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Prigozhin’s Folly: Interpretations Of The Man’s March On Moscow

Ilan Hulkower

Winston Churchill once remarked about Russia that it is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Such a description may be befitting of the mutiny by elements within the Wagner Company led by Yevgeny Prigozhin against the Russian government. When news of it broke, various analysts boldly said that Russia was “sliding into what can only be described as a civil war” and predicted the doom of President Vladimir Putin. The revolt was, however, relatively bloodless and disbanded after barely 24 hours had elapsed with Priogzhin withdrawing from his march to Moscow and accepting exile in Belarus in exchange for Russia agreeing to withdraw criminal charges for the incitement of armed rebellion. 

This article will explore various interpretations surrounding the affair by looking into a few general theories about what happened and the evidence for and against them. These theories can be divided into two schools of thought: that Prigozhin earnestly led a coup attempt against Moscow - with or without foreign backing - while the second is that Prigozhin’s coup attempt was on some level an elaborately staged maskirovka operation.

A basic background to the mutiny is necessary before one explores speculative theories about the march to Moscow itself. On Friday June 23rd, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the face behind the Wagner Group, accused the Russian military command of carrying out strikes on the private military company’s encampments that killed a “huge” number of their soldiery. The 62-year-old Russian private military leader had long been a very vocal critic of the way in which the Russian high command ran the Russo-Ukrainian War and often argued that the top military brass was incompetent.

 In that spirit, Prigozhin let loose a tirade over how “the evil that the military leadership of the country brings must be stopped.” The response from Moscow was to levy criminal charges against the chief of Wagner on the grounds that he was “inciting an armed uprising”. 

Prigozhin then began his march with only elements of Wagner supporting him to Rostov and thence unto Moscow demanding that the military leadership be changed and insisting that this “is not a coup d’etat. It’s a march of justice. Our actions do not impede [regular Russian] soldiers at all.” Despite calls from Russian military and political leadership for the Wagner soldiers to stop their advance, Priogzhin and company continued. Prigozhin also defied the warnings of President Putin about the consequences of military rebellion and the penalty for its plotters. Prigozhin, in command of a very vulnerable armed column with no outside support, met curiously little resistance on the road to Moscow. He only briefly encountered a few Russian aircraft that were shot down and 19 pilots were killed. (Confirmation of the death of the pilots was later admitted by the Kremlin.) These constitute the only known deaths during the entire march toward the capital. 

Then as suddenly as the mutiny began, it ended anticlimactically. Late Saturday Prigozhin halted his advance on the capital, agreed to go into exile in Belarus and those Wagnerites who refused to partake in the mutiny would be offered direct contracts by the Russian Ministry of Defense in exchange for criminal proceedings of armed mutiny against Prigozhin by the state to be dropped. The affair was thus settled relatively bloodlessly with terms hostile to Prigozhin.   

A simple reading of events would be that Prigozhin harbored honest disagreements over how the war ought to be waged and/or delusions of his own omnicompetence fresh from his military group’s difficult but much praised triumph during the Battle of Bakhmut one month before. 

After being informed that the Russian Ministry of Defense was planning to disband his beloved Wagner company by the end of June, he went stir-crazy and by mid-June started to plot to take over the Russian state or at least rid it of those in the military apparatus that he considered to be slowing down the war effort against Ukraine. There is then the inciting incident involving the death of many Wagnerite soldiers by the bombardments by the Russian military that Prigozhin latches on to it to set off his plan to shake up the Russian state. After organizing the uprising, Prigozhin realized that the game was over when no other institutional or military force defected to his cause, and struck an unfavorable deal with Putin.   

