It was all over in less than 24 hours. Prigozhin announced a “march for justice” just past 9 PM on June 23, 2023, promising that “Anyone who tries to resist we will consider a threat, and we will swiftly eliminate.”
Wagner troops secured the key logistics hub of Rostov-on-Don, then secured the major city of Voronezh, about a six-hour drive south of Moscow. Videos and photos of troops loyal to Vladimir Putin digging trenches and preparing for a defense of Moscow were all over social media.
By 8 PM on June 24th, news broke that Wagner troops had turned back and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko had brokered a deal. The hope was that a protracted civil war in Russia might force a general withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, or at least severely hamper Russian operations were quickly dashed.
For reasons I will make clear below, I believe that Putin was put in a position where he needed to cut a deal because of a substantial risk that he could not defeat Wagner quickly—which could have been catastrophic for Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, by the evening of June 24th, Prigozhin may have been facing a growing realization that his chances of ultimate victory were quite slim. Before the clash of Wagner’s main force with Putin’s Presidential Guard troops establishing a perimeter around Moscow was Prigozhin’s last chance to try to come out of these events alive if Wagner was doomed to defeat, so it made sense for Prigozhin to cut a deal.
Russian government officials made public an agreement brokered by Belarussian President Lukashenko that brought an end to the hostilities.
- The charges of armed rebellion against Prigozhin were dropped and Putin personally guaranteed Prigozhin that he would safely be seen off to the Belarussian border. Prigozhin is presumed to be under the personal protection of President Lukashenko.
- Wagner troops who participated in the uprising would be pardoned and any charges against them will be dropped.
- A few Wagner units that did not participate in the uprising would be eligible to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense as contract soldiers. This represents the likely end of PMC Wagner as it exists in its current form, as troops are either discharged or folded into the Ministry of Defense umbrella.
- Official statements from the Russian government made no definitive comment on the status of Defense Minister Shoigu or General Gerasimov (whose removal was Wagner’s stated aim). Rumors that Shoigu was detained by the FSO and remains in detention, or that both had been asked to tender their resignations circulate, but no highly credible sources have reported on their current or future status. ABC News reports that US officials believe Putin may have made concessions on Shoigu and others’ futures.
A few things immediately stand out about the publicly known details of the brokered deal.
First, this deal can be fairly characterized as a humiliation for Putin. Putin addressed the Russian nation, calling the participants in the uprising “criminals” who had “stabbed in the back” both the Russian State and its people. Less than a day had passed since Putin how vowed to bring these “apostates” to justice.
Putin’s agreement not to prosecute Prigozhin or the Wagnerites is an extremely public admission of weakness. When a person leads thousands of soldiers in an armed revolt, shoots down multiple military helicopters, captures two major cities, and advances within a couple hours’ drive of the nation’s capital, not being able to prosecute a single person for their action is indicative of an extremely public admission by Putin that he lacks the power to crush the rebellion.
Putin would not make such an agreement unless he found himself in a position of considerable weakness.
This is not to say that Putin could not have defeated Wagner, or that Putin thought the same. But a protracted battle between Russian forces in a civil war would have likely had catastrophic consequences for the War in Ukraine, whether or not Prigozhin intended such consequences. Supply lines would be severed, reinforcements and reserves will be directed to the civil war, and the front would be neglected.
If Putin did not believe that he could quickly defeat Wagner with minimal losses, even a defeated Wagner would have the effect of crushing his ambitions.
There are very good reasons to believe that was the case.
A UK intelligence memorandum from May 20, 2023, provided some information regarding the state of Russian reserve forces in Ukraine that suggested Russia may have only 30-40 battalions of troops in all of the Ukrainian theater of operations, around 20,000~35,000 troops.
Russia took over a week to drive a single battalion of Freedom of Russia Legion’s troops out of Russia's Belogorod Oblast in early June.
Russia had to scramble to bring troops from all around Russia via airlift to assemble a defense of Moscow.
