Last week’s Wagner revolt was less an attempted coup, more an impulsive demonstration that got out of hand
Could Yevgeny Prigozhin have somehow captured Moscow last weekend? The emerging consensus – from experts and in western capitals – is probably not: the extraordinary rebellion of last Friday and Saturday was far less than an attempted coup, and more an impulsive demonstration that quickly got out of hand.
Consider the numbers involved in Saturday’s march on Moscow. The best estimates of rebel numbers are nothing like the 25,000 claimed by Prigozhin himself, probably closer to the 4,000 cited by the Institute of the Study of War. Even that is only a small part of Wagner’s total Ukraine force, generally estimated to be 15,000, the size of an army division.
That may have looked intimidating if you drove past the Wagner column on its way to the Russian capital, but Moscow is the second largest city in Europe, with a population of about 13 million. And while Prigozhin brought with him Pantsir air defence systems, shooting down six helicopters and a transport in the one battle on the highway north, there were only small numbers of tanks (nine in the first column, according to one Russian military blogger) or heavy armour.
Wagner – the name is a nod to Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer – is in reality a light infantry force, and while its seasoned fighters are some of Russia’s most effective, helping capture the city of Bakhmut from Ukraine, the victory in that town, which had a prewar population of 70,000, took roughly a year.
On the other hand, it is clear the Russian state was barely prepared. It does not look like the FSB security service, no friends of the mercenary boss, had got wind of Prigozhin’s plans, because otherwise the defence of Moscow would have been better organised, unless, that is, even the secret agents were too afraid to warn the president, Vladimir Putin.
It is possible even that western intelligence had a better intimation earlier: in their usual none too subtle way, US insiders were briefing, as Prigozhin’s mutiny unfolded, that they had warned senior administration officials on Wednesday last week that he was contemplating some sort of revolt, against a Putin-backed order to force Wagner to integrate into and subordinate under the Russian defence ministry by 1 July.
There was no ready defence of Moscow last Saturday. The well-connected Russian military blogger Rybar said reserve units were being flown in from around the country, with others coming by train from St Petersburg. Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, estimates in a blogpost that the defence force amounted to the Rosgvardia national guard of 10,000 “but not necessarily with the capabilities or motivation to resist for long”.
A defence was being marshalled at haste on the Oka River, south of the capital, while videos appeared showing other parts of the highway north being dug up by mostly civilians. Russian aviation was hurled at Wagner because that is all that was available, and it is conceivable that Prigozhin could have blasted through the first lines of defence and got to the outer Moscow ring road.
What then? Even now, a week on, it is not clear in western circles if Prigozhin’s intention was in fact to overthrow Putin, rather than topple his longtime rivals, the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov. These are the kind of conversations that senior Russians would be expected to have one to one, away from mobile phones.
But the rebel leader did come close on Saturday morning, in response to an angry denunciation from Putin, saying that “no one [from Wagner] is going to turn themselves in and confess at the order of the president”. If nothing else, Prigozhin’s thinking was developing fast, not least because Wagner had easily taken control of Rostov, a city of 1 million people, the night before.
It is possible for a capital to fall to small numbers of troops. Kabul was captured with ease by the Taliban in August 2021, as the president, Asraf Ghani, fled. Momentum at a critical moment often decides a battle, war or a coup. But the critical point here is that, after Prigozhin left Rostov he had none of the political kind.
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One detail stands out about the eight-hour period on Saturday between Prigozhin starting his “march for justice” and his volte face near Krasnoe, 330km south of Moscow: the lack of others in the Russian establishment joining him in public support. At best, he might have enjoyed tacit backing from the now-detained Gen Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s air forces. But nearly a week on, even that is unclear.
It is self-evident that Putin’s authority is dented, but the reality is also that Prigozhin was a singular figure among the Russian elites, a paramilitary boss with a semi-independent public profile. Wagner in Russia is likely to be broken up, with perhaps a few thousand going in exile to Belarus, while experts consider its international operations in Africa too useful to Moscow to be dismantled.
Wagner forces were not in the frontline in Ukraine at the time of the revolt, and their absence from there is not likely to be particularly helpful to Kyiv, which is struggling to make territorial progress in its summer counteroffensive. But wars are only partly decided on the battlefield itself – what matters also is political unity on the home front. This time, the Russian elites held together, but Prigozhin’s march and the last-ditch response to it, underlines the Kremlin’s increasing brittleness.
The Guardian (UK)