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Coup to Form

An inept putsch attempt mirrors the ineptitude of Russia’s war.

Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District's headquarters and return to their base in Rostov on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Arkady Budnitsky/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Watching capital-E Events unfold this weekend brought to mind two titans of the 20th century.

“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” Winston Churchill once said. Rational analysis of why members of the siloviki behave as they do will get you only so far before it founders on the inscrutability of private grudges, secret alliances, and collective psychopathy.

The other titan was Casey Stengel, who went from managing baseball’s greatest dynasty in the 1950s to overseeing the historically terrible New York Mets in their first season in 1962. Vexed by a team of has-beens and never-was-es bumbling their way around the diamond, Stengel wondered, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

My attempts to understand The Putsch That Wasn’t alternate between those modes of thinking. There must be a logical explanation for why Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin would mobilize thousands of his men to invade Russia and threaten Moscow—only to decide “nah” and turn back a few hours outside the capital. But when you’re working off highly incomplete information, as we amateur Kremlinologists are, you’re destined to feel confounded. Riddle, mystery, enigma.

That’s one theory. The other theory is that the parties on both sides of this aborted civil war aren’t as capable or cunning as we like to assume, a suspicion supported by, oh, the last 16 months or so of the Kremlin’s efforts in Ukraine. As with war, perhaps also with coups: Can’t anybody in Russia play this game?

Whichever theory you prefer, Prigozhin’s canceled putsch was true to the spirit of the entire “special military operation.” It achieved nothing, cost Russia tremendously, and made (nearly) everyone involved look incompetent.

Rather than rehash at length what happened, I’ll refer you to The Morning Dispatch for a detailed tick-tock. In sum: Prigozhin despises the leaders of the Russian military, blames them for failing to equip Wagner with what it needs to fight more effectively in Ukraine, and chafed at a military order issued on June 10 that would snatch Wagner from his command and integrate it into the regular army. So he went for broke, announcing that he and thousands of his mercenaries would lead a “march for justice” into Moscow.

His forces seized Rostov-on-Don, the largest artery of Russian supply lines to southern Ukraine, without incident. (It took Wagner six hours to subdue an important Russian city where it had taken them 10 months to subdue an unimportant Ukrainian one in Bakhmut, noted Daniel Hannan.) They proceeded north toward Moscow, through Voronezh, meeting no resistance on the ground and destroying six Russian helicopters and a command-center plane en route, killing 13 airmen. Reports swirled of defenses being hastily mobilized in the capital and Putin bugging out for St. Petersburg.

And then, around two hours from Moscow … Wagner quit. 

News broke that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin vassal, had negotiated a deal that would send Prigozhin safely into exile in his country. Wagner troops who joined in Prigozhin’s rebellion would be immune from prosecution, supposedly; those who hadn’t participated would be offered contracts with the Russian military. The thought of a massive bloodletting bothered my conscience, said Prigozhin, a guy whose army is known for executing deserters with sledgehammers, in explaining why he backed off.

Lukashenko is the one actor in this travesty whose behavior seemed fully rational. His control of Belarus may depend on Putin’s control of Russia; if not for his patron’s intervention once before, he would have hung from a lamppost in Minsk years ago. Presumably Putin asked him to reach out to Prigozhin on the Kremlin’s behalf and extend the offer of amnesty for Wagner troops if they stood down, feeling it was beneath him to negotiate directly with a traitor.

And Luka was happy to oblige, no doubt, knowing what the consequences for him would be if revolutionary fervor swept the region.

So much for Lukashenko. What about Putin?

Specifically, how did he let Prigozhin and Wagner reach the point where they were both willing and able to briefly threaten his hold on power?

For months Prigozhin has complained loudly and publicly about Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Putin’s two top men at the ministry of defense. In early May he recorded a video while standing in front of a pile of Wagner corpses, demanding to know in profane terms why those men weren’t better armed. “We have a 70% shortage of ammunition. Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the f—ing ammunition?” he yelled. “These are Wagner lads who died today. The blood is still fresh. They came here as volunteers and they’re dying so you can get fat in your offices.”

To all appearances, Putin did nothing.

Since the start of the war Prigozhin has built a cult of personality inside Russia fueled by Wagner’s battlefield “successes.” Losing tens of thousands of men over 10 months to seize Bakhmut is the very definition of a pyrrhic victory, but to Russians starved for evidence of battlefield progress, it must have seemed heroic. And as state propaganda has turned more bloodthirsty toward Ukraine, Wagner’s reputation as Russia’s most brutal, combat-hardened forces has taken on a glow. The sledgehammer has even become a cultural icon of sorts, if you can believe it. Before Prigozhin and his forces departed Rostov on Saturday, some starstruck locals posed for selfies with him.

