Skip to main content
  • Share to or
Wagner fighters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.

Just the beginning of the end of the beginning Prigozhin’s short-lived coup exposed Putin’s weakness in controlling the military and the state security apparatus. Its full consequences are yet to be seen.

Source: Meduza
Wagner fighters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.
Wagner fighters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The armed insurrection led, and then abruptly abandoned, by the mercenary tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin has baffled not only the general public but even government insiders in Russia. Speculations about Prigozhin’s aims, their rationality, and what prevented the coup from culminating in any tangible gains run the gamut from the common-sensical to the outlandish. Experts are nevertheless coming to a consensus that, despite Prigozhin’s provisional retreat to Belarus, the failed insurrection will not be fruitless in the long run. On the contrary, many believe that its real consequences are yet to be seen, and that they will develop over time as Russia’s governing elites learn their lessons from Prigozhin’s surprise operation. Meduza’s analyst Petr Sapozhnikov breaks down what we know about the mutiny, what we can only conjecture, and what opportunities Russia’s malcontent elites might glean from Prigozhin’s mutiny-turned-reconnaissance-mission.

What pushed Yevgeny Prigozhin to embark on a mutiny?

What is likely: Prigozhin was trying to improve his fragile position

In early May 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin was actively engaged in blackmailing the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry, brandishing the prospect of Wagner Group’s wholesale withdrawal from Bakhmut. With the Ukrainian city on the cusp of being captured, largely by Wagner forces, Prigozhin ranted about some senile “grandpa” who is blissfully unaware of his army’s desperate travails at the front.

Kremlin insiders have since told Meduza that Putin’s administration sensed a “serious threat” in Prigozhin’s bellicose demands. A source connected to the President’s Office pointed out that Prigozhin’s actions served neither “the team” nor “the common interest” of the players. Still, the mercenary tycoon’s erratic behavior was largely chalked up to the stress of failing to meet a deadline: Prigozhin, it was rumored, might have given Putin a personal promise to capture Bakhmut by May 9, when Russia celebrates Victory Day, commemorating the end of the Second World War. Unable to deliver on this supposed promise, Prigozhin was simply nervous, the insiders assumed.

As time went on, Prigozhin only found more causes for anxiety. Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who write about Russia’s secret services, suggest that the progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive made the Kremlin realize that Wagner Group was not, after all, essential to Russia’s success at the front.

How Prigozhin emerged as a threat to the establishment

Is Prigozhin a loose cannon? The reported capture of Bakhmut has magnified the Wagner Group leader’s influence in the Kremlin, but competitors may cut him down to size

How Prigozhin emerged as a threat to the establishment

Is Prigozhin a loose cannon? The reported capture of Bakhmut has magnified the Wagner Group leader’s influence in the Kremlin, but competitors may cut him down to size

This may have been the reason for Putin’s June 13 directive to change Wagner Group’s legal status, compelling it to become a government contractor. As a concession to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Putin said that private military companies and so-called “volunteer” formations should all be regulated through a system of Defense Ministry contracts. Prigozhin responded to this instantly, refusing to sign any contracts. Sources close to the Kremlin and to the Russian government indicate that he got restless right around that time, making phone calls and offering his own alternatives to subordinating Wagner Group to the Defense Ministry and Sergey Shoigu (and apparently volunteering to make it subordinate to the National Guard, overseen by Viktor Zolotov).

This version of events is partly confirmed by Prigozhin himself. In the wake of the insurrection, the paramilitary leader declared that, “as a result of intrigues and half-baked decisions,” Wagner Group was going to cease to exist as of July 1. This was precisely Shoigu’s deadline for all private military companies to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin also says that June 30 was the scheduled date of Wagner Group’s voluntarily transfer of military equipment to the regular army’s Southern Military District, headquartered in Rostov-on-Don. What got in the way of the handover was the Defense Ministry’s alleged “missile strike” on a Wagner basecamp. (Meduza has studied the footage published by Prigozhin as proof, and found a number of telltale signs that it’s a fake.)

