UPDATE: Mark Sumner
And the deal stood up … how long? Just long enough for Putin to believe that Prigozhin no longer controls his forces, that’s how long.
On Saturday evening, the leader of Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, got into a car and was taken to a big grassy farm upstate where the weather is warm and there are plenty of other old dogs to play with. Or at least, that’s certainly how it seemed to his mercenary organization he lead, because as of Monday morning Wagner said they hadn’t heard from their erstwhile boss since he took his last selfie with Russian generals, climbed into the back seat of an SUV, and paused for a moment to exchange a high-five with a few adoring fans.
Prigozhin, who has spent the last year making daily, if not hourly, pronouncements on the state of the war, the actions of his troops, and the idiocy of the Russian military, finally released audio on Monday evening discussing his decision to halt his to that point successful mutiny. However, it’s unclear that this audio is actually “new,” leading many to speculate that the image right behind his window in that SUV was prophetic. There are also multiple reports, including from Russian state agencies, that the criminal case against Prigozhin has not been dropped as the agreement that sent Prigozhin to Belarus promised, and that the FSB is continuing to “investigate” potential charges against the mercenary warlord who came within a few hours of marching his forces into Moscow.
Meanwhile, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who was mysteriously missing since before Wagner crossed the border into Russia, has also reportedly reappeared. Maybe. But at the same time there are reports that Putin intends to replace both Shoigu and head of ground forces, Gen Valery Gerasimov, with someone he considers more loyal, even if that someone has very limited military experience.
A day and a half since Russia appeared hours away from a coup, everything still seems to be riding the edge of chaos. What happened on Saturday seems so improbable that everyone is still trying to put it in some kind of context that can be understood. Can Prigozhin survive? Is he already dead? Can Vladimir Putin survive? How soon might Russia be dead?
For those who might have actually put some weekend in their weekend, here’s a quick recap:
After months of escalating complaints about the military leadership and shooting videos in which he claimed that thousands of Wagner mercenaries were dying due to poor support from the military leadership, with Shoigu in particular coming in for abuse, Prigozhin posted a video in which he claimed hundreds of “his men” had been killed by a Russian missile that had deliberately targeted their base. More than many previous videos from Prigozhin, this one appeared to have been staged. That impression wasn’t helped by how many members of Wagner had hinted that something big was coming.
Whether or not any Wagner forces had actually been victims of a deliberate strike, Prigozhin used this as an excuse to order his force across the border into Russia. In the early hours of Saturday, they moved through border stations—where guards carefully avoided any confrontation—and entered the city of Rostov-on-Don just at dawn. There, Wagner forces captured the police headquarters, the city offices, and most importantly the southern command of the Russian military. As they were entering Rostov, Wagner forces shot down a Russian military helicopter (which was probably not there to stop them). Soon after parking tanks around the military command and taking all the commanders there hostage, they shot down a second helicopter, which was left smoking on the edge of the city.
Then, with Prigozhin installed in Rostov, talking to Russian generals who nodded politely, a portion of the Wagner force continued up the M-4 highway in the direction of Moscow. Within a few hours, those forces reached the city of Voronezh, over 500 kilometers to the north. Russian military helicopters bombed their own fuel depots near the city in an apparent attempt to starve the Wagner convoy, which reportedly included as many as 400 vehicles. That didn’t work.
By Saturday afternoon, Wagner forces had entered Moscow Oblast and were only about 200 km from the city. Bridges had been removed to make their progress more difficult. More helicopters and an Il-22M “airborne command post” plane were on the ground. In total, Wagner appeared to have shot down one KA-52 attack helicopter, one MI-35 attack helicopter, three MI-8 reconnaissance helicopters, and that plane—seven aircraft and roughly 39 total crew members in what one source called “the worst day of the war for the Russian Air Force.” Wagner had also picked up at least a couple of Russian military vehicles along the way, with at least one vehicle with markings for the military taking part in the occupation of Rostov.
Then, just as reports were coming in that Putin had left Moscow, oligarchs were looking for a way out, and multiple military units had declared themselves for Prigozhin … it was all over. In a deal negotiated with the help of Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, Prigozhi told his forces to turn around, promised that his men would return to their military camps in Ukraine, and agreed to join Lukashenko in Minsk.
In return, Putin announced that the criminal case against Prigozhin was being dropped, no charges would be levied against Wagner forces who took part in the aborted coup, and those soldiers would be given a choice between signing up with the Russian military and … something something. Prigozhin climbed into that SUV, his convoy turned around and drove back to Rostov, and … that was this weekend in Russia.
How any of this was supposed to work is baffling. Sure, Wagner just demonstrated that they could stroll through Russia’s internal defenses like Michael Meyers visiting a day care, and the reaction of Russian civilians they encountered demonstrated a genuine desire to see Putin replaced by a guy they mostly knew from his screaming on social media, but sure … it’s all okay now and all those soldiers can just go back to camp. The camp where Prigozhin just said the Russian military had attacked them with missiles. And the camp where he said they weren’t getting supplies. Is all good now.
