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Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin leaving the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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The Prigozhin Putsch

The warlord’s abortive rebellion has exposed the hollowness of the Putin regime

Vladislav Davidzon
June 27, 2023
Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin leaving the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On Friday night, the Russian entrepreneur and mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to overthrow the Russian political order as well as oust his political enemies in the Russian Defense Ministry. Claiming that he had 25,000 fighters from the Wagner Private Military Company under his command, Prigozhin initiated a mutinous “March of Justice” on the Kremlin, coming within a few miles of Moscow before abandoning the uprising on Saturday. In openly threatening Putin’s regime, Prigozhin completed his transformation from small-time courtier, former Russian prison inmate, and hot dog vendor into a full-blown warlord. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries had already carried out several coups in African countries at the Kremlin’s behest, and, in a karmically delightful turn of events, these same methods were brought home to Russia. Ukrainians, of course, were delighted.

As the ill-fated coup began, I joked to friends that the Kremlin war to oust Ukraine’s Jewish president might conclude with a Jewish mercenary—both Prigozhin’s father and stepfather were members of the tribe—taking out Russia’s “philosemitic” dictator. Several Ukrainians joked to me that it had always been a bad omen to begin a coup d’état on Shabbat. They were right. But before their abrupt decision to abandon the uprising, the Wagner mercenaries got closer to Moscow than anyone had expected, thus demonstrating the brittleness of the Russian state.

Prigozhin is very much a character of the moment. As the renowned historian of Russia Stephen Kotkin put it, “In some ways his background is more suitable to the moment than Putin’s. Both are from St. Petersburg, but Prigozhin, despite serving time, is from the intelligentsia. His mother is an artist; she runs a gallery in London. He speaks better Russian than Putin. In terms of social class, he’s actually a level above Putin … But look at his pithy and pointed vocabulary, his cadences, his ability to assume the role of tough guy, heart-on-the-sleeve Russian patriot, the truth-teller who calls out the opportunists, the morons, and the thieves Putin has appointed.”

Several Ukrainians joked to me that it had always been a bad omen to begin a coup d’état on Shabbat. They were right.

The uprising began with Prigozhin making livid accusations against the Russian military for allegedly striking a Wagner base with missiles. The targets of his wrath were Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, recently appointed overall commander of Russian military operations in Ukraine. Putin had previously allowed Prigozhin to publicly insult the defense minister and the chief of the general staff without consequences, and Wagner had long accused the Russian army, on which it relies for ammunition and logistical and air support, of starving the company of supplies. On June 10, the Ministry of Defense threw down the gauntlet, demanding that all Russian soldiers fighting for private military companies sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense before the 1st of July. This appears to have been the proximate cause of Prigozhin’s revolt.

Putin, desperate for manpower and increasingly reliant on PMCs like Wagner, had likely seen the tensions between Prigozhin and Shoigu/Gerasimov as a productive form of competition that strengthened his own power. At the conclusion of the battle of Bakhmut, however, Wagner had been rotated out of the city, and Putin, after long procrastination on the issue, sided with the army over the mercenary group, reportedly ceasing to respond to phone calls or messages from Prigozhin. Thus Prigozhin was clearly acting out of a sense of desperation. His time was running out and his options were narrowing as Wagner was about to be sidelined and assimilated by the army.

Wagner’s gains during its brief mutiny were remarkable. Wagner forces swept into Rostov, effortlessly taking control of Russia’s 10th largest city and the site of the southern military headquarters of the Russian army. In a matter of hours, Prigozhin and his men had taken operational control of the headquarters of the Russian command center of the Ukrainian Special Operation. They sent several convoys of men—an estimated 4,000 troops—to continue to speed past the city of Voronezh on the way toward the Russian capital. Prigozhin personally argued with a Russian deputy defense minister live on social media. The point was to get attention and to have Wagner’s interests solidified in the chain of command.