It makes sense to conclude that Prigozhin’s mutiny was a response to his increasingly vulnerable position vis-à-vis the Defense Ministry, and that its real aim was to improve his leverage.

Another near-certainty is that the insurrection had been planned in advance. Partly, this is because of the sheer scale of the operation, since anything this sweeping requires several weeks of advance preparation. Prigozhin himself explained the swiftness of his formations’ maneuvers by the fact that they’d already planned to go to Rostov to hand in their equipment. Still, this doesn’t explain the rapid and highly coordinated progress of Wagner troops further towards Moscow, along several different routes.

Prigozhin takes credit

‘We gave a master class’ Prigozhin’s first public statement since Wagner Group’s 24-hour rebellion

Prigozhin takes credit

‘We gave a master class’ Prigozhin’s first public statement since Wagner Group’s 24-hour rebellion

Alternative accounts and conspiracy theories

The journalist Maxim Shevchenko, who endorses Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and has long butted heads with Prigozhin, proposed that the mutiny was merely a Kremlin-commissioned skit intended to serve a hidden purpose. Given how much Prigozhin “owes to the president,” Shevchenko argued, he couldn’t possibly have launched such an operation without the president’s prior knowledge and consent. Shevchenko therefore read the insurrection as an attempt “to uncover some other, real mutiny or conspiracy that would have been much harder for the administration to manage.”

Similarly, the notorious propagandist and RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan suggested, in her televised “analysis,” that the mutiny might have been a deliberate attempt to misinform the Ukrainian army command so as to alter the combat situation.

But political scientist Alexander Baunov points out, reasonably, that Putin “never needed any special dramatizations to cover up even the most radical of his actions, not to mention personnel decisions.” Baunov is also certain that pro-Kremlin propagandists and various officials would not have been so visibly lost had the coup really been a sham.

It was again Margarita Simonyan who proposed that the coup might have been a CIA ploy to interfere in Russian politics. Putin himself hinted at this possibility in his June 26 address, when he said that “precisely this fratricidal outcome was what Russia’s enemies wanted.” “The neo-Nazis in Kyiv, their Western patrons, and various traitors to the national cause,” the president said, “all rubbed their hands with glee as they dreamed of taking revenge for their failures at the front” — but they were, of course, “wrong.” 

Following this line of thought, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned Russia’s intent to probe the role of Western intelligence services in the attempted coup. Head of the National Guard Viktor Zolotov also supported the idea that the mercenary revolt must have been instigated from abroad.

But spreading multiple contradictory versions of the same event has long been a common tactic of Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, despite the Western leaders’ general restraint in commenting on Prigozhin’s revolt, key officials like Josep Borrell in the E.U. and Antony Blinken in the U.S. have expressed concern over the nuclear weapons that could have been captured by Wagner fighters if the coup had been successful.

However the West might feel about the current regime in Russia, it seems unlikely that they would help a “loose cannon” like Prigozhin take power.

Was this really an attempted coup d’état? And what did Prigozhin really want?

What is likely: Prigozhin wanted to strengthen his position without overthrowing Putin

According to Prigozhin himself, he was pursuing two goals. First, he didn’t want his paramilitary cartel to be dissolved, as it threatened to be in the near future. Second, he supposedly wanted those responsible for military failures in Ukraine to answer for their mistakes. When talking to senior military officials in Rostov-on-Don, it was Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov that Prigozhin wanted “handed over” to him.

