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The Wagner Mutiny Was An Inside Job
By the junior partners of Russian MoD
Sergey Surovikin, commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RAF), was arrested along with a deputy for his reputed role in the Wagner mutiny last weekend, The Moscow Times confirmed yesterday.
Thirteen RAF aircrew were reportedly killed by Wagner air defense assets during the abortive munity.
Although Surovikin appeared in a video on Saturday morning asking Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to put a stop to the uprising, by that point he may have simply had cold feet for a plot that was already foiled, and started looking after himself.
Such stress could explain his strange “hostage video” performance with one hand on a rifle. Surovikin also went missing shortly after the video was posted, suggesting that he might have made it under duress.
This, and other odd aspects of the mutiny, have led observers to call it a “pseudo-coup.” Media reports that the CIA knew about the mutiny in advance, presumably through signals intelligence, led the usual hysterics to proclaim the entire affair was concocted in Washington.
The plot was likely compromised from the start. “Since Wagner units, like all Russian military entities, possess FSB counterintelligence operatives hidden in their ranks, searching for signs of disloyalty, the odds of the Kremlin not getting wind of the putative plot approach zero,” John Schindler observes.
“This understandably fuels theories that the pseudo-coup was desired by Putin’s retinue for their own purposes.”
If it is true that Surovikin encouraged Prigozhin to attempt the arrest of Gen. Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Vasily Gerasimov, and that the plot was compromised from the start, it stands to reason that Surovikin’s enemies meant to use the mutiny against him.
Better yet, by allowing the plot to proceed without preemption, they exposed disloyalty and incompetence in the ranks. “Large-scale purges” of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) have indeed begun in a “crash test” of loyalty, the Institute for the Study of War has assessed from Russian sources. Unit commanders who did not respond to the mutiny, whether through disloyalty or cowardice or just incompetence, will be replaced.
Gerasimov and his clique are reportedly among the third category, “accused of indecision and failure while the affiliates of deputy commander of the joint grouping of forces in Ukraine Army General Sergei Surovikin are accused of complicity in the rebellion.”
Surovikin was already disparaged by the Z Patriots for his decision to withdraw from the right bank of the Dnipro in Kherson Oblast last October. Assigned to overall command of Russian forces in Ukraine after a shocking local defeat in Kharkiv, Surovikin then adopted a defensive strategy of fortification to preserve the territory Russia still occupied.
During January, however, Vladimir Putin sidelined Surovikin in favor of Gerasimov again, as he offered a more aggressive strategy. Gerasimov then launched disastrous winter offensives at Bakhmut and Vuhledar.
Whereas Shoigu has been seen in television programming since the weekend, Gerasimov remains notably absent from coverage. Prigozhin has reportedly flown back to St. Petersburg from Minsk, still a free man, having apparently claimed one of the two scalps he wanted.
As notorious as they come, Prigozhin is no hero, but he seems to have spoken for a significant portion of Russian fighting leaders, most of whom will probably pay a high price for their opinions.
According to the president of Belarus, Wagner officers had a ‘grassroots’ uprising. Pressured to become regularized forces under MoD control, they did not want to serve as cannon meat for Gerasimov and Shoigu.
In public remarks at the Palace of Independence on Tuesday, Alexander Lukashenko disclosed details of his negotiations with Prigozhin to end the mutiny and suggested that Prigozhin had been moved to act by the men around him.
“At 11:00 he [Prigozhin] immediately picked up the phone. I mean Yevkurov summoned him, gave him the phone: ‘The Belarus president is on the line. Will you talk to him?' – ‘I will talk to Aleksandr Grigoryevich [Lukashenko]'.
He was euphoric. Yevgeny was completely euphoric. During the first round we talked using only swear words for about 30 minutes. I analyzed it later. The number of swear words was ten times higher than that of normal words. Certainly, he said he was sorry for using swear words.
I was thinking about what to say to him in order to start the negotiations. The guys had just come back from the frontline. They have seen thousands of their dead. The guys are extremely dissatisfied. Particularly commanding officers. And as far as I could understand it, they strongly influenced Prigozhin himself. I had figured it out beforehand. Yes, he acts like a hero, you know, but he was under pressure and influence of those who were in command of assault units and had seen those deaths. So, in this situation I talked to him when he arrived in Rostov and was ecstatic.
“I had figured it out beforehand.” Lukashenko says that it took six phone calls to talk Prigozhin down from the proverbial ledge. This account is self-serving — normal enough for Lukashenko — but it seems credible enough in outline. Perhaps he is attempting to shape public perceptions in Russia or the world. He is certainly exploiting the situation to further remove Belarus from entering the war against Ukraine.
If we believe him, Lukashenko’s earnest impression, based on whatever he knew “beforehand,” was that discontent among “commanding officers” of “assault units” had pushed Prigozhin to act. Prigozhin was of course under his own pressures, and the way the mutiny played out for him like a negotiated buy-out of a CEO suggests that he gave up Surovikin, and perhaps others, in exchange for his freedom and property.
Wagner is reportedly returning all their heavy equipment to the MoD, effectively nixing any second try for Moscow by the mercenary company. It remains unclear how Wagner’s overseas operations will be affected. So far, around one thousand Wagner fighters have entered Belarus — only a small fraction of the remaining force. Belarus has limited accommodations for a mercenary army, to be sure. Nor does Lukashenko want a large Wagner army to present a threat to his own power in Belarus.
