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.

30 thoughts on “Chaos in Russia: Is This a Coup? (Updated)

  1.   <i>Is This a Coup?</i>

    It does not have any of the classic characteristics of a coup. No attempt to behead the government, capture/kill the President or cabinet, or seize major communications sources, etc.,  and not really any violence that we can be sure happened. So far, no one outside of Wagner seems to support him.

    Prigozhin is loudly denouncing Shoigu and Gerasimov but not Putin. It is well known that he really dislikes Shoigu and wants him gone. It looks like he’s happy to get rid of Gerasimov as well.

    At the moment I cannot see that Prigozhin has any viable game plan. I am wavering between thinking he has had some kind of mental breakdown or the whole thing some wildly elaborate deception plan to con Kyiv and NATO into some more stupid moves but the latter seems a bit crazy.

    I don’t think we want to see Putin deposed. He is a moderate in Russian official circles; he has been strongly criticized for to timid an approach. For any number of reasons he wants to keep civilian casualties and property damage as low as possible.

    Almost any successor would be much more aggressive and would likely go for a US-style shock and awe attack that would probably mean levelling Kyiv, Lviv, and other cities.



    • No attempt to behead the government, capture/kill the President or cabinet, or seize major communications sources, etc.,

      You picked up on the part where they were marching toward Moscow, yes? They may very well intend to do those things when they get there. 

      and not really any violence that we can be sure happened. So far, no one outside of Wagner seems to support him.

      There is no reliable reporting coming out of Russia and hasn't been for a while. We have no way to know how much support Putin has among Russians these days. Russians may not give a hoo haw about Prigozhin but wouldn't mind seeing him take out Putin. There have been reports of exchanges of gunfire between Russian regulars and the Wagner mercenaries, which I suppose we should take with a grain of salt. 

      Prigozhin is loudly denouncing Shoigu and Gerasimov but not Putin.

      Yes, but Putin is loudly denouncing Prigozhin. Prigozhin's survival may depend on deposing Putin. 

      I don’t think we want to see Putin deposed. 

      Putin isolated and chastised might be the best outcome. As I said, whatever replaces him could well be worse. 

      • <i>You picked up on the part where they were marching toward Moscow, yes? </i>

        Reports yesterday were vague to put it mildly but it looked like there may have been 700-1,000 troops with Prigozhin in Rostov-on-Don and maybe 4,000 troops all told with him.  There may have been a few hundred in Voronezh which is roughly 500km south of Moscow.  Rostov-on-Don is about 1,000 km from Moscow. 


        It is a long drive even from Voronezh and he Wagner group has no integral logistics support.  They are almost completely dependent on Russian military logistics support for everything from gas to toilet paper.  I just do not see how they can drive up the M-4 Highway expecting to gas up at the local service centres and grab a hamburg at the same time.

        The Moscow urban area has a population of roughly 20,000,000.  Prigozhin's "invading force" could get lost in rush hour traffic.


        <i>We have no way to know how much support Putin has among Russians these days.</i>

        The last figures I have seen from the Leveda Center which most Western commentators seem to think are pretty reliable  give him about an 82% approval rating.   <a href=""&gt; Putin’s approval rating</a>. 

        I suspect these ratings are probably correct.  There is nothing like being a war-leader to boost one's popularity—see G. W. Bush.  Even when Putin and the Russian Government were raising the retirement age back in 2019(?) his ratings were still in the high 60's. Macron is not doing so well.


          <i>Putin is loudly denouncing Prigozhin. </i>


        This is going to sound weird but unless I missed it, Putin spoke about "betrayal", "mutiny", & " revolt" but Putin never mentioned Prigozhin.  Nor the Wagner Group. This last I can see as it looks like most of Wagner is having nothing to do with this mutiny but why no mention of Prigozhin?

        / <a href=""&gt; Address to citizens of Russia</a>

          <i> There have been reports of exchanges of gunfire between Russian regulars and the Wagner mercenaries, which I suppose we should take with a grain of salt. </> Yes,   or even a block of salt.  They are so confused that I would not trust them one way or another.  From some videos from Rostov -on-Don, the occupation looks more like soldiers on peace time manovers. 

          <i>Putin isolated and chastised might be the best outcome.</i>


        As of 2023/06/25 20:51 it looks like he has come out looking okay. 


  2. No matter who replaces Putin, even Prigozhin, he won't have Putin's connections or vast wealth. He also won't be obsessed with Peter the Great, Potemkin, and creating USSR 2-Electric Boogaloo. And he won't have Alexander Dugin and Patriarch Kirill constantly telling him he has a great destiny to fulfill!

