders actually were). The FSB have also issued an arrest warrant for Mr Prigozhin, which is an extremely sinister development rather suggesting that Mr Putin plans to have him murdered. The Russian security state apparatus permeates deeply into every aspect of Russian society and the idea that Mr Prigozhin can evade them and their murderous methods for any length of time seems rather unlikely. Indeed the whole affair may play into Mr Putin's hands, as he uses a failed coup d'état attempt to eliminate still more of his imagined enemies in the Russian civilian and military administrations, Mr Prigozhin included. His national televised address gave Mr Putin a rare opportunity to speak to the Russian people as a determined statesman when the war in Ukraine had been causing his personal popularity levels to plummet.

At the time of writing these extraordinary events are still playing out. The civilian regional governor of Rostov appears to be remaining loyal to the Kremlin, which is very bad news for Mr Prigozhin. So is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a murderous military leader himself who has vowed to employ his own forces to defeat Prigozhin's coup attempt. Although some commentators have touted the possibility of civil war, this author considers that unlikely at the current time because Mr Prigozhin has no separate power base within the Russian nomenklatura (domestic security forces) and is not a politically popular character, appearing coarse and uncivilised to many Russians, lacing his speech with profanities and pulling stunts such as flying into Russian penal colonies to recruit prisoners to the Wagner Group. Nevertheless events are unpredictable.

In any event the big winners so far from this chaos are obviously the Ukrainians. Because while this Russian in-fighting continues, the Russian military leadership in charge of the invasion of Ukraine will be in chaos and Ukraine should be able to take advantage of this to achieve territorial and strategic advantages in their war with Russia. On the best possible analysis, Mr Putin's defeat of Mr Prigozhin's insurrection may enable him so save face, declare victory in Ukraine and then withdraw from Ukrainian territory, bringing the war in Ukraine to a more rapid conclusion. But it is too early to say what consequences if any this extraordinary turn of events will have for the war in Ukraine.

In other developments, we learn from miscellaneous media sources that:

  • A strong Russian military and Police presence has deployed in Moscow

  • Just after Midday today Moscow time, Prigozhin made a statement describing President Putin as "deeply mistaken". This more or less seals Prigozhin's fate, as any criticism of the Russian President by a Russian within Russia is generally regarded as a death sentence. Prigozhin has also criticised the Russian government as being replete with "corruption, lies and bureaucracy", the sort of language used by Russian pro-democracy activists; this is ironic because Mr Prigozhin is a notoriously violent militarist whose views are as far from the Russian pro-democracy movement as one could imagine

  • Central Rostov is described as "sealed off"

  • Various major Russian roads have been blocked, presumably by the Russian security forces

  • The Kremlin appears to be taking every effort to isolate Mr Prigozhin and his armed forces

  • Internet restrictions are reported as in place within Russia, although at least one pro-government major news media portal is still operational. Russian media are reporting the Wagner Group coup attempt in apparently full detail

  • Prigozhin is reported as having refused to call off his troops and has repudiated the FSB arrest warrant

  • Sources have asserted that Wagner Group forces have seized Russian military facilities in Voronezh

  • Wagner Group headquarters in St Petersburg have been reported as having been raided by Russian security forces

This confrontation has been on the cards for many months. Mr Prigozhin's Wagner Group has become an independent military force fighting as mercenaries in a variety of foreign countries for several years, and he personally has become increasingly powerful. Mr Putin has a horrible habit of murdering those who become sufficiently powerful to present a potential political challenge to him, and it seems that Mr Putin may have orchestrated this confrontation with Mr Prigozhin (we are told that the confrontation began when Russian Armed Forces struck Wagner Group positions in Donbas last night) simply to get rid of him. That would be very much Mr Putin's style.

The fact that the affair is being reported in such detail in the normally tightly controlled Russian media in particular is a strong indicator that the entire episode might have been orchestrated by the Kremlin. Otherwise it would be Mr Putin's habit not to speak about such issues, and to keep a tight muzzle on the press, until he had decided what to do. In this case he seems to have known what he was going to do ahead of time, and so did his ally Mr Kadyrov. One hypothesis to be entertained is that Mr Putin wishes to use the treachery of Mr Prigozhin and Wagner Group as a scapegoat for his own military's failures in the invasion of Ukraine.

