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A Civil War In Russia Would Not Be A Complete Victory For Ukraine
The Wagner Mutiny, Day 2
In remarks made this morning, Vladimir Putin did not use Yevgeny Prigozhin’s name, but he was unambiguous in denouncing the Wagner PMC leader’s day-old mutiny. Invoking history and the need for unity against Ukraine, Putin vowed retribution. “Exorbitant ambitions and personal interests have led to treason,” he said, warning that “our actions to protect the Motherland from such a threat will be harsh.”
“Everyone who deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, embarked on a path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer the inevitable punishment, they will answer both before the law and before our people.”
This is tough talk in a dynamic situation. As of this writing, Wagner forces are reportedly in control of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, at least halfway along the highway to Moscow. Russian units are joining the mutiny along their route rather than resist. Tula Oblast, the last stop before Moscow, is unlikely to offer any resistance, either.
In fact, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) seems paralyzed and at a loss what to do. About 97 percent of their forces are currently in Ukraine. Using a Pantsir radar system and MANPADS, Wagner have so far destroyed as many as four aircraft sent to hit them in convoy. Sorties are reportedly trying to intercept the long convoy on its way to Tula. Whatever else happens, this has been another embarrassing debacle for Prigozhin’s enemies. He should never have gotten this far.
Prigozhin began his convoy yesterday with a message alleging that MoD had attacked Wagner bases. Videos of the alleged aftermath are painfully obvious fakes. Perhaps Prigozhin had foreknowledge of MoD attacks and preempted them. More realistically, though, Prigozhin likely crossed this Rubicon because Valery Gerasimov and Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin’s enemies in the MoD, were leaning so hard on Wagner to sign a formal service contract with the state and subordinate themselves as a command. This administrative assault on his (illegal) private military company was likely Prigozhin’s personal Rubicon.
It may have annoyed the GRU as well. Prigozhin was recorded in Rostov yesterday talking with a deputy defense minister and Vladimir Stepanovich Alekseev, deputy chief of Russia's military intelligence service. Wagner has such deep ties to GRU that they are often considered a de facto subsidiary organization of Russia’s military intelligence agency. We may simply be watching another chapter in Russia’s long Chekist history of rule by professional spies. GRU’s deep state rivalry with Putin’s FSB could be a motivator. Their access to military formations across Russia could explain why none are opposing Wagner’s advance on the ground.
Put simply, Putin may have already lost control. According to University of Chicago professor Konstantin Sonin, “the Wagner group has long had their political arm and a insider successor candidate, the Tula governor Alexey Dyumin.” This same Governor Dyumin, a military intelligence veteran, began the day by telling motorists to stay off the highways, thus leaving them clear for a convoy said to be 50 km (30 mi) long, which may yet reach Tula today. Put simply, Prigozhin may already have a path to Moscow set up in advance.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong about all of this. Putin might be able to block Wagner in Tula Oblast, or the Russian Air Force might get their act together for once and stop that convoy. My point here is that, whereas this mutiny began yesterday with everyone assuming that Prigozhin would fail in operatic fashion, his chances may seem vastly better by Monday morning. It might even be all over.
Putin is the most isolated man in Russia. Two weeks ago, he appeared with Shoigu in public and pointedly turned his back to the general. Both the MoD and FSB have been on his shitlist throughout the war. If anything, Putin seemed sympathetic to Prigozhin’s complaints about logistical and supply shortcomings. He gave Wagner credit for taking Bakhmut, that great bloody prize. Prigozhin was always careful to never name Putin, making only the most oblique references to the man at the top. By criticizing all of Putin’s men, however, Prigozhin was implicating Putin’s leadership. The strain was visible. In order to defeat Prigozhin, he must rely more than ever on these same losers to have his back. Will they?
Notably, Prigozhin still did not call out Putin yesterday as he embarked on his adventure. Instead, he declared in an audio statement that “the conscripts who were thrown to block our path” in Rostov had “moved away” rather than confront Wagner. the second half of his statement was clearly aimed at encouraging Russian MoD troops to disobey orders to fight Wagner.
We do not fight with children. We do not kill children. Shoygu is killing children by throwing untrained soldiers, conscripts included, into the war.
