Criminal Adventures

If you’re going to stage a military coup, you generally need military buy-in. Ideally, you are the military in a military coup, or at least a faction of the military.

A military coup not perpetrated by the military — or by political entrepreneurs aligned with rebellious elements inside the military — isn’t a military coup. It’s just a civil war. And not one you’re especially likely to win, particularly not in modernity, because the military has a monopoly on modern weapons like warplanes and cruise missiles.

None of that’s lost on Yevgeniy Prigozhin, nor was it lost on an officer in a Ukrainian artillery unit who, amid bizarre headlines out of Russia, told The Washington Post he was “very skeptical” of the idea that Prigozhin and his notorious band of ragtag mercenaries were serious about what Russia’s Defense Ministry on Saturday called a “criminal adventure.” “It could be a political move — some kind of staging,” the Ukrainian fighter said.

If Prigozhin’s cartoonishly brazen actions were a ruse, it was an elaborate ploy. Complete with a nationally televised address from Vladimir Putin who, without naming Prigozhin, described The Wagner Group’s apparent occupation of Russia’s Southern Military District command center as “a stab in the back of our country and our people.” Putin promised to “stabilize the situation” in Rostov-on-Don, where Prigozhin, speaking from inside the military headquarters, again accused the Defense Ministry of lying to the Russian public about battlefield realities in Ukraine. “A huge amount of territory has been lost,” he said. “The number of soldiers killed is three to four times more than it is documented.”

Tensions between Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry are nothing new, nor is the idea that the family feud is part ploy. In early May, Prigozhin became a trending topic across Western social media when, in a characteristically bombastic video address, he threatened to pull his troops out of the fight for Bakhmut, citing an ammo shortage he blamed on Russia’s top military brass. The timing of the threat — on Victory Day in Russia, just minutes after Putin’s commemorative address — was an affront to the Kremlin, and the language Prigozhin employed while delivering the message was egregiously caustic.

Less than two weeks later, Prigozhin claimed control of Bakhmut for Putin, though, only to leave the city almost immediately. This month, he started taking hostages. Russian hostages. It was actually just one hostage, an officer who, under duress, admitted to firing on Wagner units. If you believe Prigozhin’s story, the last straw was a new Russian military strike on Wagner positions, which he claimed were “assaulted from the rear.” (I know. I know.) Prigozhin cited that alleged escalation in calling on Russians (all Russians) to join 25,000 of his men in an uprising against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the focal point of Prigozhin’s frequent ire. If this was a real rebellion, Prigozhin’s aim was almost surely to force an overhaul at the Defense Ministry, starting with Shoigu’s ouster.

The ministry routinely denies Prigozhin’s claims of endemic ineptitude, and like Putin, generally avoids naming him. According to leaked US intelligence, the Kremlin struggled this year to develop a coherent strategy for countering Prigozhin’s increasingly shrill rhetoric. That rhetoric turned into action on Saturday, when he led Wagner units across the border into Rostov-on-Don. Wagner apparently encountered little, if any, resistance while crossing. Prigozhin claimed some Russian soldiers and conscripts were happy to see him. He later told a pair of senior Russian military commanders that he shot down three helicopters after they fired on Wagner units. “We’ll bring them all down if you keep sending them,” he said, in a video posted to social media.

Columns of Wagner military vehicles were seen barreling north, up a highway near Voronezh, presumably on their way to Moscow, which the Kremlin hastily fortified, albeit not in a way that suggested Putin expected an actual fire fight for control of the capital. Later, Prigozhin turned around. “In 24 hours we got to within 200 km of Moscow,” he said, late Saturday. “Now is the moment when blood could be shed. Therefore, taking full responsibility for the fact that Russian blood could be spilled, we are turning our columns around and returning to our field camps.”

To state the obvious, Wagner can’t win a war with the Russian military. Prigozhin is hopelessly outgunned, and he only has 25,000 men. The prospect of an outright fight for control of the Kremlin is too laughable to take seriously, so assuming this was all real in the first place, Prigozhin must’ve had some other plan in mind that didn’t involve a fight.

It was possible, I guess, that he believed he could win over Shoigu’s subordinates. It was also possible that Western intelligence agencies were involved and that, together, they suspected a push from Prigozhin could be a tipping point for a military frustrated by a war that plainly isn’t going well. Or maybe even a tipping point for everyday Russians.

Putin called the developments “a deadly threat” to Russian statehood and “a blow to the Russian people.” He pledged “tough” actions and said anyone “who deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal… will suffer inevitable punishment both before the law and before our people.” He didn’t obfuscate, or try to downplay the situation, which was a bit odd. He called Saturday a “military rebellion,” and said some Wagner personnel “raised arms against their comrades-in-arms and betrayed Russia.” Prigozhin said Putin was “deeply mistaken regarding the betrayal of the motherland.” “We’re saving Russia,” he said, during the meeting with Russian defense commanders in Rostov-on-Don.

Officially, there was a warrant out for Prigozhin’s arrest. The fact that it wasn’t executed at any point Saturday spoke to something, but it wasn’t entirely clear what. The very fact that Prigozhin lived to turn his troops around was a testament to more than just Wagner’s effectiveness on the battlefield in Ukraine and the group’s years of service as Putin’s private, extraterritorial army.