    I think Putin was clueless that this was about to happen. He famously doesn't read newspapers, doesn't watch TV or social media, so all he knows is what his close advisers tell him. Here, the "SNAFU" principle applies (as described by Robert Anton Wilson.) Those at the top of a authoritarian pyramid are fed a constant stream of bullshit and flattery by those around them. The followers learn not to tell Dear Leader anything he doesn't want to hear. This gives those at the top a very warped view of reality.

    "So the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the more lies are being told to flatter those above them. So those at the top have no idea what is going on at all. Those at the bottom have to adjust to the rules made by those at the top who don’t know what’s going on. Those at the top can write rules about this, that and the other, while those at the bottom have got to adjust 'reality' to fit the rules as much as they can."

  3. The other feature of creating a mercenary force was competition between the entrenched army v the publicly-funded privateers. The chaos theory, also practiced by Trump. The principle has some drawbacks as Putin is discovering.

    • I suspect that Putin has long known that Mercs are a spear with pointy parts at both ends.  IMO, putting Wagner grunts in Bakhmut was a Two-fer for Putin: using a future enemy (Prigozhin's Mercs) against a current enemy (Ukraine), rather than wasting official Russian infantry in frontal assaults against entrenched defenders.

  4. Daily Kos has much better coverage of Ukraine and consistently more accurate than the NYT.  

    Josh Marshall has posted a link (within an article) to a blogfeed that he and DK both attest to being populated by persons who are not tankies and who relay current feeds of information.

  5. I'm still very skeptical of anything written by Neocons who promoted the US invasion of Iraq – like Anne Applebaum.  The article quoted above leans heavily on the word "maybe", a technique Neocons used a lot in 2001-2…

    Sure, "maybe" a private army of 25,000 can capture Moscow, the capital of a country with an army of 1,900,000.  Well, "maybe" Prigozhin has allies in the Russian military just waiting for the opportunity (or signal?) to rise up and overthrow Putin.  And "maybe" those generals are closet Peaceniks, patiently waiting for their chance to end the war in Ukraine.  "Maybe" they will even install a new Yeltsin to invite Western economists to fix Russia again…

  6. The Master Marionettist got one of his strings tangled, and lost control of an already bad shite-show he had orchestraded for his audience.

    Putin is weakened.

    Prigozhin is toast. 

    Or rather, mincemeat. 

    Putin cannot allow Prigozhin's actions to stand.

    But Putin will deal with that later.

    He will have to regain total control somehow.

    Nothing good will come of that.

    And that's internally.

    Putin will also have to internalize what will remain of the Wagner Group.  That will mean getting control all of Prigozhin's efforts in Africa and the Middle East.

    But poor Ukraine can't rest.

    Yes, it should take advantage of getting Progizhin's Wagner Group out of the way.

    But Putin won't – can't – let that go on too long.

    My concern is that Putin will lash out, and try to utilize Russia's remaining unused assets:   Air power, and possibly nuclear.

    He may start to carpet bomb Ukrainian cities.

    He'll withhold his tactical nukes as his final hole card.

    I doubt he'll use them.  But he could.

    The good news for the West is Putin is weakened. 

    We in the West have to give Ukraine more military assets – especially to counter Putin's last major advantage:  Air power.

    And yes, still more sanctions.

    Putin now fears internal pressures as much -or more – than external ones.

    In already interesting, complicated, and dangerous times, this may be turning point.

    Things could get less interesting, complicated, and perilous.

    Or more.

    It'll be interesting to see what China's Xi learns from this.

    Another plus for us in the West, is that Xi may learn from Putin's bafly botched Ukraine invasion, and re-look at any plans he has towards Taiwan (ROC).


    That's it for now from my hospital bed.

    Peace out.

    • First, I hope you feel better soon.  Second, I'm not sure what drugs they have you on but your analysis of the situation is spot on, Putin is dismantling Wagner and absorbing the mercenaries against their will into the regular army. This can only cause friction and dissent when and where it will do Putin the most damage.

      Ukraine's air defenses have been good – not perfect, but Putin does not have air superiority. Putin has reportedly mined a nuclear plant in Ukraine and can create s second Chornobyl. That's an ugly threat but if the wind blows the wrong direction, Russia also gets the fallout. 

      I don't know how crazy Putin is. Maybe the threat of being violently deposed and executed will make Putin ponder retirement. He has enough money for many lifetimes. If a medical condition caused Putin to step down, someone else could untangle and withdraw from Ukraine. But like Trump, ego may be more important than life to Putin. They are both trying to create "places in history" very different than the ones reality is dragging them to.

