by Raffaele Crocco
It will take more time to really understand the scale of what has happened in Russia in the last 48 hours. For now, we can try to reflect on the jarring details. We can reflect on the incongruities of this ‘coup’, which saw the head of the private Wagner militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, first take Rostov – the site of the Russian headquarters in the war on Ukraine – without firing a shot, then march on Moscow with 25,000 men, finally arrive two hundred kilometres from the capital, reach an agreement with the Kremlin, stop everything and retrace his steps.
While all this was going on, on a hot Saturday in June 2023, there was talk in Europe and the US of a possible ‘coup’, of an unmistakable sign of ‘Kremlin weakness’ – tested by the failed, quick victory over Ukraine – of an apparent ‘internal feud’ that would mark the beginning of the end of Putin’s power. That may be, but there are some glaring contradictions in yesterday’s events. Contradictions that Prigozhin’s decision to halt his march on Moscow and agree to move his soldiers to Belarus only serves to exacerbate. Let us look at some of them.
* Aviation. I start with the most military aspect. Wagner’s men are fearsome and well-armed, but they are totally lacking in aviation. From a technical point of view, it would have been easy to stop them as they marched in column from Rostov to Moscow. All you had to do was bomb them. It did not happen. Two hypotheses, the first: they were not hit from the air because the air force was on their side. That seems very unlikely. The second: they were not hit because Putin did not really want to hit them. It is true that various sources report that at least one helicopter – perhaps a plane – was shot down in Voronezh by Wagner’s men. But this seems to have been one or a few isolated incidents: there is no evidence of massive, targeted attacks.
* The target of the revolt. Yesterday, as in recent weeks, Prigozhin avoided attacking Putin politically. He attacked the military leadership, which he accused of mismanaging the war against Ukraine and betraying Wagner by refusing to support and supply him, but never directly blamed the Kremlin leader. His enemy has always been the Ministry of Defence, and yesterday he found support from many Russian citizens who apparently took to the streets to support Wagner’s crusade. Even they, the citizens, I mean, were strangely left alone by Moscow’s undemocratic standards.
* The end of the march. 200km from Moscow, Wagner’s boss ordered his men to stop and return to quarters. In its last telegram, the Wagner Centre invited its staff to ‘spend the weekend in the open air and in good company’. A bizarre invitation. Nothing is known about the agreement between Wagner and the Kremlin. Even less is known about Prigozhin’s fate. He is said to have promised to leave Russia. In Minsk, he will be hosted by Belarusian President Lukashenko, a personal friend for at least 20 years and credited with mediating between the parties. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the press that the criminal case against Prigozhin would be dismissed, despite Putin’s declaration that Wagner’s action was ‘a stab in the back of our country and our people’ and an insurrection. The men of the private mercenary company will not be prosecuted either. In short, it will all be over. A dreadful blow to Putin’s image, unless the whole affair brings him results that we are not yet seeing. For example, the possibility of getting rid of the Armed Forces Command Group in the coming days, sacrificing it on the altar of the “rediscovered stability of the Fatherland”, actually getting rid of it without risking dangerous reactions – yes, dangerous – from the army.
* The war against Ukraine. Throughout the whole affair, the invasion war against Kyiv was never questioned. Prigozhin always criticised the decisions of the Russian headquarters on how to conduct the war. He also explained how the reasons for the war against Kiev were false and how the slaughter of Moscow’s armed forces was not told. However, he never questioned the seizure of pro-Russian territories and Crimea. It was indeed naive to think that the crisis could in any way help to find a solution to the war. As they say in these cases, ‘the war goes on’ and it is not certain that the possible change in Russian military leadership will lead to different strategies, quite the opposite. It is now up to Putin to redeem himself in the eyes of the world. And he is likely to do so at the expense of the Ukrainians.
These are some of the issues. What is the conclusion? There is no conclusion yet, actually. We have been following with bated breath for 24 hours an affair that has taken place on several levels, but all within the Moscow power structure. None of this Moscow history is conducive to peace. None of the events are useful for thinking about the fall of the Russian regime. Perhaps Putin may fall, more exhausted than we imagine. But whoever replaces him now, we can be fairly sure, would be no better.