On Monday, a lengthy audio message from Prigozhin appeared on Telegram. In this message Prigozhin restated that the purpose of his “March of Justice” was to resist the earlier call that Wagner had to sign on to report to Shoigu through the military chain of command, and that his deal with Lukashenko is not just a deal for his personal safety but “for the further work of Wagner PMC in legal jurisdiction.” Though it’s hard to believe that Lukashenko would be eager to accept a group of guys who could likely remove him from power during his morning nap.
In talking about the easy stroll of his forces through Russia, Prigozhin drew what was sure to be a painful parallel.
”When on June 23-24 we walked past Russian cities, civilians met us with the flags of Russia and with the emblems and flags of the Wagner PMC. They were all happy when we came and when we passed by. Many of them still write words of support, and some are disappointed that we stopped. Because in the march of justice, in addition to our struggle for existence, they saw support for the fight against bureaucracy and other ailments that exist in our country today. …
The civilians were glad to see us. We showed a master class on what February 24, 2022 should have looked like.”
The old “Mortal Kombat” game probably said it best: Fatality!
If Prigozhin really has survived to be ripping off Putin’s nose with a statement that Putin could not take Kyiv in 16 months but Prigozhin could have taken Moscow in a day, it’s another sign of just how incredibly weak all of this makes Russia, Putin, Gerasimov, and Shoigu.
Maybe Putin will run down to Rostov, pump the flesh, and reassure the public that he’s got this. Maybe Wagner forces will really be allowed to go home, relocated to Minsk, or to head off for more raping and pillaging in Africa without being punished for their actions over the weekend. Maybe Russia will find some way to keep their invasion of Ukraine viable.
All of that seems very, very improbable. But then, so does every moment of the action that played out in the 24 hours that started before dawn on Saturday.
What happens to Shoigu?
Over the weekend, just about every report on Prigozhin’s departure included an assumption that both Shoigu and Gerasimov were done. There were even confident reports that both were to be replaced by Alexey Dyumin. Dyumin is currently the governor of Tula Oblast (which happens to be just about where Wagner forces pumped the brakes on Saturday). He’s also Vladimir Putin’s former chief bodyguard. Like Putin, Dyumin has a history in Russia’s various security agencies, in particular the FSK—direct successor to the KGB.
Despite an apparent lack of any real military experience, Dyumin’s closeness to Putin means he has already done a stint as deputy commander of Russian ground forces and carries a rank of lieutenant general. So in terms of people who Putin considers trustworthy and in position to take on one or more of the roles expected to open up soon, Dyumin is probably the logical candidate.
Whether or not he can run a war seems irrelevant. It’s not as if Shoigu or Gerasimov were legendary tacticians.
When it comes to Shoigu, he reportedly resurfaced on Monday with the release of videos showing him leaning over maps and apparently studying conditions in Ukraine. These videos are probably, though not certainly, new. It’s unlikely the Russian minister of defense has been sent to that farm upstate. Yet.
The biggest concern for Putin is probably that firing Shoigu now would make it look like Prigozhin obtained all his announced goals without paying any price. So it’s likely that Shoigu will stay on for now, at least publicly, until a suitable time has passed before being replaced by Dyumin or another Putin-approved candidate.
If Shoigu doesn’t go soon, it’s a very good signal that Prigozhin is having fun chasing rabbits.
What about Wagner?
This may not be the $64 trillion question (that one is coming), but it’s at least a 25,000-men-and-their-machines-of-war question. It’s unclear how many members of Wagner will be ready to sign on the dotted line and become bottom-rung objects of scorn within Russian military units. Being forced to place Wagner under the direct command of the Russian military was one of the things that Prigozhin was supposedly fighting against, but as part of his negotiations he appears to have signed up to do not only that, but to essentially dissolve Wagner.
Wagner forces now get the pleasure of “returning to camps” where the likelihood of anyone bringing them fresh bullets, or even a fresh bowl of borscht, seems highly remote. Then they get a choice between signing up to join the Russian military, where they’ll almost certainly be given the biggest **** jobs any military commander can find until there’s a convenient time to send them into battle with or without weapons, or they can … it’s really unclear. Go home? Go to Africa? Go to hell and take their tanks with them?
Losing Wagner completely means that Russia loses 25,000 experienced troops, but splitting those forces up and sticking them piecemeal into Russian units where they’ll get the side-eye forever doesn’t seem as if it's a great way to keep that force within the Russian military. Leaving Wagner intact under the command of some new leader might be an option, except it doesn’t seem to be an option. Wagner, at least as it existed in Ukraine (and temporarily in Russia), appears to be gone.
There are already some reports that Wagner fighters have been arrested, or otherwise restrained by military units. These reports are unconfirmed, but believable.
What about the Russian military?
