The world was captivated this weekend as Russian mercenaries exited Ukraine and started marching back into Russia. The group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin—head of the paramilitary outfit the Wagner Group—took control of the southern Russia city of Rostov-on-Don by early Saturday. The fighters then went on to take control of Voronezh, between Rostov-on-Don and Moscow, reportedly with the help of troops and commanders in the Russian military.
A significant conflict within Russia seemed imminent—until Pregozhin's forces suddenly retreated.
So…what the heck was this? No one is entirely sure. But the situation in Russia and Ukraine has returned, more or less, to the regrettable status quo.
How It Started
Prigozhin's turn "from 'malcontent Russian paramilitary leader' to 'armed rebel threatening to take Russian territory and oust Russia's top military leadership'"—as Daniel Drezner put it—didn't come out of the blue. "Prigozhin has been lobbing insults at Russia's military leadership for many weeks," as The Atlantic's Anne Applebaum noted on Friday, the day Prigozhin "broke with the official narrative and directly blamed them, and their oligarch friends, for launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022."
On Friday, Prigozhin said that Russia's publicly stated reasons for invading Ukraine were a sham and that the invasion was really premised on "completely different reasons"—namely, greedy Russian elites yearning to get more out of Ukraine's Donbas region, which they had been plundering since 2014.
"The evil brought by the military leadership of the country must be stopped," Prigozhin declared:
They neglect the lives of soldiers. They forgot the word "justice," and we will bring it back.
Those, who destroyed today our guys, who destroyed tens, tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers will be punished.
I'm asking: no one resist. Everyone who will try to resist, we will consider them a danger and destroy them immediately, including any checkpoints on our way. And any aviation that we see above our heads.
I'm asking everyone to remain calm, do not succumb to provocations, and remain in their houses. Ideally, those along our way, do not go outside.
After we finished what we started, we will return to the frontline to protect our motherland.
Presidential authority, Government, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Rosgvardia, and other departments will continue operating as before.
We will deal with those who destroy Russian soldiers. And we will return to the frontline.
Justice in the Army will be restored. And after this, justice for the whole of Russia.
Needless to say, this does not mean Prigozhin was motivated by a sudden, pure concern for justice.
Don't Call It a Coup Attempt?
"I think Prigozhin's behavior can best be explained by good-old-fashioned prospect theory," wrote Drezner. "He has been feuding with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and earlier this month Putin made it clear to Russian military bloggers that the time had come for Wagner Group forces to be put under control of the Russian military. After that negative shock, Progizhin appears to be gambling for resurrection."
"Prigozhin is cynical, brutal, and violent. He and his men are motivated by money and self-interest," suggested Applebaum. "Prigozhin is offering them a psychologically comfortable explanation for their current predicament: They failed to defeat Ukraine because they were betrayed by their leaders."
Nonetheless, the prospect of someone—anyone—sticking it to Putin was exciting for many onlookers.
While not quite a coup attempt, it promised to perhaps change the course of the Russian war in Ukraine—though some experts doubted from the onset that it could amount to much.
"What is going on in #Russia is no military coup," tweeted Oxford professor of government Stathis Kalyvas. "Coups tend to be launched at the center seeking to generate cascades of compliance. This is an armed rebellion launched from a peripheral stronghold. Hard to see how it could succeed short of mass defections in the Russian military."
"This was a mutiny more than a coup or an insurrection," suggested Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King's College London, "but possibly to Prigozhin's surprise and certainly Putin's alarm it almost turned into something more."
How It's Going
And then, by Saturday afternoon, it was all over. Prigozhin and his men retreated. Moscow was unscathed.
"What had started as a mutinous thunder-run to Moscow by the Wagner Group ended up being something more like a Joyride of the Valkyries," commented the Ukraine-based journalist Tim Mak.
Prigozhin issued the following statement:
They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner. We came out on 23 June to the March of Justice. In a day, we walked to nearly 200km away from Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of blood of our fighters. Now, the moment has come when blood may spill. That's why, understanding the responsibility for spilling Russian blood on one of the sides, we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan.
Prigozhin's explanation for retreat—that he did not want more bloodshed—rings a bit hollow, Freedman suggests:
Prigozhin's own explanation was that he did not want more Russian blood to be shed, but this is not a man known for his squeamishness when it comes to the loss of human life, and who cannot have supposed when he set off from the Donbas across the border into Russia that nobody would get hurt. There were casualties. There were strikes against the Wagner column from the air. Its air defences appear to have shot down six helicopters and an Il-18 command and control aircraft, killing as many as 13 pilots.
The prospective battle on the outskirts of Moscow did not promise to be massive. Far from involving the mass armies or huge crowds usually to the fore at such potentially transformational moments in Russian history, this was small beer….As the drive to Moscow was unexpectedly quick reinforcements might have arrived too late if fighting had begun on Saturday evening. This might have ended up as a bloody encounter but that was not certain.
I suspect a bigger issue than the prospect of a fight for the city was that Prigozhin was unsure of where this adventure was taking him. His plan, which had apparently been under development since the early spring, had gone further than he had expected. Perhaps it really was about getting rid of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, or ensuring the status, role, and funding of his Wagner group post-Bakhmut, with no intent to take out Putin. Putin, however, unsurprisingly took his withering criticisms of his military leadership ("scumbags," "should be shot") and in particular his debunking of the rationale for the war, personally. Once denounced and threatened by the President Prigozhin had little choice but to use his military strength to protect himself and force some sort of deal with the Kremlin.
There was reportedly a deal struck between the Wagner Group and Russian authorities to let Prigozhin and his men avoid prosecution. From the Associated Press:
Under the deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighboring Belarus, which has supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped.
The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a "betrayal" and "treason."
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin's "highest goal" was "to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results."
In the end, writes Freedman, "this great clash between Putin and Prigozhin, on which the future of Russia and so much else depended, ended as an anti-climactic no-score draw, damaging both men."
"It is impossible to know whether Prigozhin's weekend adventure will make him a major player in Russia's future, or award him a death sentence," adds Aris Roussinos at UnHerd. "This dramatic Saturday roadshow simultaneously humiliated Putin, and suddenly established Prigozhin's own position—if only for a day—as the de facto second most powerful man in Russia. His survival will now depend on whether Putin finds the risks embodied in Prigozhin, greater than the potential rewards he promises if only given the opportunity to expand his role."
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— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) June 23, 2023
Read more from the decision at The Volokh Conspiracy.
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