Russian catering oligarch and mercenarist Yevgeny Prigozhin has tried to undermine U.S. elections with propaganda for years. Recognizing that there are no free and fair elections in Russia for him to undermine to sate his ambitions, Prigozhin this weekend apparently tried to overthrow his own government the old-fashioned way, with a march on Moscow. Claiming that the Russian military had bombed his own Wagner mercenary troops in Ukraine, Prigozhin turned thousands of his private soldiers around, seized control of military facilities in Rostov-on-Don started moving troops north through Voronezh to the Russian capital faster than Hitler did in 1941.
“They wanted to disband the Wagner military company. We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. Now, the moment has come when blood could be spilled,” said Prigozhin in an audio message.
“Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned” [“Wagner Boss Calls Off March on Moscow, Agrees to Exile in Belarus,” Aljazeera, 2023.06.24].
As planned?! You abandon positions in Ukraine and rally your goons to turn their guns on Moscow, only to cede control of a big chunk of your private troops to Putin, lose face with your allies in the Kremlin and among your own forces, and accept exile in Belarus, an even worse post-Soviet cesspool than Russia? That was your plan?
Prigozhin’s mercenaries have been brutal yet effective in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s withdrawal to Belarus could raise fears that this whole blitzkrieg and blitzrückzug are an elaborate feint to station Wagner in Belarus, which is getting Russian tactical nukes, to reopen a northern front and march on Kyiv. But such a feint could have been achieved with far less damage to both Putin and Prigozhin by simply withdrawing Wagner from eastern Ukraine and having them turn left at Voronezh to head for Gomel in Belarus, without any pretense of threatening to storm the Kremlin and creating the impression of Kremlin so weak that it has to rely on the Chechens—Chechens!—to save Russia. Even such a deliberate feint throws the Russian defense of its occupied positions in eastern Ukraine into even greater disarray, offering Zelenskyy’s forces the chance to recapture Ukrainian territory with minimal losses and pivot to defend their northern flank before Prigozhin and Moscow and can get their poop in a group to march from Minsk. And until and unless the secretly still-pals Putin and Prigozhin launch a successful second front, they leave Prigozhin looking like an ineffective coward and Putin looking like Gorbachev plodding dazedly off the plane from Crimea in August 1991.
But let’s not reach for the kinds of conspiracy theories that Prigozhin pushed on social media to undermine confidence in Western democracy. Yesterday’s aborted insurrection shows the weakness of a regime ruled by the cult of personality and corruption rather than a shared commitment to public institutions and the rule of law. Prigozhin got a big head, thinking that running a gang of thugs who outperformed his nation’s regular troops in a quagmired invasion of a neighboring country gave him the power to lead a mad-dash rebellion against his patron Putin. A couple hours from the gates of Moscow, Prigozhin came to his senses and saved his skin but not much else. Prigozhin has weakened the Russian position in Ukraine, and he has knocked a leg out from under the regime of his old St. Petersburg pal Putin, but he has left himself in no position to assume the mantle of power when Putin falls.