Right out in the open, a would-be warlord leading a battle-seasoned mercenary army developed an independent base of popular support among the Russian people. Putin seemingly did nothing to stop it.

This weekend’s putsch attempt seems to have been in the works for a while too. U.S. intelligence reportedly got wind of it at some point earlier this month. Ukrainian intelligence also began to think something was up following the June 10 order from Russia’s defense ministry announcing that Wagner would be absorbed into the army. Some observers wondered on Saturday whether Prigozhin’s monthslong caterwauling about ammunition had actually been a ruse designed to squeeze extra weapons from the Russian military in preparation for the coming march on Moscow.

Yet there’s no evidence that Putin had any idea of what was coming, another catastrophic Russian intelligence failure in a long series that began with the invasion of Ukraine. There were no ground forces positioned to engage Wagner as they crossed the border into Rostov and made their way north toward the capital. Resistance from the air also seemed haphazard rather than prepared. Journalist Michael Weiss noted the irony: “A well-organized and heavily armed group of native militants rushing to overthrow the government is exactly what the FSB Fifth Service told Putin he could expect in Ukraine.”

Did Russian intelligence truly fail to penetrate Prigozhin’s inner circle or did Putin’s deputies withhold the information about a coup attempt from him because they hoped it would succeed? Or does the Russian government now run so poorly that it can’t preempt a nascent putsch even when it knows what’s coming? Two sources close to the Kremlin told the New York Times that the crisis was “first and foremost the product of a dysfunctional system of governance verging on chaos—vividly captured in the Russian word bardak.” A member of Putin’s party speculated that he had avoided confronting Prigozhin for months in the idle hope that things would just, you know, sort of work themselves out.

Squint hard and you can see, sort of, why Putin took a laissez faire approach to Prigozhin’s antics for so long. He has his hands full with the war; Wagner has delivered slightly better battlefield results than the regular army; Prigozhin’s contempt for Shoigu and Gerasimov probably mirrors Putin’s own; and Putin may not have been able to believe that his former caterer, who owes all of his power to the czar’s favor, would ever turn on him.

Still, Russia’s leader is cracked up to be a cleareyed practitioner of realpolitik. He’s held his grip on the country for more than 20 years by detecting threats before they’ve reached critical mass and neutralizing them ruthlessly. In Wagner’s case, he allowed a parallel Russian army loyal to another man to grow right under his nose and somehow didn’t anticipate that the June 10 order all but dissolving that army might lead it to do something drastic. I don’t know what he was thinking.

I don’t know what Prigozhin was thinking either.

Trying to conquer Moscow tends not to end well for would-be conquerors. So when Prigozhin crossed the Rubicon by seizing Rostov, there was every reason to think he had bet his life on regime change. Aut vincere aut mori, as one of my colleagues noted in the trusty Dispatch Slack channel today. Conquest or death.

How could the stakes be otherwise? Putin would never let Prigozhin live peacefully after this humiliation; the czar would need to be toppled, or else. And Wagner troops supporting Prigozhin would face misery and death if their campaign failed to dislodge the government and they were captured. All outcomes seemed possible on Saturday, from Wagner seizing the Kremlin to Wagner getting crushed en route, save one—that Prigozhin and his men would stand down, leaving Putin in power, and risk facing the Kremlin’s wrath in the aftermath.

Somehow, that’s the outcome we got.

Observers have spent the past 48 hours trying to explain why Prigozhin quit. One report citing British security officials claims Russian intelligence threatened to harm the families of Wagner leaders if they didn’t halt their advance. Prigozhin’s force may also have been smaller than thought, numbering 8,000 troops rather than the 25,000 he claimed. Not nearly enough to secure a city as large as Moscow.

But those risks were so foreseeable that they must have been foreseen. Every member of Wagner from Prigozhin on down must have realized that the regime would try to stop them by any means necessary, including menacing their children. And if the force amassed was too small to credibly threaten Moscow, that was an argument not to launch the operation in the first place. Why bother attempting a coup that couldn’t possibly succeed?

If the putsch was effectively a suicide mission undertaken before the June 10 order pried Wagner from Prigozhin’s grasp, it’s strange that it didn’t end in suicide. He’s going to end up losing control of Wagner anyway, now as an exile in a Russian client state where he’ll need to watch his back for the rest of his life. (Assuming that lasts more than a few months.) And Wagner soldiers who trusted him on his ride-or-die mission to Moscow will surely face terrible reprisals from the Russian military despite the alleged guarantees in Lukashenko’s deal. Some are understandably angry about it

The most plausible theory I’ve seen to explain the abrupt end to the putsch came from Tom Nichols. If in fact Prigozhin and Wagner had been quietly planning their operation for a while, there may have been some important phase that was supposed to happen inside Moscow as Wagner’s forces approached. Maybe that phase failed for reasons we don’t understand, extinguishing any hope of success.

