Watching “The Rollicking Adventures of Wagner PMC Along Route M-4 Of The Russian Countryside” this weekend, it’s hard to remember that prior to this, the main actors involved, Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, were two of the most feared and brutal figures in Russian, and for that matter global politics.
The latter isn’t a household name for most people. I wrote about Prigozhin previously in a previous “What the hell exactly is going on in Russia, anyway?” newsletter, and the Economist has a pretty good summary of Prigozhin’s career as well.
Up until now, Prigozhin had a pretty good niche carved out for himself. He would pop on Telegram (Russia’s Twitter-like social network of choice) and leave a video where he rants and raves in a style typical of a drunken Russian ultra-nationalist tired of being poor and whomever he’s currently violently racist against. Here’s an example.
The thing about Prigozhin’s rants is that they are almost always targeting the elite, which he castigates with undisguised scorn and disgust (again, channeling the average Russian nationalist, who also not too happy with 99% of Russia’s wealth going to a dozen or so oligarchs). This is unusual since, in Russia, normally, this would get you thrown in prison. In fact, it’s exactly what got Alexei Navalny thrown in prison. Specifically, this video (it’s long, but if you haven’t seen it, budget an hour some time - it has English subtitles and Navalny does really good video journalism/demagoguery).
In fact, since the war began, quite a lot gets you arrested in Russia these days, including calling the “Special Military Operation” a war, or just wearing the wrong color hat while walking outside. So it’s worth asking why Prigozhin gets away with, you know, mouthing off so much. Meduza wrote up a short while ago some opinions from anonymous Russian leaders on why that is (aside from the obvious, such as Prigozhin being constantly surrounded by thousands of his closest heavily armed friends).
There’s an inner circle of people who are absolutely loyal to [Putin] and who are already bound to him by blood. Prigozhin is one of them. People from this circle can afford a lot more than everyone else, including any wayward thoughts. This is, first of all, because the president has no doubt about their personal loyalty, and, secondly, because nobody can touch them: they have the significant resource of personal access to the president, and in Prigozhin’s case, armed force as well.
Events shortly overtook this assessment.
The first event that changed this narrative was the ending of the Battle of Bakhmut. This was portrayed in the Russian media as Wagner’s finest hour, where Prigozhin bravely led his patriotic militia house by house, liberating the small city of Bakhmut to death. Left unsaid: that it took the corpses of at least 20,000 untrained Russian prisoners to do it, in a slaughter that made the Somme look like a picnic ground.
Yet Bakhmut did eventually, finally fall, and Russia managed to hold on to a blasted post-apocalyptic pile of rubble that was once a small city. Prigozhin around this time issued diatribe after diatribe on Telegram about how the evil Ministry of Defense (MoD) refused to send Wagner enough ammunition or supplies, leaving the brave Wagnerites fighting for Russian glory in the lurch out of greed and incompetence. It eventually resulted in this memorable video (CONTENT WARNING: Prigozhin chose to use the corpses of his men as video props - thankfully blurred out in this version):
Shortly afterward, Prigozhin gave an ultimatum that if not given adequate supplies, his troops would peace out of the war and go chill somewhere else, like, you know, maybe Moscow is nice this time of year. That ultimatum expired, and Bakhmut fell shortly thereafter (although not in time for Russia’s big May 9th Victory Day celebration of winning World War 2 All By Themselves With No Help At All, which stuck in the craw a bit). Prigozhin announced that Wagner’s forces would withdraw to its bases for some well deserved replacements, rest, R&R and letting the prisoner-soldiers left standing go to terrorize their home communities.
Then, about a week ago. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu answered Prigozhin’s video diatribes in an appropriate fashion: all Russian PMCs would be folded into the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin was getting his toy soldiers taken away.
Without twenty thousand of his closest heavily armed friends, Prigozhin would no longer have effective legal immunity to rant on Telegram. He would be treated like any other oligarch in Putin’s Russia - made to toe the line, or else suffer consequences such as, say, falling out of a window. And Prigozhin very much knew this, and that he had made a lot of powerful enemies.
So, on Friday, Prigozhin gave his answer.
First, a video accusation that Russian forces had bombed a Wagner camp. The video was, to put it mildly, unconvincing. To quote Meduza:
The video footage posted by Prigozhin earlier on June 23 that reportedly shows the aftermath of a Russian rocket strike on a Wagner rear camp is almost certainly staged. Here’s why:
- Whoever is filming doesn’t run away from the explosion, as you would expect if they feared more artillery or rocket strikes, but moves toward it.
- The people speaking off camera, before they could have gotten any real details about the incident, come to the conclusion that the Ukrainian military “can’t get at us” and that only their own “allies” could have carried out the strike.
- There’s no visible crater in any of the posted footage, or any dirt that a normal explosion would gave scattered. The surrounding vegetation and trees appear essentially unharmed, which rules out a rocket that exploded in the air. Most likely, the explosion was caused by a hand grenade going off under a tent or in one of the camp’s numerous structures.