In the midst of his mutiny, Prigozhin openly questioned the core assumptions behind Russian state propaganda about its war in Ukraine. He openly declared that the Russian people had been lied to, that the war had been mismanaged, and that 100,000 Russian men had been killed in botched operations. Facts that many Russian citizens had struggled to ignore were now interjected into public discourse by one of the war’s most visible figures. Wagner had been lionized by Russian state propaganda, which was part of the reason so many Russian policemen, Interior Ministry troops, and Rosgvardia riot police guards refused to engage the Wagner convoys.

Ukrainian wags quickly commented on the fact that it had taken Wagner nine months to take Bakhmut and a mere three hours to capture Rostov. Calculations began on all sides to see which power nodes and personalities within the Russian security state would side with the mutineers. General Suvorikin, known to be a situational ally of Prigozhin within the army, quickly called on the Wagner men to stand down and return to their bases. Most of the Russian military establishment fell into line and issued statements in support of the regime, thus showing at least a modicum of regime cohesion. By Saturday morning, a rather pallid Putin was forced to address the nation and declare the uprising a rebellion, calling on Wagner to stand down or be taken out. At that point, the legitimacy of the state hinged on the ability of the Russian army to prevent the Wagner convoys from entering Moscow.

Wagner, however, ultimately lacked the manpower to take over a city the size of Moscow. The speed, efficiency, discipline, and pure chutzpah of their blitzkrieg allowed Wagner forces to get close to the capital—and many observers noted that their assault was much more professionally executed than Moscow’s attempt to blitz Kyiv last year—yet it quickly became clear that Prigozhin had overplayed his hand. He had not gathered nearly enough support from regime elites, security services, or regular army units in order to make a serious attempt to overthrow the state. The embattled dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, was reportedly brought in by the Russians to lead negotiations with Prigozhin. About 24 hours after the coup began, it was summarily called off, with Prigozhin claiming that he did not want to shed Russian blood.

Yet even if the Russian establishment consolidated its position in the short-term, Prigozhin’s defiance made them look weak. The Kremlin provided the rebels an off-ramp even after having claimed that Wagner constituted an existential threat that needed to be eliminated. The armistice between the elite factions came only when the convoy was within firing distance of Moscow. The Kremlin stated that Prigozhin would be banished to Belarus as part of the armistice deal, though tellingly, neither Putin nor Prigozhin would issue a public statement on the events of the weekend. The case that had been opened against Prigozhin by the Russian prosecutor general would be closed as part of the armistice.

Wagner men who had not taken part in the fight would be given an opportunity to sign contracts with the army, while the mutinous Wagner troops would be given an amnesty, despite the fact that they had killed east least two dozen Russian soldiers, including 10 Russian pilots whose helicopters and airplanes had been shot down as they defended what they saw as the constitutional Russian order.

The half-hearted putsch successfully exposed the hollowness at the core of the Russian dictatorship. In its time of crisis, the Russian government had been forced to turn to autonomous actors—Lukashenko and the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who was called on to defend Moscow—to resolve the situation. The Russian democratic opposition was not able to stir quickly enough, and it is now more obvious than ever that any future government transition will be through a coup d’état or some other challenge at the elite level. Having risked their lives, families, and honor, many of the Wagner men who took part in this adventure now doubtless feel betrayed and disillusioned. They had rallied around the prospect of taking out the corrupt and feckless high command that so many of them detest. Prigozhin had desperately overestimated his strength, yet he correctly perceived the relative weakness and hollowness of the Russian state as well as the low morale of the Russian army.

By Monday morning, Russian state media had corroborated the independently reported news that the regime was reneging on its end of the deal: The treason case that the prosecutor general opened against Prigozhin remained open. Prigozhin has since issued a self-exculpating statement saying no Russian ground forces had been killed—his location remains unknown as of press time. Reports have begun to emerge that the Russian security services had threatened the families of senior Wagner officers and that was one reason that the coup had been stopped. The legitimacy of the Russian military and state have been severely damaged, and the tens of millions of Russians who have been dutifully ignoring the war until now can no longer afford to do so. Russian propaganda television hosts were forced to engage in some very unusual, rueful, and masochistic conversations about the state of the state. Watching from Kyiv, the Ukrainians would surely be correct in their predictions that this whole episode had brought them several crucial steps closer to victory.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.