The day’s fast-moving events seemed to mark a final rupture in the broken relationship between the Wagner PMC and the Russian MoD, and one that was unlikely to be easily repaired. Rather, this seems to be the beginning of a lethal internal conflagration, the opening of a pandora’s box in the country with the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, as Wagner mercenaries turn on their political masters in Moscow.
The mercurial Wagner warlord, Yevgeny Prigozhin, initially released an extraordinary video of himself deconstructing Russia’s false justifications for war, and picking apart Vladimir Putin’s phony pretext for his invasion of Ukraine. Seated in front of a black, red, and gold Wagner flag, a somewhat hoarse Prigozhin accused Russian elites of misleading the public, and explained to his global audience that the “war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” he said. “The war was needed so that a bunch of animals could simply exult in glory.”
The ex-convict turned mercenary tycoon accused Russia’s military leadership of lying to the public and the president, and starting a catastrophic war to enrich themselves and the wealthy oligarchs pulling their strings. The 30-minute video catalogued the endemic corruption, baldfaced lies, and human waste of the brutal 16-month conflict, from the man leading what is Russia’s most effective fighting formation. Dripping venom, Prigozhin unleashed a devastating condemnation of Russia’s bloody adventure in Ukraine, and its corrupt military leadership. He said Russia’s young men “were thrown away like meat” so that the Ministry of Defense could pursue glory and “plunder the money.”
He described gross mismanagement and unchecked corruption, alongside a supreme waste of human life. He said that when he arrived in the war-zone and asked local commanders why Russia wasn’t providing the public with the numbers of dead and wounded soldiers, he was told “this was of no interest to anyone,” and that “they would count the dead after the war.”
Prigozhin said the entire “special military operation” was a callous exercise in graft, a botched attempt to extend the tentacles of Russia’s kleptocracy into Ukraine. He ridiculed the Kremlin’s lies about the war, dismissing the idea that Ukraine/NATO was going to attack Russia as absurd nonsense. He described endless incompetence and corruption at the highest levels of the Russian state, taking particular aim at his mortal enemy, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom he loathes. He accused Shoigu of blindly pursuing Marshal’s stars, the highest military decoration in Russia, with no regard for the lives of his soldiers.
While Prigozhin refrained from taking direct aim at Putin, the video seemed to challenge nothing so much as the political foundations of his failed invasion, and thus the Russian state itself. This was a scathing political indictment, and it likely represents the final fracture in relations between the private warlord and official Russia, as things continued to deteriorate into the evening.
Russia strikes Russia
Prigozhin’s latest verbal escalation provoked a military response only hours after its release, and what he described as a deadly attack against Wagner’s rear camps, and one that was launched by Prigozhin’s enemies in the Russian military. “A rocket strike was carried out on Wagner Group camps. There are many victims.” He explained that survivors said the strikes came “from the rear,” and that a “huge number of fighters were killed.”
In his second communique of the day released on Telegram, Prigozhin accused Sergei Shoigu, his personal bête noire, of launching an attack with missiles and helicopters against his Wagner mercenaries. He said Shoigu personally directed the strikes from Rostov-on-Don, and promised a response to “this atrocity.” He posted a video of what appeared to be the aftermath of an air attack on a camp in the forest where his troops had been stationed.
“The evil carried by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” Prigozhin said, in what sounded like a fairly unambiguous call for violent rebellion in Russia, perhaps led by himself. It was a remarkable thing to hear from the man leading what has been until now Russia’s most effective fighting formation in Ukraine. “There’s 25,000 of us, and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country,” he promised in a voice recording posted on Telegram.
The Russian state responded rapidly, as if bit by a snake.
The Russian Ministry of Defense denied Prigozhin’s claims about strikes on Wagner camps, saying they “do not correspond to reality,” and were an effort at “informational” manipulation. The Russian news agency TASS reported that the FSB had opened a criminal case regarding Prigozhin’s statements calling for “armed mutiny.” The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Vladimir Putin was “aware of all events around Prigozhin,” even as Putin himself remained silent.
Russia’s Anti-Terrorism Committee issued a statement claiming “the allegations spread on behalf of Yevgeny Prigozhin have no basis. In connection with these statements, the FSB of Russia initiated a criminal case on suspicion of calling for an armed rebellion. We demand an immediate stop to these unlawful actions.”
Clearly, today’s ongoing upheaval marks a profound point of departure, and risks turning a dangerous internecine feud into regime change, or potentially a full-blown civil war. It comes at a particularly precarious moment for Russia, as Ukraine unleashes a sustained counteroffensive that’s already making territorial gains. These internal political fissures will almost certainly distract the occupying Russian military, and could provide an opening for Ukraine’s military to exploit in the ensuing chaos.
As of Friday night, about 1:00 AM Moscow-time, there were reports of military vehicles racing toward the Duma in Moscow, and numerous unsubstantiated reports of a coup d’etat in progress, and machinations in the Russian Ministry of Defense building in Moscow. Russian state television had apparently been hacked, and was showing a picture of Prigozhin’s face, and playing an address by him.
This is the most significant internal schism in Russia in years, and certainly since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it represents a profound challenge to the personalist regime, and Vladimir Putin himself. While it’s entirely unclear if Prigozhin could actually unseat Putin and achieve power, the very fact of what appears to be an attempt at armed rebellion opens the doorway to other political challenges, perhaps from within the regime itself, as the elite attempt to hold on to power.
In any case, events are moving extraordinarily fast right now, and the situation remains in flux. What’s clear is that Vladimir Putin’s bloody aggression in Ukraine has birthed an unprecedented political challenge in Russia, from someone thought to be a close personal ally of Putin’s over the last two decades. As Tsar Nicholas II learned the hard way in the aftermath of WWI, failed wars have a way of coming back to bite their leaders, an apt historical lesson Prigozhin himself has recently mentioned.
It’s a dangerous moment for this teetering autocracy, as aggression abroad breeds instability at home, and potentially seeds the beginning of what could be a catastrophic political meltdown in Russia, even as it fights a very hot war on its border. Of course, the stakes are far higher in 2023 than they were in 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. With the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons on earth at stake in any power struggle in the Russian Federation, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s power play has an inescapable global relevance. Russia’s mounting political dysfunction is something the world simply can’t afford to ignore, nor wish away, as Vladimir Putin’s totalitarian regime writhes, its feet held to the flames of a fire it started.
If nothing else, there’s a grim irony at work tonight. Vladimir Putin unleashed a genocidal war of aggression in Ukraine, and that war has now produced a uniquely positioned and heavily armed populist renegade who appears to be trying to seize power with force. As Prince Talleyrand once observed, “You can do many things with bayonets, but it is rather uncomfortable to sit on them.”
This is something Putin himself may soon learn, as the world watches and waits, breath bated.