Chaos in Russia: Is This a Coup? (Updated)

Update: Putin blinked? Prigozhin and Putin must have come to some kind of accommodation. The Kremlin has announced that all charges against Prigozhin have been dropped. The Wagner group mercenaries have stopped the march on Moscow. WaPo reports,

The agreement for Prigozhin’s forces to turn around appeared to have been brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who spoke with Putin before negotiating with Prigozhin, according claims from his office reported by Belarusian state-owned news agency Belta. With security guarantees for Wagner Group on the table, Prigozhin reportedly agreed to stop his forces’ progress toward Moscow.

A Kremlin media outlet reported that 15 Russian servicemen had been killed in the fighting with Wagner mercenaries. There is no way to verify that, I don’t think. A lot of people in Moscow already were evacuating and people had been told to not go to work over the next couple of days, so a possible attack on Moscow was being taken seriously.


I’s been a while since I’ve commented on the war in Ukraine. Things have gotten … interesting. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group that has been fighting on Russia’s behalf, has turned on Putin and, according to some reports, is sending his mercenaries into Russia. Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic:

In a statement yesterday afternoon, he accused the Russian army of killing “an enormous amount” of his mercenaries in a bombing raid on his base. Then he called for an armed rebellion, vowing to topple Russian military leade

Prigozhin has been lobbing insults at Russia’s military leadership for many weeks, mocking Sergei Shoigu, the Russian minister of defense, as lazy, and describing the chief of the general staff as prone to “paranoid tantrums.” Yesterday, he broke with the official narrative and directly blamed them, and their oligarch friends, for launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Ukraine did not provoke Russia on February 24, he said: Instead, Russian elites had been pillaging the territories of the Donbas they’ve occupied since 2014, and became greedy for more. His message was clear: The Russian military launched a pointless war, ran it incompetently, and killed tens of thousands of Russian soldiers unnecessarily.

Sounds like facts to me. And the New York Times is reporting that Prigozhin has claimed control of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.  And the mercenaries have been seen moving along a highway toward Moscow.

Back to Applebaum:

Maybe Prigozhin is collaborating with the Ukrainians, and this is all an elaborate plot to end the war. Maybe the Russian army really had been trying to put an end to Prigozhin’s operations, depriving his soldiers of weapons and ammunition. Maybe this is Prigozhin’s way of fighting not just for his job but for his life. Maybe Prigozhin, a convicted thief who lives by the moral code of Russia’s professional criminal caste, just feels dissed by the Russian military leadership and wants respect. And maybe, just maybe, he has good reason to believe that some Russian soldiers are willing to join him. …

,,, To understand what is going on (or to guess at it), you have to follow a series of unreliable Russian Telegram accounts, or else read the Western and Ukrainian open-source intelligence bloggers who are reliable but farther from the action: @wartranslated, who captions Russian and Ukrainian video in English, for example; or Aric Toler (@arictoler), of Bellingcat, and Christo Grozev (@christogrozev), formerly of Bellingcat, the investigative group that pioneered the use of open-source intelligence. Grozev has enhanced credibility because he said the Wagner group was preparing a coup many months ago. (This morning, I spoke with him and told him he was vindicated. “Yes,” he said, “I am.”)

But the Kremlin may not have very good information either. Only a month ago, Putin was praising Prigozhin and Wagner for the “liberation” of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, after one of the longest, most drawn-out battles in modern military history. Today’s insurrection was, by contrast, better planned and executed: Bakhmut took nearly 11 months, but Prigozihin got to Rostov and Voronezh in less than 11 hours, helped along by commanders and soldiers who appeared to be waiting for him to arrive.

People are using the words “coup” and “civil war.” The Financial Times:

After months of lurid public infighting, the conflict between Yevgeny Prigozhin’s paramilitaries and the Russian defence ministry has boiled over into the first coup attempt in Russia in three decades. Although Putin appeared shocked by his former caterer Prigozhin’s “treason” during a stern five-minute address to the nation, the chaos indicated how years of covert warfare, poor governance and corruption had created the greatest threat to his rule in 24 years. “They never should have fought with a [private militia] during a war. It was a mistake to use anything except the army,” a former senior Kremlin official said. “It’s nice to have during peacetime, but now you just can’t do it. That’s what led to this story with Prigozhin — [Putin] brought it upon himself.” The roots of Prigozhin’s revolt date back to 2014 when Prigozhin set up Wagner as a way for Russia to disguise its involvement in a slow-burning war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The group helped keep eastern Ukraine under Russian proxy control and, as its mission expanded, gave Russia plausible deniability for sorties as far away as Syria and Mozambique.
But for all its ostensible independence — the Kremlin claimed to know nothing about it, while Prigozhin denied for years that the group even existed — Wagner was a big part of Russia’s official war machine. Initially run by GRU, Russian military intelligence, Wagner was lavishly funded from the national defence budget and often competed with the armed forces for lucrative contracts, according to people close to the Kremlin and security sources in the west. That nourished a rivalry that began years before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, heated up during the bloody siege of the town of Bakhmut this winter and spilled out of control this week, the people said. “The main reason Prigozhin happened at all is because Russia?.?.?.?couldn’t create an effective army. They had to create an ersatz army instead, and it was obvious from the start that creating a parallel army has huge risks,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defence think-tank.

So, basically, the Russian military is now at war with itself. President Zelensky says that “Russia’s weakness is obvious.”

I’m making no predictions how this will turn out. I wouldn’t be sorry to see Putin toppled, but there’s no reason to believe that what might replace him would be an improvement.