Other more difficult-to-verify reports paint an even darker picture of Putin. Reports that Russian army units were not resisting Wagner’s advance and were waving them through checkpoints abounded. It was reported that the 45th Airborne Brigade and a number of other Russian army units ordered to intercept Wagner’s advance refused to comply.
It appeared possible that only Putin’s fiercely loyal elite units of Rosgvardia (National Guard) had any enthusiasm for defending their leader.
Given the political liabilities involved in pardoning Prigozhin and the Wagnerites, the only logical interpretation is to believe that Putin saw himself in a position of weakness.
However, for a deal to come through, the same would likely have to be true of Prigozhin—he would also have needed to find himself in a state of weakness.
Although Prigozhin claimed that it had always been the plan to turn back before fighting in Moscow, this statement strains credulity. There was no way for Prigozhin to know that the first major resistance Wagner faced would not come until he reached the outskirts of Moscow. Wagner rising in armed rebellion, then immediately backing down if the garrison at Rostov-on-Don intended to resist would have made no sense.
The “it was always the plan” has any seeming logic to it in retrospect, knowing the Wagnerites would advance hundreds of kilometers and occupy two major cities before actually needing to fight.
Furthermore, US officials reported that they were aware of preparations for an insurrection by Wagner forces by mid-June. It’s believed that Prigozhin received notifications from the Russian Ministry of Defense that Wagner forces were to sign contracts with the MoD—meaning they would be made employees of the MoD and a de facto destruction of Wagner as an organization.
Wagner made preparations by stockpiling ammunition and fuel. If Prigozhin’s plan from the beginning had been to turn back at first resistance, it hardly makes sense to stockpile ammunition.
Wagner's forces had advanced to within 200km of Moscow, and something persuaded Prigozhin that he needed to cut a deal—that certainly was not confidence.
One valid question would be—did Prigozhin lose his nerve? This interpretation of events is certainly possible, but by all appearances, Prigozhin had already crossed the Rubicon. Many people expressed incredulity at the idea that Putin would allow a traitor to continue living, particularly one living in exile in a virtual Russian satellite state like Belarus. Surely, Prigozhin must be aware of this.
If Prigozhin was the type to lose his nerve, it would seem like before marching on Rostov-on-Don and capturing the regional Russian Military Headquarters, or shooting down multiple Russian helicopters, or outright and publicly rejecting Putin’s condemnation of Wagnerites as traitors all seem to point to a defiant man, and not one who is frightened into capitulation.
Here are two alternative possibilities.
Prigozhin may have been counting on the support elements of the Russian Army or other Oligarchs but did not receive any. Sergei Surovikin is a high-ranking general who served for three months as the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, before being replaced by Valery Gerasimov.
And yet, Surovikin was one of the first generals to call upon Wagner to drop their weapons and submit to the Russian government.
This lack of support may have been disheartening to Prigozhin, leading him to believe even if he were victorious in capturing Moscow, that he could not rule a hostile nation without powerful supporters in the Army and the Oligarchs, that he could not establish an effective new government.
Another possibility is that Prigozhin recognized that he was militarily unable to capture Moscow. While Wagner brought some anti-aircraft weapons with them, lacking any air support of their own placed Wagner's troops at a distinct disadvantage.
It appears that as Wagner's troops got closer to Moscow, the frequency and intensity of helicopter and aircraft attacks intensified.
Wagner certainly does not have a sterling track record when it comes to breaking through enemy lines of defense. At Bakhmut Russia had a numeric advantage in available aircraft and sorties, yet Ukraine managed to slow Wagnerite advances to 1-2 km a week or less.
Between intensifying air strikes, Russia air-bridging troops into Moscow at a rapid clip, and Wagner’s presumably limited sources of supply, the danger may have exceeded Prigozhin’s expectations leading to Prigozhin being receptive to ideas of a compromise.
