Saturday, 23rd June of 2023, will be remembered in Russia as a military coup attempt by the paramilitary “Wagner” organization and its leader Evgeny Prigozhin. Dramatic events started on Friday night but were already resolved on Saturday night, leaving more questions than answers. Political and military experts and media commentators struggle to find a solid answer. Cautious and curious Russian citizens did not show much commitment to the Prigozhin’s cause but instead switched to posting memes. Yet, the question remains the same: “What was that?”
An internal conflict
Russian analysts usually refer to the Russian political elite as “the Kremlin towers,” which exist in a constant political struggle. Anyone with military, financial or media resources is considered a player among these “towers.” Even apparatchiks within the administration, ministries and State Duma are also referred to as those who lean towards one or multiple “towers.” In this case, Prigozhin represents one or several patriotic groups who conflicted with the Russian Ministry of Defense and its strategy for the Special Military Operation in Ukraine. Personally, Evgeny Prigozhin targeted Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who are in charge of the current operation.
However, based on Prigozhin’s statements, the conflict started much earlier than 2022. For instance, on his Telegram channel, he criticized Minister Shoigu for his cowardice treachery during the 2014 incident in the Syrian Palmira and the 2018 clash between “Wagner” forces and U.S. troops in Syria when the former suffered severe casualties. The rest of the complaints covered Ukrainian events. Upon scrutiny, it is evident that Prigozhin has serious discontent about Sergei Shoigu because he even allowed accusations and unfavorable comparisons on the personal and family level. At the same time, Gerasimov is primarily drawn as an incompetent Chief of General Staff during the Ukrainian operation.
Prigozhin was not a rookie in the media warfare. He started his activities with the Concord Company Group and Internet Research Agency, also known as the “troll factory.” The Agency posted the news favoring Russian political elites and pushed Kremlin narratives. Prigozhin recently admitted he founded and financed it. He was also conducting catering services for the Kremlin events meaning he had high-level ties within Russian political beau monde. Prigozhin did not hesitate to push his narratives and “Wagner” through Russian media but usually through multiple telegram channels and military correspondents.
In the Russian political landscape, it is impossible to have such an extensive media coverage without permission and supervision from the top rank authorities. Even Alexei Navalny, starting as a lawyer and blogger, later created his media and political network all over Russia conducting more resonant investigations – barely possible achievement without aid from some political groups. The influence of those behind Prigozhin is confirmed by Russian President Putin’s references to the seriousness of the situation, similar to the events of February 1917. Back then, the political elites, with the support of the Russian military command, toppled the Russian Tsar Nicolas II.
All this means that Prigozhin was just a front man of a much deeper group dissatisfied with the Russian military command, mistakes made during the Special Operation in Ukraine, and potential discontent over their “share” in the changing financial, economic and political landscape.
“I do not believe!”
The sequence of events itself is odd. First, Prigozhin announced the reasons for “Wagner” discontent and his plans. If he planned to stage a coup, keeping it a secret as long as possible would be a priority. Though, Prigozhin used media to state his claims and accusations for months. Even if he tried to win public approval, it would also be informing the authorities of the seriousness of his actions.
Then, “Wagner” captured the Russian military headquarters in South Military District. Prigozhin claimed Valery Gerasimov was there but fled to a “friend’s apartment.” He demanded Shoigu and Gerasimov to arrive at Rostov-on-Don for a personal meeting. If he tried to increase his chances of seeing Shoigu and Gerasimov or even detain them, it would be rational to keep quiet and search the city and surrounding areas to intercept Valery Gerasimov.
Next, they announced their “March” to Moscow. Nevertheless, the distance from Rostov-on-Don is more than 1000 km. If the toppling of the military command was the target, it would be logical to start it closer than marching that distance; otherwise, loyalists would have enough time to prepare.
Later, Putin spoke on national TV, condemned “Wagner” for treachery during wartime and issued an order to suppress the mutiny. It is claimed that the explosion happened in Rostov-on-Don, several helicopters were intercepted, and their pilots died. Russian military correspondents post infographics of military casualties with little photographic evidence. The existing photos are hard to identify where and when it happened. Moreover, some photos show a few tanks in Rostov with covered barrels which is odd if you attempt a coup. In fact, there is little evidence of the multiple claimed clashes between “Wagner” and the Russian military.
Little validation of the surrounding events, the obscure nature of the coup’s envelopment and rapid resolution leave many doubts about whether it was real. Some details are even more puzzling. For instance, on the video when Prigozhin was in the military headquarters, general Yunus-bek Yevkurov received a phone call on his iPhone. However, mobile phones were banned several years ago due to the security concerns.
Also, Ukrainian media and some Western outlets supported “Wagner’s” actions. For instance, even Russian Volunteer Corps supported their actions. Ukrainian officials and media were enjoying the news coming from Russia, while Western officials hesitated to demand more counteroffensive measures on the frontlines.
Finally, the coup started on June 24th, a date close to June 22nd – a sensitive date for Russians when the Third Reich invaded USSR starting the Great Patriotic War. If Prigozhin, as he claims, is a genuine Russian patriot, it would be blasphemous to initiate his coup close to that date. Surprisingly, the events started on the night of June 24th, Friday, when Russian stock markets were not operational and had a couple of weeks of major funds buying back any bearish attempts for the correction.
These illogicalities and strange events surrounding the coup attempt leave space for doubts about the seriousness them of the mutineers, reminding of the famous Stanislavki’s motto.
Waves on the water
On the evening of June 25th, the truce was announced with the assistance of Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko. Then, Prigozhin ended his “March” and disclosed some reasons for his actions – “Wagner” was set to the brink of existence. Leaked intel and rumors claim Prigozhin is to relocate to Belarus in exchange for Shoigu’s resignation; some “Wagner” soldiers and commanders will sign the contracts with the Ministry of Defense while others will follow Prigozhin. His criminal case would be closed. However, more details are to be announced later.
There have been many coup attempts in the Russian history of the last century. What makes the situation unique is that it is the first one for President Putin, while the country is in a state of open conflict with the Western countries and Ukraine. Many details of the coup remain obscure. The announcement of the truce itself already raised multiple questions about the strategic importance of the northern front in Ukraine. If stationed there, “Wagner” forces can be used in the attack on Kyiv, which theoretically may clear the name of the organization and Prigozhin.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether the coup was staged or legit the damage for the Russian authorities and military command is already done. Perhaps more details will come up soon justifying those claiming the coup was Prigozhin’s desperate attempt to save his private paramilitary group while falsely believing he got enough political, media and military potential to seal his name in Russian history similar to Kuzma Minin or Dmitry Pozharsky. Unfortunately, for now, people will remember him as a mutineer who backstabbed the commander-in-chief, sealing the events in comical memes and deep fakes.