Russia: Prigozhin’s military rebellion is a hard blow for Putin’s regime

OLEG VERNYK, president of the Independent Union of Ukraine “Zahist Pratsi” – Socialist League of Ukraine.

The quick events of the military rebellion and the “campaign of liberation of Moscow” of the Private Military Company Wagner and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin on the 23 and 24 of June, 2023, were unexpected only to those who did not follow the development of Russia’s situation in the Ukrainian front in the last months. The rebellion was coming closer every day in the development of a critical situation for the Russian occupation army in the combat front. We need to consider the facts and events that led to the actions of Prigozhin.

From the very beginning of the armed imperialist aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the development of the so-called “special military operation” did not go according to plan. The Russian military focused on the “blitzkrieg” and initially did not expect to get bogged down in a difficult war. The resistance of the Ukrainian people and the army, unexpectedly for Putin, broke his plans. By the end of March 2022, extremely difficult relations emerged between Putin and the leadership of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Federation. Putin has stopped fully trusting the generals of his army. For the history of the USSR and the Federation, this is a very old and traditional situation of confrontation between the KGB and the army. Putin comes from the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) and therefore initially was wary of the Russian military, as he saw them as a traditional threat to his power. Therefore, in many ways, he appointed a person close to him to the position of Minister of Defense, who had never been connected with the military and who came from the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

In late March 2022, Putin’s former chef, and now a major Russian businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin, frequented Putin. Prior to this, Prigozhin spent many years in Russian prisons for theft, fraud, involvement of a minor in criminal activity and robbery. After his release from prison, Prigozhin started his business in St. Petersburg and became close to Putin, who is also a native of “Russia’s second capital.” Over time, Prigozhin created his own private army, which showed a significant part of its activity in Africa. Prigozhin’s fighters protected many leaders of African countries, snatched lucrative business in Africa from competitors of Russian capital. Military structures of PMC “Wagner” were seen in: the Central African Republic of Mali, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Mozambique, Guinea and several other African countries. The “best moment” for Prigozhin and his “private military company” was the participation in the civil war in Syria, on the side of the pro-Russian dictator Assad. Parallel to this, Prigozhin developed its business in Russia and became the main supplier of food for the Russian army.

In the situation of the extremely unsuccessful start of the war in Ukraine and Putin’s dissatisfaction with the actions of the Russian generals, Prigozhin managed to convince Putin that it was necessary to use his Wagner unit on the Ukrainian front because it was the most highly trained, with fighters endowed with military experience. Putin agreed with this idea and considered that the Wagner would become a kind of alternative to the Russian army on the front under his personal control. From the beginning of April 2022, Wagner units left Syria and Africa and arrived in the Donetsk region and entered the war on the side of the Russian aggressor. Prigozhin received assurances from Putin that, first of all, his “Wagner private military company” would receive military shells and ammunition. By April 2022, Wagner had its own tanks, armored vehicles and even its own aircraft. However, Wagner’s front-line achievements were quite modest. After prolonged fighting, Prigozhin took the town of Popasnaya in the Donetsk region and approached the town of Bakhmut.

The fight for a small village in the Donetsk region, Bakhmut, lasted more than nine months and became one of the bloodiest for the Russian side. Prigozhin promised Putin that he would take Bakhmut, rather quickly and open the way to the occupation of the whole Donetsk region, but the situation became more complicated. The competition between Wagner and the Russian military for influence over Putin did not end. By February 2023, in the midst of the battles for Bakhmut, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation stopped supplying shells to the Wagner group on a priority basis and matched this supply with ordinary units of the Russian army. Prigozhin considered this a violation of his agreements with Putin and launched a harsh information attack on the leaders of the Russian army, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

However, in early June 2023, Prigozhin managed to capture almost all of Bakhmut and announced the transfer of the captured Bakhmut to the forces of the Federation Ministry of Defense, as well as its withdrawal from the city he had captured. Thanks to his strong information resources, Yevgeny Prigozhin, as a hero of the “liberation of Bakhmut” and a critic of the bureaucratic leadership of the Russian army, in June 2023 became the most authoritative politician in Russia, as an indicator of his popular recognition.

Prigozhin’s criticism of the Russian army leadership further intensified and began to take on the character of sharp social criticism of the entire Russian reality and Putin’s regime. Moreover, in the coup, Prigozhin carefully separated Putin himself from the criticism, but it was obvious to everyone that the questioning of a completely bureaucratic and rotten system from within could not but hurt the head and the founder of this system, i.e. Putin.

Prigozhin stated, “from 2014 to 2022, the whole Donbas was looted. Donbass was looted by various people: some of them were from the presidential administration, some from the FSB, some were lured by the oligarchs, such as Kurchenko. These are the people who stole money from the residents of Donbass.”

Of course, this was already an open challenge. For the first time in Russia, a military and political officer of this level openly admitted that all Putin’s tasks in the war with Ukraine had nothing to do with reality. Already on the night of June 23, Prigozhin accused the “military leadership of the country” of a shelling of his formation’s positions in the Lugansk region of Ukraine, which resulted in the death of a large number of Wagner fighters. In response to this, he announced that, together with his fighters, he would move to Moscow for a “march of justice”.

