The world was treated to a first-class show this past weekend. It had it all: a breathtaking plot; a top box-office protagonist in Prigozhin; the ultimate villain in Putin; fast-paced, real-time, edge-of-your-seat drama; and a sudden, unexpected denouement. No wonder that mentions of “pass the popcorn” were all over Twitter on Saturday.
In our increasingly media-twisted culture, suffused with absurdities, the spectacle of a former cook playing Caesar at the head of a band of sledgehammer-wielding, convict-stormtroopers collectively called Wagner after the great romantic composer – and delicately known in Russia as the “musicians” – is not only a smash hit with the wider public but with the experts too.
Many of the Western commentariat not only took this 24-hour adventure to be a believable, serious and viable real coup attempt – and in the initial confusion it’s easy to see why – but proceeded to draw deep conclusions from it about the weaknesses of Russia and how long Putin has got left. This is where caution is advised, lest we add to our growing list of mistaken assumptions about Moscow, making the task of Ukrainian victory that much harder.
The very idea that this was an attempted coup does not add up. A coup always aims to seize political power and remove the leader. It also implies a wider conspiracy. Yet not a single Russian official or military unit took Wagner’s side, while those local authorities on the ground which didn’t challenge the “musicians” along the way – law enforcement, regular army troops in Rostov etc – likely had no orders to do so, either as a result of confusion or because it was judged safer to concentrate a response closer to Moscow rather than risk isolated fights at a disadvantage.
In addition, Prigozhin’s cause was not expressly political or publicly directed against Putin (ostensibly, his prime targets were Shoigu and Gerasimov). Nor, indeed, are we hearing of any arrests of important figures in the Kremlin who would have been involved in such a conspiracy.
Furthermore, Prigozhin chose to start in the city of Rostov – which he never left – and then sent a rather limited force (estimated between 2,500 and 5,000 men) towards the capital: an effectively hopeless strategy, even with speed on Wagner’s side. The practical aspects of the entire operation ran against every basic principle of a successful coup which must always begin where the seat of government is. There is no explanation for why experienced military men serious about capturing the Kremlin would fail to see this.
But if it was intended to be “merely” a mutiny – in Prigozhin’s euphemistic terms, a “protest march” – with the limited aims of safeguarding Wagner’s independence from the Russian MoD and forcing the replacement of Shoigu and Gerasimov, how could the Wagner leader imagine any of this would not effectively become, or at least be seen as, an attempt to seize State itself, i.e. a coup, especially with his forces heading towards Moscow?
We thus have a halfway house – more than a mutiny (given the move against the capital) but less than a coup (given the total unpreparedness for one) – interrupted half way through.
Read the rest at Brussels Signal.
Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.