Notes on the war
Putin is in real trouble - the Wagnerite rebellion testifies to political, military and strategic failure, argues Jack Conrad
Make no mistake - whatever Yevgeny Prigozhin says now, the Wagnerite rebellion was no mere protest demonstration. It was an attempted coup … and yet there are not going to be any prosecutions. We shall see.
Prigozhin conducted a long, unremitting and highly publicised war of words against defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of staff Valery Gerasimov: their incompetent planning, their military timidity, their logistical failures to supply Wagner with vital munitions … and how these “punks” should be “shipped to the front barefoot with machine guns”.1
Given that Russia has banned any criticism of the conduct of the Ukraine war by making it illegal to “discredit the armed forces”, Prigozhin’s words were incendiary. The only other person who has been able to get away with such stuff is Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Prigozhin’s tirades against Shoigu and Gerasimov - aspiring dictators both - suited Putin, presumably because it absolved him of responsibility for the obvious failures in Ukraine, not least the inability of the Russian army to capture Kyiv in February 2022 and the surrender of Kherson in November 2022. Amidst the litany of gloomy news, Wagner stood out as the one and only outstanding success story. Prigozhin was awarded the title ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’ in June 2022.
Wagner began life as a private security firm, but quickly evolved into a deniable extension of Russian foreign policy. It was used to some considerable effect in Syria, Libya and Mali; above all, though, it proved its worth in Ukraine - first after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, then after the 2022 invasion. Huge billboards appeared all over Russia: ‘PMC Wagner: Join team of victors now!’ It was certainly Wagner, not the regular army, which was responsible for taking the symbolically important town of Bakhmut (not strategically important, as some idiots have insisted).
Whereas the military establishment held back, Prigozhin threw human waves at enemy lines. Typically the first wave was recruited straight from Russia’s penal colonies. Average life expectancy for this cannon fodder was short. Weeks, not months. Those who refused to charge, those who held back, those who deserted were shot by special ‘punishment squads’.
However, eventually, despite the huge death toll, Bakhmut was taken. Amongst the Russian nationalist far right Prigozhin became an instant hero. Amongst the regular army rank and file too. They admired his blunt language, his humble origins, his willingness to call out generals and ministers. Wagner fighters certainly walked with an enviable swagger. Russia’s Spartans. Prigozhin claimed that if he were allowed to expand Wagner from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands, he would have the Ukrainians running like rabbits on every front. But Shoigu would not let him … so goes his story.
Wagner, however, became Putin’s Frankenstein monster. Prigozhin’s Telegram outbursts against Shoigu and Gerasimov not only included regular verbal lashings of the monied elite. The whole rationale behind the war in Ukraine increasingly came under attack too (something that would have landed your average liberal oppositionist or anti-war activist in jail). Prigozhin openly questioned whether there were “any Nazis” in Ukraine at all.2 Well, there are certainly neo-Nazis in the Russian military apparatus, including Wagner itself: eg, Task Force Rusich.3 And, of course, Ukraine is awash with Banderite fascists, though they hardly constitute the government or state core. As for demilitarising Ukraine, Prigozhin ironically remarked in a high-profile interview that, whereas it once had “500 tanks before, now they have 5,000. If 20,000 fighters were skilful then, now it’s 400,000.”4
Once Prigozhin proclaimed his political credo as ‘Motherland and Putin’. However, he eventually began to consider Putin to be as much of a problem as Shoigu and Gerasimov themselves. Putin was fooled by the ministry of defence into invading Ukraine on the basis of fake news: eg, Ukraine “going mad with aggression” and the “whole Nato bloc” about to attack Russia (Prigozhin’s words).5 By implication, Putin is little short of being an imbecile and therefore unfit for high office. Of course, this narrative echoes western propaganda - conveniently ignoring, as it does, Ukrainian plans to dramatically escalate military attacks on the Russian majority areas in Donbass and Nato expansionism (Ukraine was placed on the first rung with a Nato membership action plan in November 2002).
Those prone to fantasy politics have thereby, predictably, detected the hand of CIA involvement in the Wagner coup attempt. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, promises that the FSB is “gathering evidence”.6 Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo crazily suggests that the threat of a Russian civil war was part of an “elaborate scheme to shift attention away from Hunter Biden”.7 And it is not only the unhinged far right. Gerry Healy’s version of baloney lives on.8 Sure, US intelligence picked up on growing Wagner arms dumps and troop movements from June 10. But so what?
