The Russian Coup That Wasn’t – Key Takeaways

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Jun 25, 2023, 07:33 PM | Updated 07:57 PM IST

Vladimir Putin (L) tours Yevgeny Prigozhin's Concord food catering factory, in 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)
Vladimir Putin (L) tours Yevgeny Prigozhin's Concord food catering factory, in 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The 'coup' was supposed to bring down Putin.
  • Instead, it has only revealed the resilience of the contemporary Russian state.
  • There are no coincidences in international events.

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just wrapped up an extremely successful state visit to America, and was set to fly to Egypt in the wee hours of Saturday 24 June, India time, when a strange bit of news broke from Russia: Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of a Russian mercenary force called Wagner PMC, announced that he and his men were commencing a protest march on Moscow.

    Prigozhin clarified in advance that his was not a coup, but merely a ‘march for justice’. 

    This breach with the Russian government began to grow soon after the Wagner force defeated the Ukrainian Army and won the bloody, ten-month-long Battle of Bakhmut in May. Prigozhin started making increasingly provocative statements against Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russian armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov, and the allegedly-deplorable manner in which both men had treated the mercenaries of Wagner PMC.

    The ’march for justice’ began in southern Russia, at Rostov-on-Don, with armoured cars, tanks, lorries, and mercenaries armed to the teeth.

    That is also when a frenzied, expectant, media narrative took over. It was a mutiny! It was a coup! Putin was finished! Russia was finished! Et cetera. Et cetera. The joke of the day was that Ukrainians were running out of popcorn, watching Russia collapse.

    Wild rumours started to fly across social media, that Russian President Vladimir Putin had fled Moscow; that his presidential jet was flying south east towards Central Asia; that he was denied entry into Kazakh airspace; that Russia would break up into five parts within hours; and, that Ukraine would now win the war.

    Some expressed concerns about nuclear escalation, because, if this was indeed a regime change, then it was possible that the next character to warm the presidential seat would demonstrate his authority the easiest way a strongman can – by showing the world that it was now his finger on the doomsday button.

    Of particular interest to Indians, was the manner in which dire predictions of Russia’s impending balkanization were repeatedly made by so many, so forcefully, as if it would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy if they persisted, because former American president Barack Obama had made a similar catty prediction about India just the day before. 

    It forces us to ask ourselves why so many opinion makers in the Occident yearn for the dismemberment of large Eurasian states.

    Unfortunately for such types, their gleeful dreams of a beautiful balkanization turned into nightmares of greater Russian fortitude and unity within a day, in three short steps.

    • First, President Putin announced in a public address, that Prigozhin’s mischief would be put down instantly, and harshly. 

    • Second, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, mediated talks between Moscow and Prigozhin, following which, Prigozhin tamely announced that he was relocating to Belarus. 

    • And, third, the mercenaries went back to their barracks, after the Russian government declared a general amnesty.

    What, then, are the key takeaways of this brief, unsettling episode? 

    First is the ‘Why?’: some believe that Prigozhin’s march was a put-up job by the West, either to destabilize Russia, or to take the focus off Ukraine’s failures in its ongoing counter-offensive (it has floundered badly with heavy losses to equipment and men), or both. 

    Others believe that l’affaire Prigozhin is a ‘Maskirova’, a masterstroke of deception by the Russians, by which, using the cover of a mutiny, they managed to amass troops in the Voronezh sector without alarming the Ukrainians, as a precursor to a major, new assault westwards from there onto Kharkov.

    For proof that the episode was scripted, they point to the remarkable swiftness with which thousands of combat-ready Chechen troops reached Rostov with their vehicles and supplies. While the point is not without merit, it cannot be validated unless, or until, these new troops presently congregating in the Voronezh sector do indeed launch a fresh offensive towards Kharkov in the coming few weeks.

    And then there are those who eschew speculation for Occam’s Razor, to infer that this episode is reflective of genuine tensions between Prigozhin and the government, on the shortcomings in the conduct of past Wagner PMC operations, future deployments, a threat of disbandment, payments, and future contracts; all of which sadly got out of hand.

    The point is that we don’t know the truth, and won’t know the truth for some time yet.

    Second, while issuing his public warning, Putin used the word ‘apostasy’ to describe Wagner PMC’s mutinous behaviour. 

    By itself, the word only means the abandonment of a particular belief, but it meant much more in this context of its usage. 

    The Russians treat their country in a deeply spiritual way; to them, their motherland is a life-filled maternal figure whom they call ‘Rodina’. This is very similar to how Indians view India as ‘Bharat Mata’. 

    So, Putin was stressing the point that Prigozhin’s act was a breach of faith, more than it was an unlawful, criminal act against the state, or antithetical to the war effort. Those who dream of Russia’s splintering, or weakening, should note this, since such attempts only induce a strengthening of Russian unity. 

    Third, and perhaps most importantly, the movements of Wagner mercenaries masked some other news which emerged on Saturday: the Russians have raised a new Army of around 150,000 troops

    To put it in Indian military terms for perspective, that is about 3-4 Corps, with each Corps commanding 2-3 Divisions, and with each of these 10-12 Divisions having their own armour, artillery, rocketry, transport and air defence. 

    This new Army is an addition to existing units, which means that it can be unleashed for an endgame in Ukraine without drawing upon formations presently deployed for other tasks, in other theatres of Russia (like those in the far east, or the divisions facing Europe).

    Thus, we see that Prigorzhin’s antics, whatever his true motivation, have, in fact, only highlighted three things: the prodigious manner in which Russia has militarized over the past year, the resilience of the Russian state to both internal and external threats, and the futility of mainstream media’s efforts to set narratives.

    The story of the West’s proxy war in Ukraine has only one ending, and that is being scripted in Moscow.

    Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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