The Defense Ministry has presumably had every opportunity to assassinate Prigozhin in Ukraine and blame it on Kyiv or errant shelling or a falling piano. He spent Saturday parading around Russia with armored vehicles, commandeering critical military command posts and making all kinds of televised threats while brandishing an assault rifle. If that were anyone else, he’d be tied up in a dungeon somewhere with Putin’s (frail, old) hands around his throat.

If this wasn’t a charade, about the best anyone can do is throw up their own hands and hope for the “best,” whatever the “best” means to you in this context. I have my doubts, but it seemed real enough by Saturday evening in Russia, when Prigozhin finally (and perhaps temporarily) backed down. Ramzan Kadyrov lambasted Prigozhin and pledged fealty to Putin, the Kremlin said Recep Tayyip Erdogan (coup-survivor extraordinaire) reached out to offer his “full support” and Putin was on the phone with Alexander Lukashenko, who reportedly convinced Prigozhin to stop short of Moscow.

Prigozhin indicated he didn’t plan to surrender. “We are all ready to die,” he declared. That’s his prerogative, but the rest of us aren’t. Ready to die, I mean. There’d be a lot of nukes up for grabs in a failed Russian state. Frankly, the country would have to be occupied by an international coalition if it devolved into chaos. In that sense, I suppose we should hope the whole thing was Putin playing 3D domestic chess.

The Ukrainian soldier who spoke to Western media on Saturday summed it up. “Time will tell what it will grow into,” he said.

Under the deal brokered by Lukashenko, Prigozhin will flee to Belarus and his troops will be given the option to sign contracts with the Russian military. Those who don’t won’t be prosecuted for Saturday’s events in consideration of their “heroism” in Ukraine. Charges against Prigozhin were dropped.


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17 thoughts on “Criminal Adventures

  1. Or how about ” maskirovka” where Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechen and Prigozhin are really headed for Veronezh and then Kyiv? Who knows is right?

  2. Really the best balanced post I’ve seen here on Geopolitical matters in a while . A lot of surprises in Geopolitics but events are unpredictable and never without a cause . History can often be the best clue.

  3. hoping Ukraine will benefit from this development … I suppose the more drawn out it is time wise the better for the liberation efforts…

  4. I’m with the Ukrainian soldier. Too soon to tell what they’re really doing. You can’t believe a word any of them say. Just don’t get yourself stretched too thin. The Russians may just be trying to get the Ukrainian reserves committed before throwing in their own reserves and the Wagner boys.

  5. Personally I think it’s all a Russian fake. They are like kids in the playground pretending to fight in front of teacher. Way too contrived.

  6. I’d imagine that Kadyrov cut himself a good deal before repeating his allegiance to Putin. A battle between the two fiercest and most ruthless group of fighters in Ukraine would have been something to behold.

    The west seems to assume that anyone would be better than Putin. An unfettered Prigozhin might well be far worse for Ukraine.

    1. But seriously, why are we getting all riled up over this Russian stuff. There are more important issues, no?

      “GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn Floats Conspiracy Theory On Titanic Sub And Hunter Biden”

      I’m sure Hunter has something to do with this Ukraine stuff. But do look at Donald Trump’s latest reflections on the matter. Biden is in Xi’s pocket!

  7. Prigozkin likely aborted his coup attempt and turned his Wagner forces around short of Moscow when key pre-arranged support in the Kremlin (and the Chechen leader) failed to materialize. Lukashenko gave Prigozkin a haven in Belarus to regroup before he mounts his next challenge to the corrupt Kremlin capo(s).

  8. We will probably never know the real story. We do know it is not a good look for putin/russia. The Wagner leader was able to leave unhurt. Whats to stop the next warlord or wayward general?

  9. Also there will be second and third order effects from this from putin. If you were in his shoes would this make you more relaxed or less about who you could trust? The spooks will be out in full force trying to figure out if anybody was in cahoots or was thinking about it or knew and said nothing…

    1. Not at all.
      My guess is that Prigozhin wants Shoigu’s job (minister of defense). Prigozhin has been telling Putin what he wants and Putin wasn’t agreeing to allow Prigozhin to take over- so Prigozhin had to stage a march on Moscow to show Putin the weakness of Shoigu.
      It is Shoigu who should worry.

  10. It would have been wild to watch how the algos would have reacted to the news flow if it had been on Monday, rather than on Saturday.

    Would it have triggered an implied volatility storm? How would the put/call vol skew have moved? Would some algos actually withdraw until things settled?

    It didn’t happen but it should be food for thought going forward.

  11. The outcomes seems to be playing out as per the predications of our Dear Leader on Saturday. Well done, sir!

    But, well, how can we be sure that you are not some kind of large dataset algo to make these prescient calls?

  12. I think that some of the reason for the Wagner chief’s frustration is the clear incompetence of the Russian army. I think the bigger reason for him to head for Russia was to get the 47 million the FSB found at his headquarters for payroll for his troops and to pay off widows. The Belarus dictator must have agreed to give him the money to stop the crisis. The Wagner chief had to know if he went too close to Moscow that he would be badly outnumbered and at some point there would be no way to turn around.

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