Suffice to say, Prigozhin does not talk of peace. On the contrary, he talks of blood, iron and war. Prigozhin called for an end to the ‘phoney war’ and a real commitment to winning. Not for nothing do the logos of the Wagner Group PMC feature swords and a skull. He proposed martial law, sealing borders, full mobilisation and a war economy along the lines of “North Korea”. That means ending needless infrastructure projects, clamping down on the rich and working “only for the war”.9
As far as Prigozhin is concerned, it has been the elite who have been holding Russia back. A view which finds a real resonance amongst ordinary Russians and rank-and-file soldiers alike, who are frustrated with the lack of any meaningful progress after more than a year and a half of what is still officially billed not as a war, but a ‘special military operation’.
Nor is the Victor of Bakhmut wrong about the Russian elite. Since October 2022 the top brass has been conducting a defensive war. Trenches, tank traps, minefields and dragon’s teeth testify to a keep-what-you-have war. Not a grab everything victory. Perhaps the hope is of a Trump second term, or that Germany will break, or that Zelensky will fall … or, or, or. Meanwhile, Prigozhin loudly protests about inept generals, the lack of supplies, the hundreds of thousands who have, or will, needlessly die on the battlefield, the grieving wives and mothers. And he demands ‘justice’!
Then there are the so-called oligarchs. These high-class criminals are hated with a passion by ordinary Russians … and, of course, Prigozhin has done everything he can to cynically focus and amplify popular anger.
No question - they never wanted the invasion of Ukraine and a proxy war with the west. Because of this damned war the oligarchs have suffered. Oh how they have suffered. Yachts, art collections, private jets and swish London, Paris and New York properties have been seized. No longer are they courted and flattered by western government ministers. Instead they find themselves shunned, cold-shouldered and scapegoated “for events outside their control”.10 God, they have even had trouble paying university and public schools fees for sons and daughters. Their bank accounts are frozen. Prigozhin does not give a “shit” for them nor their “fat, carefree children”.11
Of course, the so-called oligarchs are so-called because they no longer rule - certainly not in the way they did under Boris Yeltsin (‘oligarchy’ being Greek for ‘the rule of the few’ and an ‘oligarch’ being one of the few). Back in the summer of 2000, Putin famously summoned Russia’s 21 richest bizmen to a closed-door meeting in the vaulted and columned magnificence of the Hall of the Order of St Catherine in the Grand Kremlin Palace. He told them who was now really in charge. Putin.
They could keep their ill-gotten billions, as long as they did not meddle in politics. If they failed to agree that deal he would ‘liquidate them as a class’. Most oligarchs “paid heed to Putin’s warnings”.12 Not a few, however, found themselves in exile, dead or languishing in jail: Roman Abramovich, Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Prokhorov, Vladimir Gusinsky, Oleg Deripaska, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
True, there is a small, always fractious, circle around Putin, the siloviki - former and current KGB and FSB execs and armed forces tops, who are rich mainly through their controlling positions on the boards of Russia’s biggest companies, but actually rule. In short, industrial and financial capital has fused with the security apparatus to form a new political order. Combining the words ‘silovik’ and ‘oligarchy’, Daneil Treisman coined the term “silovarchy”.13 The Russian Federation is ruled by silovarchs.
The so-called oligarchs have no liking of Prigozhin or the idea of a Wagnerite state. Total war would be a complete disaster for them. They would lose even more of their precious money. If there is a split amongst the silovarchs then Putin would be in real trouble. Indeed they could easily decide to retire him to a sanitorium and sue for peace with the west. However, that would result in a Versailles, not an antebellum, settlement. Russia would be disarmed, crippled with reparations and reduced to an oil-producing neocolony.
On the other hand, sections of the silovarchy might conceivably have thrown in their lot with Prigozhin. He is Russia’s outstanding war hero. He is popular in the army and on the nationalist far right too. He could have had a wider appeal still. Interestingly, on that score Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon, tweeted the Russian opposition on June 24, urging “support” for Prigozhin “in this moment”. He readily admits that Prigozhin is “no ally of ours, and this support will be very temporary and conditional”.14 Effectively though, the promise is this: first use Prigozhin to get rid of Putin, then use the lure of a rapprochement with the west to stage a colour revolution.
Prigozhin and Wagner would doubtless have their own ideas about this. If they had somehow ended up on top they would have wanted to stay on top. A deal with the silovarchy would have been essential, but it would have been the liberal opposition that would have been used, not the liberal opposition who used. If Khodorkovsky had flown to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport expecting to be greeted with a red carpet, bouquets of flowers and an official reception, he would have been bitterly disappointed. No, he would have soon found himself back in a Siberian prison cell. You do not need to have studied Machiavelli’s The prince to understand that.
