What the Hell Just Happened in Russia?

A perceptive Estonian military analyst breaks down Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive coup

What the Hell Just Happened in Russia?
Members of the Wagner Group depart from the Southern Military District’s headquarters and return to their base on June 24, 2023 in Russia. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It will go down as the most dramatic — certainly the weirdest — 24-hour period in the last quarter century of Russian history. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mugger who became a jailbird, who became a hot dog vendor, who became a catering magnate and then a mercenary boss, launched a relatively uncontested putsch that saw his notorious paramilitary, which the United States has labeled a transnational criminal organization, come within 125 miles of the Kremlin’s gates. Then he called the whole thing off.

It started on Friday evening, when Prigozhin announced on social media that the military had conducted a missile and helicopter attack on an unnamed Wagner base. Wagner fighters responded by seizing Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, a city with roughly the population of Dallas, Texas, that also serves as the headquarters for the Southern Military District, which is responsible for the five oblasts in Ukraine that Russia has “annexed” since 2014, including Crimea. Residents were mostly indifferent if not sympathetic to this temporary occupation. From there, columns of at least 100 vehicles snaked their way north to Voronezh and then onto Moscow. They turned around and went home only when Prigozhin made another announcement: that he’d ordered his men back to their camps out of concern that “Russian blood will be spilled on one side.”

The most significant threat to President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year reign thus seemed to fizzle out almost as quickly as it materialized. Though a crisis had been building for months, as Prigozhin has leveled foaming recriminations against two men nominally more powerful than himself: Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defense, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, its chief of the general staff. The oligarch has accused them of badly mismanaging Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and keeping his paramilitary unequipped with arms and ammunition — although not so underequipped that Wagner wasn’t able to shoot down six Russian helicopters and one transport plane during its thunder run to the Kremlin.

The circumstances of how Prigozhin got so far with little to no interdiction by Russia’s ground forces, National Guard, security officials or police are still unclear. So is the reason for his about-face. There are reports in the Russian media that Prigozhin is still under criminal investigation in spite of earlier rumors he’d been amnestied and allowed to live in exile in Belarus. The Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed to have brokered some sort of deal to halt this incipient civil war.

Yet nothing has been confirmed, and Prigozhin’s whereabouts after Wagner’s fairly cheerful send-off from Rostov-on-Don are now unknown. As this story was going to press, Prigozhin released an audio message in which he claimed he wasn’t trying to sack the government, only trying to save Wagner from extinction and exposing national security flaws along the way. Meanwhile, his mercenary corps is still armed and recruiting new members in Russia.

To make sense of this vertiginous affair, New Lines turned to a senior Estonian analyst with years of experience tracking Russia’s military affairs. The analyst, whom we have called “Karl” to protect his identity, has proved prescient about the course Russia’s war would take. He predicted in March last year — when Kyiv was still very much under siege — that Russia’s offensive in Ukraine would quickly grind down.

New Lines: What was it that we all actually saw in those 24 hours?

Karl: This is what the Russians call “smutnye vremena” — “confusing times.” It was the first such illustrative episode of what is happening in Russia in the current era. One guy, who had been given a relatively large degree of freedom within Russia, went out of control and did so quite definitively.

The second thing we saw was that Russia essentially has no military reserves. Everything is on the front line. A 25,000-strong force went into Russian cities and in less than a day made a 1000-kilometer [620-mile] journey, 200 kilometers [125 miles] from Moscow. Resistance was minimal. On the ground it was essentially nonexistent, the air force tried a little. Something might have been organized around Moscow, but if Prigozhin had decided to go all the way, he would have made it to the Kremlin.

Thirdly, it shows that the “pokazukha” [window dressing] built up externally in Russia is actually very fragile. This is not so surprising, because Russian political systems have always been ones that do not break down under the influence of political developments but under the influence of external events.

NL: What does this mean for Putin?

Karl: Putin will no longer be able to regain his former position within Russia and perhaps not abroad as well. He no longer has his strongman image. The same type of leaders of other countries with whom he tries to engage — Xi [Jinping of China] or [Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor] Orban, for example — are well aware of how fragile it was. The fact that 18 hours after the deal was struck Putin is still silent, making no attempt to regain the initiative, is yet another sign of weakness. If in the morning you promise to exterminate all the coup plotters, but in the evening there is no toughness, this should be explained. Prigozhin at least gave an explanation, even if not a convincing one. All we have from Putin are one-sentence comments out of Peskov’s mouth.

The power struggle within Russia is deepening. The elite sees that Putin is weak. But the elite itself is even weaker. They are all timid and have risen to their positions because of loyalty not because of their abilities. If no one comes from within the elite to replace Putin, sooner or later there will be another Prigozhin.

NL: How will what has happened affect Putin’s grip on power?