At the same time, Prigozhin disclaims any ambition to “overturn the existing regime and the lawfully elected authorities,” as he puts it. Several facts suggest he isn’t lying on this account:

  • In the morning on June 24, several hours after the mercenaries had seized control of Rostov-on-Don, behind-the-scenes talks between Prigozhin and the country’s leadership may have been unfolding. When, in his televised address, Putin spoke about the “betrayal” that set the coup in motion, it may have signaled that the talks had already failed.
  • Even after Putin’s hardliner speech, Prigozhin continued couching his own remarks about the president in fairly diplomatic terms. He said the president was “mistaken,” and if the mercenaries wouldn’t repent it was because they didn’t want their country to go on drowning in “corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy.”
  • Sources close to the Putin administration have told Meduza that in the early afternoon on June 24, Prigozhin tried to get in touch with the Kremlin, and with Putin personally, but the president reportedly refused to talk to him.
Wagner mercenaries on a tank in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Investigative journalists Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan write about the brazen impression made by the coup:

Like some medieval Condottieri in 15th-century Italy, Prigozhin chose to renegotiate his terms with the “prince” right in the midst of battle, and using the same logic — the bigger the crisis, the better his cards. Prigozhin’s raid on Rostov-on-Don was so outrageous and brazen that it reminded the Russians of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Chechen militants walked into hospitals, towns, and schools, taking everyone hostage and demanding the Kremlin stop the war in exchange for civilians’ lives.

An alternative view

Political scientist Alexander Baunov suggests that Prigozhin might have envisioned a coup along the lines of the Portuguese Carnation Revolution or Mussolini’s march on Rome. Prigozhin, Baunov thinks, might have attained extraordinary powers from a government formally remaining in place. Since Prigozhin is already used to being treated as a convenient extension of the government, this model might have appealed to him as completely natural, Baunov writes.

Why didn’t law enforcement and state security services stop the Wagner troops?

What is likeliest: The regular army sympathized with Prigozhin and his men

Wagner troops met no serious obstacles on their way to Moscow. The army command and the National Guard erected their first line of defense along the Oka River running through Russia’s Tula and Moscow regions, but the mercenaries never advanced that far (and might have planned on getting around the defenses if they had).

The whole of June 24, Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen Akhmat formations were being moved towards the Wagner-occupied Rostov-on-Don from the Donetsk region of Ukraine. But by evening, they still hadn’t started to storm the city. Meanwhile, the Southern Military District headquarters located in Rostov-on-Don were supposed to be one of the country’s most secure military facilities. This proved to have been an empty claim.

According to political scientist Mikhail Komin, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rhetoric in recent months was deliberately aimed at impressing a particular segment of the Russian military, and ultimately succeeded in reaching it:

Prigozhin’s patriotic critique of the Defense Ministry’s leadership fell upon the fertile soil of an irritated army, tired of constant defeats at the front and the war in general. Realizing this in May, Prigozhin moved on from demands like “Shoigu, where’s the ammo?!” to more long-form messages, trying to consolidate a political position that could appeal to a large part of the army.

It was crucial to Prigozhin’s message, Komin writes, that, instead of contrasting himself with army officers and soldiers, he embarked on his “march of justice” in their name, betting on the support of career officers who’d risen to their current positions before Shoigu’s and Gerasimov’s time, and would therefore have a much more critical disposition towards the current leadership. Apart from this, Komin suggests, Prigozhin was also betting on the support of generals with direct ties to Shoigu, like Mikhail Mizintsev and Sergey Surovikin. As a result of Prigozhin’s efforts, the scholar believes, senior and mid-level officers met the armed insurgents with something like a passive strike, failing to stand up for the government.

Looking at this passivity from a different angle, Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan think that Prigozhin’s uncertain status within the power structure created by Vladimir Putin may have hampered the army’s readiness to respond:

At the very moment Prigozhin was insulting Yevkurov in this now-infamous video with the three of them – Prigozhin, Yevkurov and Alekseyev — in Russian HQ in Rostov-on-Don, the two Russian generals were probably asking themselves: What if this maverick still has direct access to Putin? And if so, what if the two of them decided to make a deal? Or if they responded with force and there was then serious bloodshed? Whom would Putin blame — his pal, or the generals? It’s a tricky question, given the traumatic history of Russian army involvement in political crises, most famously in the October 1993 shelling of the Parliament building in Moscow. And the generals were right. This is exactly what happened – Putin and Prigozhin, two pals from St. Petersburg, made a deal. All criminal charges against Prigozhin were dropped, and he was allowed to leave for Belarus.