Here’s a big puzzler. All along the route from the Ukrainian border to Rostov, from Rostov to Voronezh, and from Voronezh until Prigozhin called a halt, there was next to no Russian military opposition to the Wagner advance. It’s completely understandable why border guards and Rosgvardiya units arrayed in roadblocks along the M-4 hustled to get out of the way. After all, 10,000 guys with tanks aren’t likely to calmly be turned back by half a dozen guys carrying rusty rifles.
But Wagner went past major military installations in cities along the way, and not one squad seems to have been arrayed in their path. The Third Motor Rifle Division stationed at Boguchar offered no opposition. Neither did the 106th Airborne at Tula or the 150th Motor Rifle Division at Novocherkassk. Saturday just seemed like an excellent time to remain in their barracks and watch cartoons. Not even the two Guards divisions assigned to protect Moscow answered the call to form up defenses. That is something everyone is bound to notice.
It’s even hard to find someone in the military chain of command other than Putin or Air Forces Commander Gen. Sergey Surovikin (who, strangely enough, was the only person Prigozhin had said he would take orders from … before he refused to take those orders). Surovikin has held various titles since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine began, and has variously been promoted, demoted, and moved sideways in actions that seemed unrelated to any success on the ground. He was briefly in charge of all forces in Ukraine before being replaced by Gerasimov.
Other than Surovikin, most Russian generals appear to have developed a bad case of laryngitis on Saturday, and those few that were talking were often not saying anything that Moscow wanted to hear.
As the Wagner convoy neared Moscow, some units, and even commanders, hopped onto social media to declare that they were all in with Prigozhin. These reportedly included:
Guards brigades in Rostov-on-Don.
The “elite” 108th Spetsnaz Detachment.
Multiple units of Rosgvardia at Voronezh and Boguchar.
Border guards by the score.
It may be easy to forgive those who pledged their allegiance to Prigozhin when staring down the barrel of a Wagner tank. However, it’s going to be a bit tougher to ignore regular military units inside Ukraine that sent attaboys via video or social media.
Everyone who so much as hinted at sympathy to Prigozhin now has to be looking over their shoulder for the guy who is going to put a bullet in their back.
What about Putin?
The one thing that seems to garner universal agreement—unless it’s on tankie Twitter—is that Putin comes out of this whole affair looking incredibly weak. He couldn’t manage to scrape together anyone to fight Prigozhin. The best he could muster was ordering in the TikTok brigades of Chechen blowhard Ramzan Kadyrov who, predictably, did absolutely nothing.
Putin reportedly left Moscow for his country estate as Prigozhin’s forces approached. But if he had a big-screen TV handy, he could have still watched the Russian people in the streets of at least two cities chanting, “Wagner! Wagner! Wagner!”
Somehow, the dictator who was so concerned about a military hero emerging that he regularly removed officers who showed signs of success found himself overshadowed by his former chef and a bunch of guys largely recruited from prisons. That seemed like a pretty good measure of how many Russians want change, even if it means changing out one brutal egotist for another.
The number of predictions about how long Putin will last now is certainly larger than the amount of time Putin will last now, but his weakness might be gauged by the fact that he gave a speech in Moscow this morning and did not even mention the Wagner mutiny.
Many writers have cited the Kornilov affair, an attempted coup in 1917 that didn’t overthrow the Russian provisional government but so weakened it that it opened the way for Lenin just months later. It’s just one of several instances in which a failed coup has turned out to be the opening act to a Big Show to come.
If Vladimir Putin is still running Russia in six months, a lot of people are going to be very surprised. That may include Putin.
But hey, maybe he can make a deal to move to Minsk. I hear it's warm there all the time, and there are many rabbits to chase.
What about Russia?
Finally, the big question. Following the actions over this weekend, here’s what’s clear:
The Russian federation is hollow. All those statements about over 90% of the military being off in Ukraine turn out to be true. Not only that, but Russia is so lacking in reserves it couldn’t detach forces to defend its own capital. Prigozhin’s note didn't feature a “ya busted,” but it might as well have.
It’s not just Putin’s grip on the Kremlin that’s in doubt, but Moscow’s ability to hold subjugated areas in line. It’s been clear for months that CSTO, Putin’s own mini-NATO alternative, had ceased to be an operational thing. The Russian federation seems to be lining up to follow. That some region didn’t just declare its independence over the weekend is probably more a matter of luck than continued fear of consequences.
How long Russia can sustain a viable military force in Ukraine under these circumstances is highly, highly questionable. The other thing that came after the Kornilov affair and the changeover of Russian control was the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in which Russia withdrew its forces from World War I and brought its troops home to point guns at each other.
Did Vladimir Putin go to war with Ukraine and lose Russia? Not just yet. But that may well be where things are going. Soon.
Note: The thing missing from this Ukraine update is … Ukraine. And there are significant developments on the ground, including Ukrainian forces crossing the Dnipro river near Kherson. So expect a second article today looking at what’s happened in Ukraine since Prigozhin shifted the media focus away from the battlefield.