Also, the events of the military rebellion unfolded quickly. Prigozhin announced that 25,000 Wagner fighters were taking part in the march over Moscow. This, of course, was an exaggerated number. In reality, according to military analysts, between 5 and 6 thousand from the combat base of Wagner and between 5 and 6 thousand former prisoners that joined Wagner during the Russo-Ukrainian war took part in the campaign to Moscow. During the morning of June 24, the FSB filed a criminal case against Prigozhin over the fact of “calling for an armed rebellion.” Prigozhin was threatened with up to 20 years in prison.

On the morning of June 24, the FSB initiated a criminal case against Prigozhin for “calling for an armed rebellion.” Prigozhin was threatened with up to 20 years in prison. And Putin addressed the people with a statement that Prigozhin is “a traitor who stabbed him in the back.” At the same time, Wagner’s troops left the territory of Ukraine on the very morning of June 24 and entered the territory of Russia. The border guards did not resist the movement of Prigozhin’s columns and were quite loyal to the rebel unit. Literally a few hours later, during the “march of justice”, Wagner’s fighters entered the city of Rostov and occupied the headquarters of the “Southern Military District” without resistance. It should be noted that ordinary Russian citizens in Rostov received Wagner quite kindly, many of them perceived the armed rebellion as an opportunity to get rid, in the long run, of the authoritarian government and the oligarchic elite.

Seeing that the border troops refused to resist Wagner’s campaign, the Russian command used helicopter gunships and aircraft against Prigozhin’s columns. Wagner shot down a Russian IL-22 military aircraft (killing 8 people) and a KA-52 “Alligator” attack helicopter (killing 5 pilots). According to unconfirmed reports, several Russian combat helicopters were shot down, leaving half of their unit in Rostov. The convoy advanced as fast as possible along the M-4 highway towards Moscow, trying to avoid the main regional centers.

It is noteworthy that panic reigned in the Kremlin all the time. Several high-ranking officials fled on personal planes. Putin flew to St. Petersburg. At the same time, he called for support and dispatch of armed units from the state leaders of the CSTO (pro-Russian military bloc). All CSTO heads of state, including Kazakh President Tokayev refused to send troops. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko volunteered to be a “negotiator” between the Russian authorities and Prigozhin.

Of course, from the very beginning, it was absolutely unrealistic to take Moscow with 5-6 thousand fighters and several tanks. And the fact that the Kremlin elite was in a terrible panic, and the country’s defense system was in complete collapse, only showed clearly what the Russian propaganda about the “second army of the world” really is. The complete disintegration and impotence of Putin and his military elite became obvious.

On the evening of June 24, Lukashenko managed to reach an agreement with Prigozhin. Some points were announced publicly and others, of course, remained secret. As a result of the negotiations, the “Wagnerites” withdrew their troops and left the city of Rostov for their camps. It was promised to close the criminal case against Prigozhin. Prigozhin himself will be able to go to live in Belarus under Lukashenko’s guarantees. Wagner fighters participating in the rebellion will not be prosecuted, thanks to their front-line merits. Thus, the rebellion officially ended on the night of June 24-25.

Lukashenko and Putin.

What are our first conclusions? It is obvious that Prigozhin itself is, just a kind of “litmus test” that showed the real state of Putin’s authoritarian Russian regime. The pretentious mirage of the regime finally dissipated and, as in Hans Christian Anderson’s old fairy tale, “and the king turned out to be completely naked”. For the broad masses of Russia, literally on the first day of the military uprising, any sacralization of Putin’s personality disappeared. Instead of a tough and self-confident imperial politician, for the first time, there appeared before the broad layers of Russians a miserable old man scared to death, who is not in full control of the situation in the country. The mass fear factor of the Russian people before Putin disappeared before our very eyes in just one day.

Many, including leftist analysts, in my opinion, pay too much attention to the deep motivations and inconsistency in Prigozhin’s actions. Of course, there are no moral and ethical priorities for the competing oligarchic clans of modern Russia. And Prigozhin is not even a typical bourgeois politician. His relationship with Putin and his clique is based on the fact that he himself is one of them and his struggle for “a place under the sun” is painted not so much in political or ideological colors, but in a trivial division of assets and property. In other words, his main motivation is not political, but commercial. Hence the explanation for its opportunism and refusal to continue the attack on Moscow. Probably Putin, through Lukashenko, was able to make such a commercial offer to Prigozhin, which satisfied him completely, even in spite of the obvious loss of his qualification. His justification for refusing to attack the Kremlin because he “does not want to shed Russian blood” is laughably absurd. By raising a military mutiny, you obviously understand in advance that you are going to war with the regime. Prigozhin, with his socially oriented rhetoric, greatly raised the level of expectations of ordinary Russians, and it will be more painful, once again, to be disappointed with the politicians of large capitalist enterprises. Prigozhin is in the camp of the Russian “ultra-patriots” as a militaristic chauvinist wing.

But for us, a completely different aspect is important in the analysis. Even in the harsh business conflicts of Russia’s capitalist elites, they are forced to resort to difficult social issues and “score points” precisely because of criticism of Putin’s system. And most importantly, the presence of appeals to the broad masses of people to social justice and the struggle against Putin’s oligarchy. In other words, the degree of discontent in Russia is already very high, and people like Prigozhin still literally raise it to the level of the beginning of a mass revolutionary protest. Even on the basis of their business interests….

We await the development of this situation and we remember very well that the working class of Russia has not yet said its last word….