While the final straw for Prigozhin was doubtless the decision to incorporate Wagner under Shoigu’s ministry of defence and perhaps even the rocketing of Wagner troops - either accidentally or ‘accidentally on purpose’ by the regular army - he crossed the Rubicon when it comes to Putin. His ‘march for justice’ was no mere protest demonstration. It was to be a coup against “corruption, deceit and bureaucracy”, to prevent things ending up “as in 1917 with a revolution”.15
The February 1917 revolution was certainly backgrounded by tsarist military defeats, bureaucratic bungling, economic breakdown and generalised discontent. The Petrograd women’s demonstration marking International Working Women’s Day triggered regime collapse. Factory after factory came out in solidarity with the striking women, troops refused to fire on the crowds … Nicholas II abdicated in favour of his brother, Michael, and two days later he abdicated too. The parties of the left - the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries - were already (certainly since 1905) the natural leaders of the masses. They had their soviets, the elite had their Provisional government.
The October 1917 overthrow of the elite’s Provisional government relied fundamentally on the Bolsheviks winning a commanding majority in workers’ and soldiers’ soviets and gaining the backing of the peasant soviets through the split in the Socialist Revolutionary Party.
Suffice to say, though, there are no serious organisations of the left in Russia today - certainly no Bolshevik party; tragically, not even the hint of one.
However, Prigozhin is clearly not wrong about regime collapse. Indeed he and the Wagner mutiny are symptoms of just such a possibility and that has had Putin likewise talking 1917. He accuses Prigozhin of delivering a “stab in the back” - exactly the kind of “strike” that was “dealt in 1917” when the country was in World War I and “its victory was stolen”.16
Clearly the reference here is to October 1917. Under the ‘socialist’ prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, the Provisional government continued the predatory alliance with Anglo-French imperialism and the carnage at the front. The Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war and called for proletarian revolution in the west. Whether Putin personally identifies with Alexander Kerensky or Nicholas Romanov need not concern us in the least. He does though consider the Russian Federation to be the continuation of the Russian state, going back to its origins in Kyivan Rus. When considering the Ukraine war, that matters. Putin hates Bolshevism not only because of the October revolution and its ‘Land, bread and peace’. He hates Bolshevism because of its commitment to national self-determination and creation of the modern borders of Ukraine, A crime against Holy Russia, according to Putin.
What of Prigozhin? His politics are hard to fathom. He has approvingly referred to ‘comrade Stalin’ and reportedly has links with the A Just Russia party through the novelist, Zakhar Prilepin.17 If true, this would mean Prigozhin is a milk-and-water national socialist. A Just Russia sees itself as socially conservative, calls for the recreation of the welfare state and a reduction of social inequality. Not that this involves challenging the rights of property or the market economy. Its “New Socialism in the 21st century” ideology is, however, presented as the antithesis of “barbaric, oligarchic capitalism”. Formerly a member of the Socialist International, A Just Russia was expelled for supporting the invasion of Ukraine.18
No, the probability is that Prigozhin was looking out for a suitable political vehicle. One which he could bend to his will. His ‘Wagner - the Second Front’ national speaking tour in May surely testified to political ambitions. He says the Second Front is a “media community which will share accurate information about the state of the special military operation, how things really are”. The organisation is supposed to rally the people and make them “realise the actual threat level”.19
Many Russian journalists saw the Second Front tour as an opening bid to join the 2024 presidential contest. Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov told Novaya Gazeta Europe that, being an “ambitious man”, Prigozhin “might also be counting on the fact that, in a time of revolution, the power will be literally up for grabs. If he takes it, he could lay claim to the top ruling positions.”20
But, whatever half-baked plans Prigozhin may have had, they are very much on hold now. Having seized the Rostov-on-Don HQ of the Southern Military District and with an armoured column just 125 miles away from Moscow, Prigozhin ordered his Wagnerites to return to their bases - to prevent, he said, the shedding of further Russian blood. Six helicopters and an IL-22 airborne command post were shot down in flames during the march up the M4.21
Further bloodshed is a pathetic excuse from a man who drove thousands to their death in Bakhmut. There are stories of terrible FSB threats against Wagner families. Raids on Wagner offices. But so what? Would a Julius Caesar, an Oliver Cromwell or a Napoleon Bonaparte have hesitated? No, no, no. They risked all, because they knew they could win all. Yevgeny Prigozhin hesitated because he knew he would lose.
He had no co-conspirators in the FSB, no genuine allies in the army high command, no organised political movement, no Duma faction, no mass media. His coup attempt was carried out in anger - impetuously, prematurely, without any meaningful preparations. His chances of success were always nil. So less Adolf Hitler January 1933; more Algiers April 1961.