He set up 18-year-old lads against us. They’re like children and grandchildren to us. Therefore, these lads will live and return to their mothers.
We only fight with professionals. But if someone stands in our path, we will destroy everything in our way.
We lend a hand to anyone. No need to spit in this hand. We are moving forward, going to the end.
Speed, shock, and awe: this is the conqueror’s swagger. ‘Either join us or get out of the way.’ Perhaps it will work. Having won a fearsome reputation as professional killers, Prigozhin’s men are liable to intimidate any poorly-trained, poorly-led, poorly-armed formations sent against them. In combat they will likely outmatch the Rosgvardia, or Russian National Guard, Putin’s internal security troops. No wonder Putin looks so old and gray today.
Prigozhin was always a strange political project of Putin. It was never quite clear what the autocrat saw in his oligarch, except perhaps that he was a check on Gerasimov and Shoigu, both oligarchs. Kremlin power dynamics are obscure and I am certainly no expert on the cliques among the siloviki, or “strongmen” running the country from Moscow. However, it seems clear that the subterranean faultlines of power in Russia are shifting. More immediate to the interests of Ukraine, Prigozhin already threatens the primary logistical corridor to Russia’s front lines in Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. Prigozhin began with a public feud with MoD over shells and supplies. Having seized the MoD offices in Rostov, the main logistical hub for Russia’s war in Ukraine, Wagner controls the flow of shells and supplies to the front.
Wild rumors abound. As I write this, Putin’s private plane has apparently flown to St. Petersburg and Alexander Lukashenko, dictator of Belarus, is in Turkey. Dmitry Medvedev has reportedly fled the capital. The president of Kazakhstan has reportedly declined to help suppress the Wagner mutiny, saying that it is an internal matter to Russia which does not require action under the terms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Skytrackers say private jets are taking off from Moscow. Videos of Rostov citizens giving food and water to Wagner fighters in the streets have hit Twitter.
Putin has closed bridges over the Oka River south of Moscow, backing up traffic for miles. If Prigozhin is half the planner he seems to be, it will not matter, for he will already have infiltrated lots of his people into Moscow. Appearing in a video this morning, Prigozhin further set up the information conditions for his coup by declaring that the “killed number of soldiers is three to four times more than what is being reported in the documents ot the top, and what gets reported to the top is ten times what gets reported on television.”
“Total casualties are up to 1,000 people on some days,” he said. “These are killed, wounded, and the so-called refuseniks who refuse not because they’re cowardly, as I’ve said before, but because they have no choice! No munitions, no command.” He is the truth-teller, the father-figure to soldiers, but is he a peacemaker? Doubtful.
Obviously, Ukraine may stand to gain from this “stab in the back.” Putin is the primary impediment to peace in the Kremlin. He has never backed down from his maximalist demands.
In a Friday morning Telegram video, however, Prigozhin rubbished the entire war in Ukraine down to its propaganda foundations. “The Defense Ministry tried to deceive the public and the president, to tell a story that there was a crazy aggression from the Ukrainian side, and that they were joining the NATO alliance to attack us,” he said. “Therefore, the so-called special operation of the 24th of February was started for other reasons” than the excuses the Kremlin has made. Once Vladimir Putin is forced out of the Kremlin, a cease-fire becomes possible. But only possible.
Even with a cease-fire, Ukraine will still be a long way from actual peace, at least on their terms. Yevgeny Prigozhin is not going to hand back the Crimea and say “sorry.” Igor Girkin and the Telegram milbloggers will not want to give up everything. Nor will they necessarily want warm, fuzzy relations with Kyiv.
On the contrary, the “war party” in Russia will want to feel strong again. They will want to see tanks in parades again. They will want the empire restored, so that it can resume invading Ukraine again at some future date, when the west is even weaker and more decadent. “We’re saving Russia,” Prigozhin told Alekseev. For what purpose? Would a Russia controlled by the GRU be better, or worse, for humanity? For Ukraine?
Kyiv would likely not want a cease-fire, anyway — not unless it came with a return to the 1991 borders. Otherwise, all the hand-wringing international pressure to concede territory and reward Russian aggression would return. Nor is Kyiv about to let up their own pressure on Russian MoD forces. The timetable of their counteroffensive has not been affected by the day’s events. Victory beckons. This is not over yet.
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