So while the mutiny is clearly over, the arbitrage is not done. Lines remain unclear. Results are not entirely in, yet. Nothing about this fits our heroic definitions of loyalty because none of these people are heroes.
For example, Surovikin has been infamous since his involvement in the failed 1991 coup that led to the demise of the Soviet Union, and his time in command of Russian forces in Syria was marked by inhumanity. He deserves no tears.
“Such strangeness inevitably fuels suspicion that the pseudo-coup was mere political theater,” Schindler writes, comparing the Wagner mutiny to the failed 2016 coup in Turkey. “This formulation, however, may be too simple.”
Asking if the Wagner uprising was “real” or “fake” as opposing choices is pleasing to the postmodern Western mind, which embraces binary and linear thinking, yet it poorly captures the world that Chekists inhabit, where nothing is ever quite what it seems to be. The key question here is to what extent the coup plotters were informed of the Kremlin’s full plan.
Assume that, at some point, the Kremlin knew about the plans for mutiny in advance. What did Lukashenko know about the Kremlin’s plan, and when did he know it? What did Prigozhin know about the Kremlin’s plan, and when did he know it? What did Shoigu and Gerasimov know about the Kremlin’s plan, and when did they know it? These are the correct questions to ask.
Schindler refers to this cast of characters as “Chekists” because they are a distinctively Russian, and modern, type of schemer that thrives on intrigue. Starting with the Okhrana agents of the Tsar who became Bolsheviks, returning with the machinations of Lavrentiy Beria after Stalin died, continuing with Yuri Andropov as KGB puppeteer behind Brezhnev, and alive today in the career of Vladimir Putin, Russia has suffered rule by spies.
During the Cold War, the resulting politics were so inscrutable that students of Russian leadership in the west were known as “Kremlinologists.” Secrets, secrets within secrets, double and triple and quadruple agents, moles: these familiar 20th century tropes are products of the Russian intrigue environment. Think of it as the world’s greatest natural habitat for power-hungry spooks.
Is anything real, here? Yes. The dissatisfaction of the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) and the MoD in general, the dissatisfaction of the RAF and its command corps, not just Surovikin, the dissatisfaction of Wagner killers, the dissatisfaction of Putin and Prigozhin.
No one in Russia is satisfied by the current situation in Ukraine, but the junior partners of the MoD are all dissatisfied with the performance of the General Staff.
In a recently-published RAND Corporation analysis of Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria during 2014 and 2015, the Russian General Staff is described as a very different organization from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the American system. The relationship between the positions now filled by Shoigu and Gerasimov is key to the function of the General Staff — and also the primary impediment to reform.
The Russian system thus relies on informal, “interpersonal relationships among key players,” who “hold more sway when compared with more-formal entities or structures, such as laws or bureaucratic rules.” Wagner and other ‘little green men’ offer the Kremlin a means to project power beyond Russia’s borders at a fraction of the cost of regular forces, and with a measure of deniability, but they also magnify the difficulties of centralized control.
According to the RAND report, “The Russian General Staff: Understanding the Military's Decisionmaking Role in a ‘Besieged Fortress’,” Wagner-type forces deepen the problems created by Russia’s relationship-based military command culture.
Moreover, “the emphasis on secrecy and deniability materially constrained the ability of the Russian General Staff to orchestrate the  war in a manner that subordinated Russia’s use of force entirely under the General Staff’s control, as one might have expected to occur,” the authors write.
Relatedly, reliance on proxies and other shadowy figures that fell outside the formal chain of command and military institutions—as was the case in the Donbas—introduced a unique element of unpredictability that sharply contrasts with the General Staff model of centralized C2 and the practice of closely monitoring and overseeing decisions made at lower echelons.
The underperformance of Russian air power in this war has been analyzed in detail elsewhere and stands out as a failure of the General Staff. This is a long tradition in Russia. The “reforms” that Shoigu and Gerasimov have pursued over the last decade “bear historical lineage to reform efforts attempted and initiated by nearly all of their post-Soviet predecessors,” the report says. RAF underperformance in Ukraine is but one glaring example.
On that note, Surovikin’s “appointment is not consistent with the traditional Russian model, to say the least,” the report authors note.
As Russian news agency TASS notes, “He became the first combined-arms commander in the history of Russia and the USSR to head the VKS (Air Force) of Russia and the USSR.” This appointment suggests there might be a growing understanding that these two services, the Ground and Aerospace Forces, must operate in an integrated manner, which requires officers to build expertise in both branches. On the other hand, there has been no indication that the Russian military is considering the alternative approach—i.e., having an Aerospace officer, for example, take command of an Army Group.
RuAF and MoD cannot conduct combined arms operations at scale because Russian command culture is a vertical hierarchy. A flatter hierarchy would be decidedly un-Russian. The use of Wagner-type forces to get around this problem has ended up making it worse. Troops in Kherson are still unable to call in timely close air support against Ukrainian river-crossing operations.
Surovikin may realistically have seen himself as the only man in Russia with a clue about what is needed to prevent total defeat, and Prigozhin the only man with the power to change things. The junior partners in the Russian system revolted. Rank and file Russians were sympathetic. Now the purges begin, and they will not make anything better. Ukraine wins every day they continue.
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