Intelligence and Russia’s Pseudo-Coup
Yet again, the spooks come through for Western policymakers trying to decipher riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas
Even by impressively high Russian standards for weirdness, last weekend witnessed a strange series of events unfold in that country at war. Tensions that had been building inside Russia’s military machine over the last 18 months, as the Kremlin tried and failed to subdue Ukraine at an appalling cost in lives and treasure, finally burst forth in public.
After months of bearing much of the brunt of Russia’s diffident yet bloody war against its neighbor, the battle-scarred mercenaries of the Wagner Group took up arms against the state, their ostensible boss. Last Friday, Wagner’s leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin – the jailbird turned caterer turned Putin intimate turned warlord – unleashed withering accusations of incompetence and worse at the Defense Ministry, in particular its leader, Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin had lambasted Shoigu and his generals previously for their flagrant incompetence in Ukraine, but this time the improbable mercenary leader went further and dispatched his troops against the Russian military.
Firefights ensued and seven Russian military aircraft were shot down, killing as many as two dozen aircrew, but in the most shocking move, Wagner’s forces deployed in southeastern Ukraine crossed the border back into Russia and seized Rostov-na-Donu. This isn’t a village, but rather a city with a million inhabitants. More important, it’s the headquarters of the Southern Military District, one of five joint regional military commands under Moscow, plus the critical logistics and command-control hub for Russia’s war against Ukraine. Meeting scant resistance, Prigozhin’s forces within a few hours effectively decapitated President Vladimir Putin’s war machine against his neighbor.
Rumors spread fast of a march on Moscow and soon voices asked if this signaled the imminent fall of the Putin regime after almost 24 years in power. Hearts rose in Kyiv and NATO capitals. Social media wondered if this might be 1917 all over again, with a new Russian revolution. Those better acquainted with Russia’s history instead asked if this could be a redo of 1905, when embarrassing battlefield setbacks combined with anger at an authoritarian regime congealed with ethnic and regional discontent to produce serious uprisings. Few stopped to ask how a gang of mercenaries at most 25,000 strong, many of whom are convicts more than veteran warriors, could take over the world’s largest country.
Then, the drama was over nearly as suddenly as it began. On Saturday, in a move that made little sense outside implausible theatrics, Prigozhin pulled his forces back from Rostov and the alleged march on Moscow faded into thin air. Whatever deal was cooked between Putin and his former chef, allegedly brokered by Belarus’ strongman Aleksandr Lukashenka, it sufficed to end the not-quite-a-coup before anything terribly serious happened.
As of today, Minsk reports that Prigozhin is their guest, while how many Wagner fighters have taken sanctuary with him in Belarus is unclear. Illustrating just how strange this whole operation was, Wagner fighters deployed abroad, serving as semi-deniable cut-outs for Russian military intelligence or GRU, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, remain in action and loyal to Moscow, asserts the Kremlin. It’s difficult to see how mercenaries attempting a coup against the state can be deemed fully loyal to that state just one day later, but Russia has never been a normal country.
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