There can be no doubt that whatever motivated Prigozhin's moves against the Kremlin, Putin looks weak. The war in Ukraine has not gone as well as he expected. Even if this is an exercise in removing Prigozhin, then the question remains of how President Putin allowed such a person to become such an elevated danger to his authority. There have been a number of rumours in Russia over recent years that the Russian President's authority is waning, as he gets older; and this is leading him into ever more hostile and capricious foreign policy decisions and domestic disputes with his inner cabal. As he faces his own inevitable mortality, Vladimir Putin is faced, much as was his Soviet predecessor Joseph Stalin, with increasing treachery and intrigue amongst those closest to him. The real power brokers in modern Russia, as we near the end of the reign of Vladimir Putin, are not the Oligarchs per se but a group of people the vast majority of us have never heard of. They are the real eminences grises in modern Russia: a group of people with complex relationships with Russia's security and intelligence services, with a variety of strange official positions or even no positions at all.

In an update on events at the end of 24 June 2023:

  • Kazakhstan has issued a statement in support of the Kremlin; no other countries are known to have issued declarations in support. Even Uzbekistan was asked for a statement in support but apparently refused.

  • The People's Republic of China has issued no official statement about the affair but Chinese state media are reporting it closely.

  • States of emergency have been introduced in Moscow and Voronezh

  • This is particularly unusual because it suggests that hostile Wagner Group members in Voronezh are surrounded and effectively neutralised.

  • One wonders whether the Wagner Group really think. it has not been infiltrated by the FSB or other Russian military intelligence organisations.

  • For all Prigozhin knows, his own bodyguards are Russian intelligence assassins ready to murder him on the orders of the Kremlin.

  • The Moscow Mayor, as well as the governor of Moscow oblast, both staunch Putin allies, have declared Moscow to be under martial law as the Wagner Group are advancing towards Moscow.

  • However there is no evidence that the Wagner Group is actually advancing towards Moscow.

  • All communications by Yevgeny Prigozhin, apparently leader of the Wagner Group, have been reduced to a Telegram channel that the Kremlin mysteriously has not blocked despite the fact that it is notorious that FSB officials operate in Telegram's offices in Moscow and in light of other internet restrictions that are in place in Russia at the current time.

  • Vladimir Putin's private plane has been reported to have flown from Moscow to St Petersburg at 14:15 Moscow time but we have no idea who was on that plane or where the President of Russia actually is.

  • The President of Belarus has asserted that he is a mediator between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, although nobody else has confirmed this.

  • Dmitriy Medvedev, former President and Prime Minister of Russia and a presumed close ally of Vladimir Putin, had made observations about the danger to the world if Russian nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the Wagner Group. It is not clear where this idea came from.

  • Ukraine asserts that she has made territorial advances against Russian-occupied Ukraine since the beginning of this crisis but it is unclear whether this is true or if so then what the extent of those advances are.

  • Yevgeny Prigozhin has apparently confirmed that large amounts of cash have been found at his St Petersburg address. However what is not clear is how he confirmed this; or why he would do so.

Let the following be known, as an iron law of contemporary Russian politics:

Vladimir Putin litigates with himself.

This assertion is to be explained as follows. The Russian authorities create disputes within themselves in order to create confusion, chaos and disinformation. The fact is that we have no idea what is going on in Russia right now. Mr Prigozhin may or may not be our ally. He is a profoundly dangerous, undemocratic and violent man who recruits foreign mercenaries to fight proxy wars around the world with the full intent that those people die and never come back from the wars they are fighting. He recruits dangerous men from Russian penal colonies. We cannot trust this man in the slightest. Winston Churchill famously observed that the only people who can change Russian politics are the Russians themselves. And now they are going through some sort of strange and impenetrable process of change, over which we can have minimal influence. We just have to stand by as observers.

This author has a hypothesis, which may or may not turn out to be true. His hypothesis is that Dmitriy Medvedev and Yevgeny Prigozhin have conspired to neutralise the power of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is growing old and is presumed soon to die. But this is only a hypothesis. In fact we have no idea who is running Russia at all right now. In the words of an ancient Chinese proverb:

May you have the curse to live in interesting times.

God help Russia and her benighted people.


Late 24 June / early 25 June 2023

The coup seems to be over as quickly as it began:

  • Prigozhin has "called off" the assault on Moscow (if it had ever really been ordered)

  • Prigozhin is to live in exile in Belarus

  • Wagner troops have returned to their basis

  • The organisation is to be assimilated into the regular Russian Army

The sudden way in which this crisis flared up and then apparently evaporated as quickly as it started suggests to this author that the entire event may have been orchestrated by Vladimir Putin and some others in his inner circle to neutralise Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. Exactly what happened, we may never know. The only thing we can be certain of is that there are power struggles within Vladimir Putin's inner circle and that these are likely to continue as political onlookers in Moscow anticipate the demise, in the next few years, of Vladimir Putin's regime. Russia is likely to become an increasingly unstable country. This does not bode well for a rapid end to the war in Ukraine.


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