The Coup Is Over

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the brutal convicted criminal who leads the Wagner mercenary group, declared war on the Russian Ministry of Defence and marched into the city of Rostov-on-Don. He then headed north for Moscow, carrying his demand for the ousting of Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The city went on alert.

Prigozhin and his men came within 125 miles of the capital Moscow. He then said that a deal had been struck and that Wagner’s forces were turning around to avoid bloodshed. Apparently, however, the blood Prigozhin saved from being shed was his own. Prigozhin has in the space of a day gone from being a powerful warlord to a man living on borrowed time in a foreign country, waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inevitable retribution.

According to Peskov, Russia is dropping all charges against Prigozhin, who must now go into exile in Belarus. Wagner fighters who did not take part in the rebellion will be given amnesty, and then they will sign contracts that will bring them under the control of Shoigu’s Ministry of Defence. In truth Shoigu’s attempt to seize Wagner’s men and dissolve the force might be one of the reasons Prigozhin went on the march. This outcome is a defeat of the first order for Prigozhin, who has now lost everything except his life.

One can at this point only speculate about why Prigozhin undertook this putsch, and why it all failed so quickly. One possibility is that Prigozhin had allies in Moscow who promised to support him, and somehow that support fell through: Perhaps his friends in the Kremlin got cold feet, or were less numerous than Prigozhin realised, or never existed.

Nonetheless, this bizarre episode is not a win for Putin. The Russian President has been visibly wounded, and he will now bear the permanent scar of political vulnerability. Instead of looking like a decisive statesman, Putin left Moscow after issuing a short video in which he was visibly angry.

Bringing in President Aleksandr Lukashenko as a broker at first seemed an odd choice on Putin’s part, but it makes a bit more sense in light of the supposed deal. The Belarusian ruler could personally vouch for Prigozhin’s safe passage; Lukashenko has no connections in Moscow that are more important than Putin; he does not live or work in the Kremlin and so he was a secure choice to carry out Putin’s terms; he owes Putin his continued rule and has no reason to betray him. Also, sending in Lukashenko was something of a power move: Putin is a former intelligence officer, and in that world, Prigozhin is merely a scummy convict.

Prigozhin gets to stay alive, at least for the moment, but his life as he knew it (and maybe in any sense) is over. Putin, however, is now politically weaker than ever. He is no longer unchallengeable and invincible. Prigozhin’s rebellion and its effects will last beyond today, but how long he will live in Belarus—or stay alive in Belarus—to see how the rest of it plays out is unclear. The coup is over but what is not over is Putin’s trouble.

Meanwhile, the Russia-Ukraine war has crossed the 500-day mark, a grim milestone for a conflict that rages without end in sight. While the fighting has fallen largely into a stalemate---there has been no significant movement in battle lines control in months---the war continues to take a heavy toll on the lives and livelihoods of lakhs of people. The stakes are only getting higher.  

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Vol 56, No. 4, Jul 23 - 29, 2023