A Wagner fighter patrols the street near the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Alternative (but almost equally convincing) version

Not only did the Wagner rebels meet little to no resistance on their way to Moscow; the police and the secret services also stayed out of their way. In the streets of Rostov, law enforcement officers only started to appear when Wagner mercenaries began to pack up and leave the city, and locals greeted the arrival of the police with hoots and whistles. One independent news outlet quoted a law-enforcement insider who said that security and police forces had got a clear signal from the top “not to bother the Wagnerites and to make sure not a single drop of blood was shed while Moscow made its decision.”

According to Meduza’s sources close to the Russian government, the Kremlin did issue a directive to avoid “bloodshed.” None of the parties involved were interested in real combat between the military and the mercenaries. As a result, the government and the insurgents cooperated in staving off the prospect of bloodshed. Ultimately, this became the basis of Putin’s justification of the law enforcement’s inaction during the coup.

What Kremlin insiders say about the coup

False patriots, rebels, and traitors The Kremlin’s media guidelines frame Prigozhin’s failed insurrection as a real danger, thwarted by Russia’s ‘valiant’ forces of law and order

What Kremlin insiders say about the coup

False patriots, rebels, and traitors The Kremlin’s media guidelines frame Prigozhin’s failed insurrection as a real danger, thwarted by Russia’s ‘valiant’ forces of law and order

Why did Prigozhin stop short of Moscow?

What is certain: He understood he didn’t have enough support

First off, here’s how Prigozhin himself answered this question:

We stopped because, once the first regiment set up the artillery and did the reconnaissance, it became clear there would be a vast bloodbath. We decided that making a point was enough. Around that time, Lukashenko lent us a hand, offering to find a solution for Wagner Group’s continued operation in a legalized capacity. The formations then turned around and went back to the camps.

Meduza’s sources in the Russian government and the Putin administration suggest that Prigozhin must have realized that he’d “gone overboard” and his further prospects were highly nebulous. Despite his claims that “half the army” was ready join his “march of justice,” no reinforcements had, in fact, joined Wagner Group in the mutiny’s early hours. Meanwhile, after a brief moment of confusion, the deputies of the State Duma, the Federation Council, the Security Council, and a number of regional authorities all voiced a commitment to supporting Putin.

Neither the army nor the law enforcement and security apparatus showed any active support for Prigozhin and his professed aims. On Friday evening, Army General Sergey Surovikin condemned the insurrection, seconded by Lieutenant General Vladimir Alexeyev, who appealed to the Wagnerites’ conscience, saying that their actions were “a stab in the back of the country and the president.”

The facts therefore support the opinion of the CIA’s ex-director, U.S. General David Petraeus, who believes that Prigozhin did not get the support he had counted on, and this played a crucial role in stymying the insurrection.

Will the mutiny have any real results?

The Kremlin’s version

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that the “situation” had been resolved without “major losses” or as much as “raising the temperature.” The propagandists, in turn, proclaimed the failed mutiny to have been a “test of maturity” that Russia passed with flying colors, thanks to its “unshakable” unity and fortitude, and despite the West’s best efforts to sabotage and destabilize the country.

And now, what the experts say: The failed coup is just the beginning of the Kremlin’s problems

If we’re to believe the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin was working busily in the Kremlin on the day Prigozhin sent his forces towards Moscow. Meanwhile, the presidential airplane, fully equipped with military communication technologies, left Moscow, switching off its transponder when nearing Tver, a known location of one of Putin’s multiple private residences. Up until his first televised address, Putin hardly intervened in the situation, and when he spoke of it afterwards, even his supporters were made to wonder why the president was so vague as not to even mention Prigozhin by name.

