Prigozhin’s Escapade: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and What Conclusions We Can Draw
Prigozhin had succeeded at creating the largest group of mercenaries, one that throughout the Russo-Ukrainian war has remained among the most combat-ready and threatening units affiliated with the Russian military
For thirty-six hours over the past weekend, the world’s attention was fixed on the breathtaking spectacle of the march on Moscow by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group.
Prigozhin had succeeded at creating the largest group of mercenaries, one that throughout the Russo-Ukrainian war has remained among the most combat-ready and threatening units affiliated with the Russian military. A rupture in the relationship of the commander of the Wagner group and the top command of the Russian army, represented by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, had been developing for many months. Prigozhin had made more and more public statements in which he subjected the army command to increasingly harsh criticism, accusing the leadership of corruption and of betraying Russian interests in exchange for personal career benefits.
This fierce criticism reached its culmination on the morning of June 23, when another video interview with Prigozhin circulated on his social media accounts. In this video he upped the ante, directing his accusations at President Vladimir Putin personally. To be sure, Prigozhin never mentioned Putin by name, but he harshly criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine, calling it ”adventurist” and “criminal” and characterizing it as leading to the “genocide of the Russian people.” He further declared that the central propaganda themes that the Kremlin had used for a year and a half to justify its aggression against Ukraine were false and hypocritical.
It was immediately clear that Prigozhin had just thrown open the doors to a new stage in his confrontation with the top officials of Putin's state and that some decisive action was in the offing.
And yet the announcement that the Wagner fighters would march on Moscow in full strength and armed caught Putin and his entourage unprepared.
There was virtually no resistance to Wagner's quick and decisive march. Putin and his group did nothing to defend the vast territory in western Russia against this unauthorized and uncontrolled military force: all available armed forces in the European part of Russia were deployed on the Ukrainian front. The entire territory from Rostov to Tula oblast was at the complete disposal of the Wagner forces.
So began the events that, for the next two days, captured the world’s attention.
What Is Unknown
Much of what has been reported about Prigozhin’s march remains at the level of rumor, hearsay, and possibly even intentional disinformation. It is important that we sort out the unknowns from what we know to be true so that we can draw appropriate conclusions.
For instance, no one knows the number of troops Prigozhin has under his command. No one has confirmed the number of 25,000 cited by Prigozhin in one of his audio recordings. Witnesses’ cell phone footage of his march on Moscow and of the cities he claimed fell under his control, including Rostov, show exceptionally small Wagner forces.
Importantly, these forces did not advance in a single column, moving instead in a decentralized fashion by way of different roads and different population centers. My own subjective impression is that no more than 5,000 to 7,000 troops participated in the “march on Moscow.”
Another set of unknowns has to do with the Kremlin-Prigozhin negotiations. When did these negotiations begin? What are the terms of whatever agreement was reached? Nor is there any reason to trust reports that it was Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko who led those negotiations. One version holds that it was the governor of Tula oblast, Alexei Dyumin—a man who enjoys Putin’s confidence and has long been a friend and partner of Prigozhin—who led the negotiations. This version makes sense because Tula was the last oblast on Prigozhin’s march to Moscow. It would have been here that Prigozhin would finally have come up against government forces, and this could have posed a serious argument during negotiations. But this too remains speculative.
We know that money and other valuables confiscated during the search of the Wagner group’s St. Petersburg offices were returned to the group. But what are we to make of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s statement that Prigozhin and his comrades would decamp to Belarus? There is nothing proving that this is in fact the plan.
Similarly, we remain in the dark about the “field camps” that Wagner’s primary forces are reportedly expected to return to. Do these camps exist? If so, where are they? What is their capacity? How well fortified are they? No one has seen these camps. They remain as much a phantom as Prigozhin troops’ actual count.
Nor is there reliable information about which part of the Wagner contingent is expected to depart together with Prigozhin (wherever he is heading), which part is expected to sign on with the Ministry of the Defense and join Russia’s regular forces, which part is to remain with an independent military company in Russia, and which will cross into Belarus on Lukashenko’s invitation.