We can at this point only speculate about why Prigozhin undertook this putsch, and why it all failed so quickly. One possibility is that Prigozhin had allies in Moscow who promised to support him, and somehow that support fell through: Perhaps his friends in the Kremlin got cold feet, or were less numerous than Prigozhin realized, or never existed. Prigozhin, after all, is not exactly a military genius or a diplomat; he’s a violent, arrogant, emotional man who may well have embarked on this scheme huffing from a vat of his own overconfidence.

“I think he miscalculated in his expectations of military support,” one Ukrainian official told the Washington Post of Prigozhin’s gambit. Although the Russian army (or what’s left of it inside Russia) didn’t confront Wagner, it didn’t defect en masse to join his “march for justice” either. Occam’s razor, then: Prigozhin gambled on receiving help as he advanced toward Moscow, either through secret co-conspirators at the Kremlin or via military defections, and came to realize that he had miscalculated. So he pulled the plug. 

But if you don’t like that one, I offer you my pet theory, which is admittedly 99 percent wishful thinking. Maybe Prigozhin has quietly come to an understanding with the Ukrainian government.

There’s reason to believe they’ve been chatting. Last month the Washington Post revealed a leaked document alleging that Prigozhin had reached out to Ukrainian intelligence in January with an astounding offer. In exchange for Ukraine withdrawing from Bakhmut and handing Wagner forces there a major propaganda victory, he’d go so far as to supply them with information about the Russian army’s positions in the field. Quote: “Two Ukrainian officials confirmed that Prigozhin has spoken several times to the Ukrainian intelligence directorate, known as HUR.”

They didn’t take him up on his offer. But what if a different deal were reached as Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive approached? In exchange for Prigozhin making a move on Russia, exposing Putin’s weakness and testing the Russian military’s sympathies, Ukraine would offer him and Wagner … something.

The “something” part is unclear.

On Saturday afternoon, with Wagner speeding toward Moscow and Russian troops in the field distracted, I thought perhaps that a bold Ukrainian advance somewhere along the front might be imminent. By striking at the Russian military in two theaters, Ukraine and Wagner might be executing a divide-and-conquer strategy. But the sudden end to Prigozhin’s advance and Ukraine’s caution at a moment of high tension, when Putin might be willing to do something rash, dashed those expectations.

I haven’t given up on the possibility of a secret deal yet, though. Prigozhin and Ukraine’s leadership have been surprisingly complimentary of each other lately. And one of Prigozhin’s last public comments on Friday before advancing on Rostov was a shocking repudiation of Putin’s casus belli, one that might have come straight from Zelensky’s office. “The Armed Forces of Ukraine were not going to attack Russia with the NATO bloc. The Russian Defense Ministry is deceiving the public and the president,” he said. “The task [of the war] was to divide material assets in Ukraine. There was widespread theft in the [industrial eastern Ukrainian territory of the] Donbas, but they wanted more.”

As it turns out, Ukraine is the only major beneficiary of Prigozhin’s failed power play. In the aftermath, regular Russian soldiers and Wagner troops will be highly suspicious of each other, harming unit cohesion; Putin, having seen how little resistance there was inside Russia to Wagner’s advance, will grow more paranoid about his deputies and his hold on power; Russian elites might begin plotting against each other, fearful that a state fragile enough to avert an assault on the capital only narrowly won’t last much longer.

All of that is worth a lot to Kyiv, as would also be true of any intelligence Prigozhin and his men are willing to supply. In return, perhaps, Prigozhin might secretly get sanctuary somewhere in Ukraine where Putin can’t reach him. (There’s no evidence that he’s in Belarus as I write this.) If and when Putin’s grip finally does begin to slip at home, the soon-to-be ex-Wagner chief might suddenly reemerge as a national savior and rally his supporters inside Russia behind him.

If the war is going nowhere for Russia, if his reign over Wagner will end soon anyway under the June 10 order, Prigozhin may have calculated that humiliating Putin, Shoigu, and Gerasimov with a quickie proof-of-concept putsch was his best play to gain a measure of revenge on them for his own sake and to help his new Ukrainian allies hasten the end of a regime he’s grown to hate.

It’s 99 percent wishful thinking, as I say. But when trying to decipher a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a very incompetent enigma, it may be the best one can do.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.