It does Prigozhin no good if Wagner is defeated slowly. A defeat would lead to the likely arrest and execution of Prigozhin. A compromise that guaranteed Prigozhin’s exile and safety would at least give Prigozhin a chance to survive.
Thus Prigozhin and Putin may have had some middle ground for a compromise.
What is clear, however, is that the coup has destroyed Russia’s image of an unquestionable and stable regime with the loyalty of its citizens.
Russians would see a video of a man Putin called a “traitor” and a “criminal” being seen off to exile by an enthusiastic crowd of supporters.
People were chanting “Wagner, Wagner” as Wagner units withdrew from Rostov-on-Don.
Perhaps more shocking was the lack of loyalty from so many soldiers and police officers along Wagner’s long route of advance toward Moscow. Reports from Wagner soldiers commenting on how all the soldiers and police officers were just waving Wagner vehicles through were shocking. The very speed by which Wagner’s column could advance indicated that they were true.
Many of these units appeared to want to wait to see who had the upper hand in an apparent civil war on the verge of starting.
This coup exposed the fact that Putin is far less secure and powerful than the image he projects. Worse, for Putin, that fact has been laid apparent to everyone in Russia.
How this change could impact Russia in the coming months and years is hard to predict, but here are three possible historical examples that may illuminate some of the possibilities.
1917 was a very difficult year for Russia. A revolution in February 1917 brought a provisional government to power, which continued to keep Russia in World War One. Eventually, Alexander Kerensky came to dominate the government.
Kerensky came under withering criticism when a series of offensives conducted by the Russian Army at Kerensky’s urging failed. It was a series of attacks, known as the Kerensky Offensive.
The failure of the Kerensky Offensive convinced ultra-nationalist elements in the Russian army to begin plotting the demise of the Provisional Government. The coup plot was discovered, and the main central members, including General Kornilov, were imprisoned.
However, the scale of the coup and the Nationalists' anger at the government resulted in a loss of credibility on the part of the Provisional Government. This set the stage for the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks.
The lesson: Even if a government suppresses a plot, it can reveal the lack of control and weakness of a government. Other powerful elements that may like to see the regime go down can begin aiming to take over.
The July 20 Plot on Hitler
With the German Army being pressed from the west and east by the Allies in 1944, a cabal of German army officers began plotting to kill Adolf Hitler with the hopes of negotiation with the Allied powers.
The officers set a bomb to kill Hitler during a conference, yet Hitler survived the blast mostly due to pure luck.
Hitler ordered a widespread investigation. Diaries and notes were discovered in the homes of many plotters, leading to the discovery of prior plots. Over 7,000 people were arrested, and 4980 people were executed.
Beyond this widespread purge, nothing much changed. Hitler’s position remained beyond challenge domestically, all the way to his suicide the following year.
The lesson: Failed military coups and plots do not necessarily lead to changes in the domestic order, particularly when an effective purge of dissident elements can be identified and eliminated as a result of the coup.
These are just some potential points of comparison. The 1991 KGB coup against Gorbachev, where KGB officers tried to reverse liberal reforms is one. The February 21st Incident of 1936 in Imperial Japan, where militarist officers tried to establish a militarist state, failed, but laid the groundwork for the military domination of civilian government.
History never repeats, but rhymes is a bit of Mark Twain's wisdom. Looking back at historical coups may provide some level of understanding of events to come. But conditions, reactions, and personalities of history tend to be unique and make direct comparisons challenging.
Like Kerensky, Putin’s collapsing credibility may make managing the war effort a near-impossible task as criticism of his war management results in the destabilization of his government.
Conversely, Putin may be able to use the incident to identify less loyal sectors of his governing force and begin to purge them to increase the stability of his regime. Politicians, military officers, and police units that seemed to support the Wagnerites might become targets of the FSB in an ever-broadening net.
One thing is certain—Putin’s regime is weaker now than it was at any point in recent memory.