There are problems with this simple reading. Elements of it may be true but incomplete and there are reasons that indicate not all here is what it appears to be. Take for instance Prigozhin’s claim over the inciting incident that sparked his mutiny, that the Russian command bombarded his troops and killed a huge number of them. A video was even released purportedly showing the aftermath of this attack. Yet, the video contained no solid evidence of anything of the sort according to one analyst:

[T]he video which was released (purporting to show the aftermath of this “missile strike”) did not show an impact crater, debris, or any wounded or killed Wagner personnel. The “damage” from the missile consisted of two campfires burning in a trench -  apparently Russia missiles that can start small controlled fires  without destroying the surrounding plant life? [In his view] [t]he video obviously did not show the aftermath of a missile attack… 

Perhaps then Prigozhin’s inciting incident was a false justification to launch his mutiny. It must then be said that Prigozhin, a man with no military command experience, is no stranger to being an agent of disinformation during the course of the Russo-Ukrainian War itself. 

During the battle of Bakhmut itself, there is evidence to suggest that he repeatedly feigned weakness to try to bait the Ukrainian army to further commit to attack his force. He frequently complained about a lack of ammunition and at one point on May 5th stated to the world that Wagner would be abruptly pulling out of the city within days. Wagner continued to make advances in the war-torn city and stayed put until after the entire city fell to Russian hands weeks later. 

Prigozhin also loudly predicted that Russian frontlines may not withstand a Ukrainian spring/summer offensive and that a breakthrough may be inevitable. So far the month-long Ukrainian summer offensive has underperformed expectations and has not (as of the writing of this article) made it beyond the first screening lines of the front at a high human cost to Ukraine in an already bloody war. The point being here is that one ought not to blindly take Prigozhin at his word and that there is reason to believe that he is a disinformation agent.   

The timing of the mutiny was at an unfavorable time politically that hampered its chances of success. When compared to successful Russian revolutions like the 1917 October Revolution, the underlying elements that created the typical conditions for a successful seizure of power were not there. Russia found itself in 1917 facing a myriad of problems. Back then there were major economic as well as military shortages, military morale and public confidence in fighting World War One was low after the failed Kerensky offensive, and the government’s legitimacy was in serious question. 

Modern Russia does not have the degree of these problems that the old Russian Republic had. The Russian economy is now widely seen as having weathered Western sanctions and the Russian public has basic and growing confidence in their economic future. It is also acknowledged now that Russia is not running out of missiles or other munitions necessary to sustain the war effort. Far from running out of ammo, the Russians appear to be ramping up military production and maintaining a greater rate of key metrics of firepower on the battlefield than the Ukrainians can.        

The military situation before Prigozhin made his move for Russia was one of high morale as Ukraine's much touted offensive encountered serious Russian resistance. The pronounced problems present led the Swedish military analyst Mikael Valtersson to pronounce the offensive “a failure” and that the Ukrainians were trading minimal territorial gains for high casualties on their side. Finally, President Putin enjoys a high degree of long-standing approval from the Russian public who, broadly speaking, trust his decision-making when it comes to matters of war and peace in Ukraine. In effect, the Russian head of state had political and institutional legitimacy (if demonstrated by nothing else than the reaction by the political and military elite to Prigozhin’s mutiny). That at least was the situation in the buildup to Prigozhin’s attempt to seize power.          

Given all these factors and the fact that Wagner is completely dependent on the Russian state to provide logistics and munitions for their military company, are there alternative explanations to why Proghizin elected to do what he did? 

One school of thought posits that some of this was an attempt by foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA to conduct regime change in Russia. What circumstantial evidence would point toward such a theory? President Joe Biden blurted out during the beginning of the war that Putin cannot remain in power indicating that on some level there is appetite for removing Putin. The reports that American intelligence knew about and was able to get “an extremely detailed and accurate picture” of the planning of the Wagnerite uprising since mid-June would suggest that they have sources embedded in or near Prigozhin’s circle. 

Similarly, the United States was tipped off and expected that the power struggle between Putin and Prigozhin would have produced “a lot more bloodshed” and that a fierce battle over Moscow would be waged. Might the Americans or foreign actors have played a more intimate role in the mutiny? There was the odd story that Prigozhin offered to render intelligence for foreign agencies that came out in the Discord leak of Pentagon Papers. (Prigozhin denied doing so.) Might then Prigozhin have flipped toward working with a foreign intelligence agency? Could this explain why the United States delayed introducing new sanctions against Wagner during the coup given a desire to destabilize Russia? Perhaps so, but this theory would not explain how Prigozhin was able to get off so easily in the aftermath of his mutiny or why he would accept exile in Belarus, a Russian ally, as opposed to in the West or in a neutral third party.         