Political scientist Alexander Baunov believes that the failed coup presents a problem for Russia’s entire pro-war camp. Prigozhin, he writes, had enjoyed considerable respect among the war’s proponents, long accustomed to the divisive logic of “either you’re with us and a patriot or against us and a traitor.” Their notions of “treachery,” Baunov writes, were firmly tied to the anti-war opposition, and when a fellow warmonger suddenly turned out to be a “traitor,” it came to them as an unforeseen shock.

Enemies had been discovered in the midst of “our own,” and to make matters worse, some saw the leader of the putsch as a traitor, while others saw treachery in the elites who opposed the coup, including (in the most radical cases) the head of state himself. This is an irreparable injury, bound to cast aspersions on any future agreement amongst “our own.”

The Kremlin insiders also believe that the mutiny will inevitably undermine Putin in its aftermath. In the words of one commentator, Putin

couldn’t bring himself to talk to Prigozhin, and [after the televised address] he was nowhere to be seen. So he is the king and Number One, but damn it, you’ve got to intervene when it’s needed, instead of letting Lukashenko shine his phiz in your place and dumping the talks on law enforcement.

Another source believes it’s going to be much harder for Putin to reassemble the former power vertical in the wake of the mutiny, as Russia’s elites will be much more tempted to rearrange the current order to their own liking. The political commentator Maxim Trudolyubov is certain that Putin is yet to see the worst fruits of Prigozhin’s disobedience: now that the elites have seen in practice how little control Putin has over “his own” people, they may wonder how to best protect themselves from such “loose cannons” in the future.

Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan note another result of the failed mutiny: Putin’s decision to “outsource” crisis resolution to a figure like Alexander Lukashenko signals a danger to Russia’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Russian security apparatus has learned yet another important lesson: it’s best not to interfere in a conflict unfolding around Putin, regardless of the stakes. This, however, raises the question of how Putin could possibly rely on his security apparatus going forward.

Lukashenko’s talks with Prigozhin, in his own words

‘They’ll squash you like a bug’ How Alexander Lukashenko ‘negotiated’ with Yevgeny Prigozhin, in his own words

Lukashenko’s talks with Prigozhin, in his own words

‘They’ll squash you like a bug’ How Alexander Lukashenko ‘negotiated’ with Yevgeny Prigozhin, in his own words

Mikhail Komin believes the coup has revealed a large-scale crisis in the Russian army and among the country’s security elite: the latter’s passivity means that new contenders can come to challenge Shoigu, appealing to the army’s silently mounting resentment towards the minister.

Even Prigozhin himself says that his “march of justice” has exposed serious security problems in the country: “We blocked all the airfields and military bases,” he boasted in the aftermath of the insurrection. “Within 24 hours, we covered the distance equivalent to the distance from the Russian forces’ starting point on February 24, 2022, to Kyiv or Uzhhorod.” If “people like Wagner fighters” had spearheaded the invasion, the defiant warlord concluded, the entire “operation” would have been over in 24 hours.

Bonus question: What will happen to Prigozhin next?

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s political prospects are difficult to gauge at the moment. The conditions of his retreat to Belarus are unclear, and so are his future plans. But Alexander Lukashenko has already offered the Wagnerites “an abandoned army base,” welcoming them to “pitch their tents.” The president of Belarus also noted (a bit playfully) that he agrees with his Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, who said that “he wouldn’t mind” a formation like Wagner “in his own army.”

Writing in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the political commentator Andreas Rüesch observed that Prigozhin’s populist appeal is such that this “down-to-earth and energetic leader” is unlikely to just vanish from the political scene. A new chapter in Prigozhin’s struggle with the Russian power establishment may be just around the corner.

Keeping Wagner alive

Room to breathe As he relocates to Belarus in a deal with the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s next fight will be to keep what he can of Wagner Group

Keeping Wagner alive

Room to breathe As he relocates to Belarus in a deal with the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s next fight will be to keep what he can of Wagner Group

Article by Petr Sapozhnikov. Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya.

  • Share to or