Karl: The question for the coming days is whether he will replace Gerasimov and Shoigu. There has been talk of the Tula governor and Putin’s former top bodyguard, Aleksey Dyumin, as the new defense minister to replace Shoigu, and [Sergey] Surovikin [the general who formerly commanded Russian forces in Ukraine] as chief of the general staff. If Putin does these things, it will show his weakness still further. At the insistence of a self-proclaimed army chief, he is forced to sack the defense minister and the chief of the general staff. Putin will continue to wallow as an extremely weak leader unless someone from within the elite takes him out.

NL: Do you think Putin will be killed?

Karl: Not necessarily. Theoretically he could retire involuntarily. He probably has more enemies than Yeltsin had. Spending the rest of his life in the United Arab Emirates or someplace else is a possibility.

NL: Do you think ordinary Russian people understood what was happening during this affair?

Karl: I think they did. Of course the media, which is under the control of the authorities, do not report it as much as the internet sites, but Russia is not quite a North Korean-type society. The event certainly reached the people of the big cities and the people of the oblasts where the hike took place — from Rostov through Voronezh, Lipetsk, Tula.

NL: Do you think Prigozhin or Wagner recruited assets in the military, FSB and possibly high up in the government? The lack of resistance, apart from some of the Russian air force, suggests either the mass paralysis of the army and special services or conspiracy.

Karl: I’m almost sure he had some support within the military, other security services and the civil government as well. Most probably some of it was pre-agreed, but even more was probably a kind of attitude that it’s better not to intervene. “There’s not much difference between these two guys [Putin and Prigozhin] and maybe the younger one will bring some change.”

NL: What did Prigozhin really want to achieve? Some are calling this a mutiny, which suggests the objective wasn’t regime change; others say it certainly looked like an insurrection or coup given that blitzkrieg to Moscow.

Karl: He has long declared that he wants to get rid of Shoigu and Gerasimov. Perhaps he also felt that he was nearing the end of the line and decided to go all out to improve his position. It is hard to say what he wanted. There is no logic in turning back. It’s so odd. We need to know more to judge it properly.

NL: You say that Prigozhin would have reached the Kremlin if he wanted to. What would have happened in that case?

Karl: Look how passive the Russian power elite as a whole behaved. Putin was supported only by Patriarch Kirill, [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov and the “oblast leaders” assigned to the Ukrainian territories. There were no real statements from the rest of the political elite. The governors only said that people should refrain from coming out on the streets, they were arranging technical issues. I believe that the current elite, who as I said are themselves timid and weak-willed, would have been prepared to accept Prigozhin, at least initially.

NL: It’s been reported that Wagner downed six helicopters and a plane. Do you see that as plausible?

Karl: It is perfectly plausible. It has as well been confirmed by Telegram channels very close to the Russian air force. There are photos of most of them. I see no reason to doubt it. One was a transport plane with 10 people on board. Several were electronic warfare helicopters, of which there are not many in Russia.

NL: Russian pilots just watched the government they serve shrug off the deaths of their comrades — that can’t be good for morale.

Karl: Russian pilots are surely angry, but no one else cares. That’s how Russia works. There’s no rule of law.

NL: You’ve said before that the role of Prigozhin and his clash with Shoigu and Gerasimov should not be overemphasized and that it doesn’t change the course of the war. Are you still of the same opinion or was something different?

Karl: Something was different. In the beginning it was perhaps a confrontation controlled from the point of view of power. But it got out of control. It definitely affects the war. It doesn’t do good for Russian soldiers’ morale. From Ukraine’s point of view, of course, it would have been better if the confrontation had lasted longer and there had been more fighting. If you know that there is chaos at home and there is no chain of command in control, then morale will not benefit. It is more confirmation that the Russians have no rear, no reserve.

NL: What will become of Wagner?

Karl: I cannot predict at this stage. I suspect the Kremlin’s aim is to reduce the size of the units and send them to the front. How many will agree to that is another question. What will happen to Prigozhin is also anyone’s guess. He will probably end up in Belarus. If he does, the questions are: Will he be allowed to survive? How long will he stay? Will he have a security community of 100 or 1,000 people around him?

NL: Why did Lukashenko orchestrate such a deal? It seems pretty stupid to allow someone as volatile and unpredictable as Prigozhin into Belarus.

Karl: He knows that his fate is tied to Putin’s. If Putin falls, it will be very difficult for Lukashenko to survive. Although they do not tolerate each other, Putin’s fall increases the likelihood of change in Belarus. In Belarus, this change can come from the people, from within the military, from within the elite. Lukashenko senses this well. Think how humiliating it must have been for Putin to make a deal with a criminal through a “kolkhoznik” [a collective farm worker, a term commonly applied to Lukashenko]. Russia, the “world’s great political player,” is using Belarus as an intermediary.

NL: What do you make of the fact that people in Rostov applauded and danced when Wagner left but shouted “shame” when the authorities returned?

Karl: There were episodes where Wagner was also attacked and insulted, but yes, many more where they were praised, people brought them water, food and supported them. This shows that the Russians’ love affair with Putin is definitely over. He is only accepted and tolerated. Until there is someone better, it is risky to oppose him. Ideologically, of course, there is no difference between Putin and Prigozhin: Both are supporters of an imperialist superpower.

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