All in all, both the general outlines and the specifics of the agreement between Putin and Prigozhin remain unknown. Prigozhin and his subordinates have reportedly been released from criminal responsibility for this weekend’s events thanks to their “merit on the battlefield,” as Peskov put it. As of today, however, these decisions have not been made official, so Prigozhin and his comrades-in-arms still remain formally under charges of grave crimes against the state.
And there is certainly no reason to believe that any of the changes Prigozhin demanded take place within the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff, or the FSB will in fact happen. The idea that Prigozhin got what he demanded is an unfounded rumor.
What Can Be Concluded
There are, however, some conclusions we can draw from the events of this weekend with a reasonable level of certainty.
1. Putin and his group do not have any serious forces at their disposal to counter an attack involving a relatively large (several-thousand-strong), well-organized, well-armed military formation. Such a formation can move freely across the territory of the European part of Russia without meeting any serious resistance.
2. In case of a military rebellion, Putin and his group cannot count on the active support of the regional and local forces of the Russian security agencies and special services such as the police, Rosgvardia, the FSB, or EMERCOM (Ministry of Emergency Situations). No "semi-official" armed forces, in particular those controlled by local authorities (such as Kadyrov’s Chechen groups), will play a significant role here either. All these forces prefer to avoid participating in active operations and to wait things out.
3. Russian people in general are not ready to take the side of the Putin regime’s authorities and to risk their lives, health, and property to defend those authorities. Their loyalty to the regime and its local representatives is purely declarative; it does not translate into practical actions. The population does not seem to take the threat of an armed uprising against the current regime seriously, treating it instead as a diversion or an interesting adventure. That is why it doesn’t adopt any self-defense measures in such situations: it does not flee the danger zone or organize into self-defense coalitions, nor does it attempt acts of sabotage to reduce the danger.
4. Prisoners and criminal gangs are unwilling to participate in dangerous political events or to side with a particular political force, even when the leader is someone who, like Prigozhin, enjoys exceptionally high prestige in the criminal world.
5. Putin’s assessments of events that threaten him directly are inaccurate, and his responses are weak. His ability to rally social forces around him through public pronouncements is limited. He has no serious arguments to call on in defense of his policies except the usual jumble of false historical analogies and interpretations. His habit of falling back on stagnant, dead rhetoric in the face of exceptional, unpredictable, and threatening events gives the impression of fear and impotence.
6. In a crisis situation, Putin is ready to retreat quickly at the first demand of the opposition. His threats of persecution for disloyalty and punishment for disobeying him turn out to be hollow and are easily rescinded at the first attempt by another party to make a deal.
7. Prigozhin's rebellion represents a strong precedent that suggests that a potential forceful attack on Putin's power in the future might well meet with success. To be sure, Prigozhin, who took years to build the Wagner military machine, is in a special position. There are no other Prigozhins in Russia. However, the weakness of Putin’s power in the face of Prigozhin’s march was impressive in every way. The events of the weekend severely undermined any confidence that Putin and those loyal to him could withstand a serious armed uprising.
8. With all that said, we must remember that Putin is still capable of taking revenge on his enemies once the crisis is over. Yet confidence in his ability to actually do so has been shaken. It is now clear that Putin’s real military power and his ability to respond to a serious challenge in real time have been greatly exaggerated. The same may hold for his ability to take post-factum revenge on his challengers.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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About the Author
Journalist, publisher, organizer of civic projects
Sergey Parkhomenko is a Russian journalist, publisher, and founder of several projects aimed at developing civic activism and promoting liberal values in Russia. Since August 2003, Parkhomenko has been presenting Sut' Sobytyi (Crux of the Matter) on Radio Echo of Moscow, a weekly program making sense of the events of the past week. When the radio station was shut down by the Kremlin immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, he became the host of his own YouTube channel under the same name.Read More
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more