It would also be difficult to explain why in the days after the mutiny, Putin met with Prigozhin, a man he labeled a traitor, to reportedly offer the man employment opportunities. If the coup outed Prigozhin as a traitor and as a possible foreign intelligence agent, why do this? The Russians are also rather lax about actually ensuring Prigozhin remains in exile. Again only days after the mutiny, the president of Belarus remarked that Prigozhin was not in his country and that he is back in Russia. The Kremlin’s spokesperson when pressed on the matter responded that, “No, we don't track his [Prigozhin’s] movements…[w]e have neither the means, nor the desire to do so.” This is an odd response to a person who tried to overthrow the state and if Russia knows that said person collaborated with foreign intelligence services then it is a doubly odd answer.              

Might there be another interpretation of events that would better fit in with the facts of the case? There is the theory that this whole affair on some level was a form of maskirovka, a controlled way of deception meant to out foreign intelligence operators and potential elements within Russia that would be sympathetic to regime change. Where might be some evidence of this? 

The same Discord leaks revealed the claim that there was an extensive network of spies in Russia and such an operation might allow Russian counterintelligence to unmask this network. The Wagner Group was, after all, founded by individuals with extensive ties to the Russian military and intelligence community. The main headquarters of the private military company is located in a base that shares space with a GRU (Russia's foreign military intelligence agency) unit and the two entities have collaborated in the past. American intelligence also believes that Putin was informed about what Prigozhin was plotting at least a day before the mutiny erupted. 

This theory would explain the unusually lax security in Rostov, the supposed headquarters of the Russian operation in Ukraine, and on the road to Moscow despite such conveys being targets for artillery and aerial bombardment. Then there is the unusual media coverage of the mutiny by state-owned media within Russia. It might also explain why Prigozhin ostensibly went to Rostov based on false intelligence that the Russian Defense Minister was once there to direct the inciting strikes against Wagner. All of this might have been a ruse to make the situation appear serious to see who would back Prigozhin and possibly what counterintelligence Prigozhin could gather from them.                 

There are arguments against the theory of a stage-managed coup. One would be that the risks of such an operation outweigh potential rewards. As one commentator on the affair wrote “[t]here was widespread confusion which does nothing good for morale, and operations in the Southern Military District were disrupted by Wagner’s occupation of Rostov.” Appearances of instability would also damage Russia’s image in the eyes of foreign powers - friends and foes alike, the former who might have second thoughts about supporting and investing in Russia. Furthermore, the mutiny did result in fatalities albeit not many in the grand scheme of things.

Counterpoints exist to all three arguments. The first is that the timing of the operation was at a period of high morale so as to diminish the chances of an actual threat to the regime. The second counterpoint would be that foreign ties may be assuaged with time. Finally, such a deception operation might have not been perfectly executed and as such unintended fighting and losses did take place. Russian history is littered with examples of authorized and unauthorized political action being taken and led by state informants. In 1905, Father Gapon, a secret police informant, led a peaceful pro-Czarist march to the Czar’s palace in Saint Petersburg to gain the ear of the Russian emperor. This march turned into a bloody Sunday massacre and was the inciting incident for the 1905 Revolution. The blood that was spilled during the Prigozhin affair may similarly not have been the intent of the plot.        

It is important to reemphasize that elements of all interpretations may be accurate here on some level. For instance, Prigozhin or some of those involved in the Wagner uprising might have acted the role of a double agent with the aim of unmasking foreign intelligence contacts and their genuine collaborators. If there is one thing that is relatively certain about this whole affair it is that at the present time, Prigozhin’s leave has granted the military command a reprieve from his rants. Perhaps in a matryoshka doll-like fashion this mirky riddle within a mystery inside an enigma will never be fully unveiled.  

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