  7. 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.

    Seems to me that maybe Bush Jr. wasn't the first to raise the "Mission Accomplished" banner prematurely. 'Ol Ronny Reagan was decades ahead of him. The fall of the Berlin Wall was great and all, but it was hardly the end of the Cold War.

  8. I'm in thanks to pneumonia.

    And yes, I had a pneumonia vaccine a few years ago.

    I guess it's true that no vaccine is 100% effective.

    Oh well, I'm still here!

    Alive, I mean! 🙂

  9. Putin:

    "Sixteen months ago, people in Kiev prepared for an invasion of Russian troops.

    Yesterday, people in Moscow prepared for an invasion of Russian troops.

    You see!

    I'm still a super-genius!"

  10. “Russia’s weakness is obvious.”

    What a clusterfuck! Sounds like Putin's Army killed a couple hundred, thousand, who knows prisoners / soldiers belonging to Chef Yevgeny? His "Army" (I heard 2500 troops) was halfway to Moscow when Putin gave him a better offer via Lukashenko? Must have been some offer. As usual our news media coverage was confusing, nothing but endless speculation. CNN brought out the big guns Christiane Amanpour, Wolf, niether one had a clue, why would they? The only good commentary I heard was someone on a cable compared the last two days in Russia to a power struggle on the Sopranos! If Putin had to pay Yevgeny to save Moscow from 2,500 troops maybe Ukraine should send a Battalion or three that way? Let’s get this over with!

  11. You might wonder how close the United States is to being as messed up as Russia.  It is easy to see a trend toward authoritarian rule over democracy.  The former guy mobilized his "army" to stay in power, and still maintains control of one party in a country with only a two-party system.  At this point, the republican party is unable to congeal around a replacement.  Many of the contenders also have strong authoritarian leanings and are in states who are blatantly trying to rig the voting system in an undemocratic fashion.  Recently we have seen how the very rich are able to land members of the Supreme Court and manipulate the "law" in their favor.  Women are being forced into abiding to laws which are supported by a significant minority of citizens only, and at this point the majority is having a difficult time making the country accept a majority opinion.  

      I think the trend line is obvious.  I also think few in America want to be like Russia.  Most know they will not be of the oligarch class and have their own personal army to wield political power by brute force.  Some will cheer politicians who seem to approve of this decision-making method but lack the foresight to see where such a path would inevitably lead.  It leads to a place which favors a minority which will exclude them from any power at all, especially when they find out they sold out to the wrong strong man.  Most of them  will do just that.  Best to be happy with and protect the power you have in the democracy you now barely have.               

    Get well gulag.  We all count on you. 



    • "You might wonder how close the United States is to being as messed up as Russia"

      That thought has popped into my head a time or two looking at the recent Russia b-roll, the magats here wish they had what the Wagner militia has, another 4 years of Stump in the WH and they will!

  12. Thanks, Bernie!


    Try BBC International:  More news.  More thoughtfully presented.  Fewer commercials.

    • I check out BBC world quite a bit as well. They are definitely a step up from CNN. The coverage of this story was confused pretty much everywhere and like I said why wouldn't it be? No one really understood what was happening (I don't think Putin really got it), but that doesn't stop the endless speculation? I guess they have to say something?

  13. Wagner boss is cheered as he leaves Rostov-on-Don (watch the video). It echoes a lot of what I’ve heard: ordinary people hate Putin, his corruption, his war, but are terrified of speaking up.

    Joyce Vance:

    I know we’re all keeping an eye on what’s going on in Russia as we go about the weekend. I’ll say it again—I am incredibly happy we’re living through this moment with Joe Biden in the White House, not Donald Trump. I feel quite certain that’s also the view of most Republicans, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.

    •   <i>Wagner boss is cheered as he leaves Rostov-on-Don (watch the video). It echoes a lot of what I’ve heard: ordinary people hate Putin</i>


      I don't think people hate Putin but they see the Wagner PMC as real heros after Bakhmut. They may have thought Prigozhin an idiot or even a traitor but Wagner troops who seemed pretty casual and relaxed  in Rostov-on-Don are popular. Heck, some of them could well be local boys. 

      • That "BBC Video" looks a lot like it was lifted from Patrick Lancaster's longer report from Rostov-on-Don. 

        It missed Patrick's shouting a couple of questions at Prigozhin and getting answers as Prigozhin's  SUV was slowly making its way through the crowd @3:10.

        The BBC  also missed the interviews with the cheering crowd with people saying they loved  Wagner, loved Prigozhin, and loved Putin.

         Patrick seemed a bit confused.

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