- One part of the footage shows two fires burning in a dugout, but the fresh cover of leaves in the dugout is undamaged, and there are no visible artillery casings around.
- Prigozhin reported that the strike left a large number of victims, but the footage doesn’t show any of them. One clip shows part of a human body, but the color of the dried blood on it suggests that the person died much earlier than when the alleged strike took place.
This was, Prigozhin declared, the last straw - his troops would now march on Moscow to deal with Shoigu and his deputy Gerasimov personally. And woe betide anyone who gets in their way.
This is known in history circles as crossing the Rubicon - the river beyond where it was forbidden for Roman legions to cross, and where Julius Caesar memorably noted his fate was sealed - “the die is cast” - when he led his troops past it to take over Rome. Prigozhin literally crossed the Rubicon (in this case, the Don river). No take-backsies.
Wagner troops swiftly swept into Rostov, the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District (the military command overseeing the Ukraine war effort) and took it over with no resistance. Prigozhin stopped for a bit to cut a video claiming his light treason wasn’t going to affect the Ukraine war at all, really! Then — they kept going.
They kept going FAST.
Putin finally gave a speech on Saturday morning. It was about five minutes long and, for most Russians, bone-chilling.
…the actions splitting our unity are a betrayal of our people, of our brothers in combat who fight now at the front line. It’s a stab in the back of our country and our people.
It was such a blow that was dealt to Russia in 1917 when the country was fighting in World War I, but its victory was stolen…
…Anyone who consciously went on the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny, went on the path of blackmail and terrorist actions, will be punished inevitably. They will answer before the law and our people.
The armed forces and other departments have received the necessary orders. Additional anti-terrorist security measures are now being implemented in Moscow, Moscow region, and a number of other regions. Decisive actions will be taken to stabilise the situation in Rostov-on-Don, which still remains difficult. The operation of civilian and military control departments is practically blocked…
Almost immediately, every single private plane in Moscow took off. Including, um, Putin’s, heading for his bolthole outside of St. Petersburg.
We laugh (because it’s funny, and because Putin’s entire appeal of power rests on his personal macho invincibility) but it was in fact a reasonable reaction, given that apparently Russia had literally no troops available to stop Wagner from driving into Red Square and, I don’t know, popping wheelies with technicals or something. A few helicopters made desultory passes at the Wagner column heading swiftly north, and a surveillance jet was shot down, but other than that, Prigozhin’s Big Adventure was remarkably bloodless, considering a group of 20,000 ne’er-do-wells was moving through Russia faster than Heinz Guderian’s wildest dreams.
In fact, it was SO fast a drive, and so well supplied and planned, that in case you haven’t already figured it out, Prigozhin’s constant complaining this spring about not getting enough supplies was, you know, baldfaced lies. Wagner was keeping fuel and munitions back, pre-placing supplies, and planning exactly how this was to happen, for weeks if not months. In the gangster parlance Putin loves so much, he got played, yo.
And then it was over.
Literally at the gates of Moscow, Prigozhin announced that because, you know, his adventure might result in some people getting hurt (please remember, this is the same person who sent tens of thousands of Russian prisoners to their certain death) he had worked out with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko (a man who, to put it mildly, has not been known up to his point for his diplomatic acumen) an agreement that would make everyone happy.
Shoigu and Gerasimov would be fired (this has, so far, not been confirmed by Moscow), Wagner forces that didn’t participate in the Rostov-Moscow Fun Run (all six of them) would be free to join the Russian Army (you know, the very fate they were supposedly revolting against), the remainder would be free to join Prigozhin in exile in beautiful downtown Minsk, everything is fine, please remain calm, it’s all good, how are you today?
This was… abrupt.
I mean, just call off a coup/civil war on account of rain? Can you even do that? None of this made any sense at all. It still doesn’t make any sense at all, about 8 hours later. Prigozhin left Rostov cheered on by its ever-so-briefly-occupied residents (most of whose experience with Wagner forces consisted of waiting in line behind them for NotMcDonald’s breakfast sandwiches) and… what? What even happens now?
Does Prigozhin REALLY stay in Minsk, just happilly chilling out with his private army? Does Putin REALLY just let this all be bygones, you know, bros just being bros, sometimes you just gotta let off some steam and organize a furious drive on your nation’s capital? How does ANY OF THIS EVEN WORK?
We’re definitely in uncharted waters, well past any sort of Rubicon. Ukraine is reportedly running perilously low on popcorn. And Russia is, you know, still in the midst of invading Ukraine.
How all this will work out? I haven’t a damn clue, and anyone who claims to is lying, and that includes the Pentagon and the Kremlin.
One thing that will be the most annoying out of all this? Those weirdo Trumpist right wingers who insisted that this was all a shadow play orchestrated by Senile Evil Mastermind Joe Biden to take away attention from Hunter Biden’s very real crimes and his very real girlfriend who lives in Canada, they swear?
They’re going to think they’re right. And that, my friends, is why everything continues to be terrible.