Reportedly the intervention of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko stopped a bloodbath and brokered a deal which guarantees the safety of Prigozhin and his men. They can either sign up to the regular army, head back home or go to Belarus. Despite Putin demanding severe punishment and the FSB opening criminal charges, it appears that there will be no prosecutions.
Will Prigozhin some day triumphantly return to Moscow as the head of a rightwing nationalist movement and get himself elected president? Mainstream journalists, sensible folk, educated opinion, liberals of all kinds dismiss such a possibility. How could a foul-mouthed ex-con go from the gutter to the gilded halls of the Kremlin? Impossible, they snort. But precisely if there is defeat in war, regime collapse and national disintegration, then such monsters appear as angels sent to bring deliverance. So do not discount Prigozhin quite yet. Though to pull off a second coming he will need to mend fences with the FSB and the army, and build an effective political machine. Meantime, he will be painfully aware that those deemed traitors by Putin have the funny habit of getting themselves shot or poisoned. And, yes, Yevgeny Viktorovich, be careful, very careful indeed, when you go near one of those high windows.
Dismissing PMC Wagner as nothing more than a mercenary outfit that just sells its services to the highest bidder is beyond stupid. The 2,000-strong cadre who constitute Wagner’s inner core are hardened veterans who love the military life and its bonds of male friendship and camaraderie. They are motivated by far more than the next pay cheque (between 250,000 and 300,000 roubles - roughly £2,500 per month22). Wagner’s code of honour says: “fight not for money, but from the principle of winning always and everywhere”. They are prepared to die one for the other … though they would much prefer to kill the enemy bastards. Experience of battle, the loss of fellow fighters, a strong military ethos unites Wagner into a tight-knit brotherhood, which politically combines contempt for the corrupt elite with an eclectic, ultra-right nationalism … and from all the evidence an intense loyalty to the boss.
An additional point: PMC Wagner is not some reflux of the autonomous Cossack cavalry units that performed military service for the tsars in return for pay and special privileges. Wagner took its business model from the United States: Blackstone, Xe, Academi, KBR, MVM Inc, etc. These companies were used in US operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere … and a very profitable model it has proved to be. Prigozhin has reportedly a net worth of $1 billion.23
In power, if that had happened, the Wagnerite cadre would, of course, have enriched themselves beyond the dreams of Croesus, but also merged with the business and state elite, albeit as the dominant element … and thereby create disappointment below. But that is another story.
Whatever happens to PMC Wagner and Second Front Wagner now, there is still Prigozhin. If we are going to get a handle on him, we might perhaps draw an analogy with Rome’s barracks emperors, who typically came not from equestrian stock, but were low-class commoners from the far-flung provinces. The first being Maximumus Thrax. In the crisis years of 235-284CE there were approximately 14 of them who donned the imperial purple. They relied on their legionnaires to lift them into power. Of course, there were countless other would-be barrack emperors.
There is more than a whiff of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler about Prigozhin too. Like them he is an outsider, not an insider. Mark Galeotti of UCL makes the point that Prigozhin is “not one of Putin’s close figures or a confidant”. He was “part of the staff, rather than part of the family”.24
So, properly speaking, June 24 was a split with, not a split within, the ruling elite.
Inevitably there are those who in the name of my enemy’s enemy is my friend act as spinmeisters for Putin and the silovarchy regime. Every Russian defeat thereby becomes a victory and every retreat a stunningly clever ruse. We have had it ever since the failure to take Kyiv back in stage one. Now, amazingly, we have it with the Wagner revolt too.
I am thinking about the Z left, the orphaned left, the pro-Kremlin left. A motley band: eg, in the UK, George Galloway’s Workers Party, the Brarite CPGB (Marxist-Leninist), the New Communist Party, Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight, Socialist Action and (unofficially, using devious language) perhaps the CPB’s Young Communist League. All strategically adrift since the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the USSR, true: but morally brave, albeit in a particularly stupid way.
Yes, they oppose the main enemy … which is at home (not least in the form of the Rishi Sunak government’s cruel persecution of migrants, attacks on free speech, still further curbs on street protests, below-inflation pay limits and draconian anti-trade union laws). But supposedly, when the most effective fighting force available to your enemy’s enemy delivers a “stab in the back”, this strengthens your enemy’s enemy and therefore weakens your main enemy. Weird.
Putin can now, we are excitedly told, reorganise Russia’s armed forces at last and bring them all under centralised control. Undoubtedly that is what will happen with Wagner. There is little choice about the matter. Ramzan Kadyrov’s militia in Chechnya, the Vostok brigade, the Kolchuga group, the Cossack regiment, the Batman battalion and the countless other semi- and unofficial militias in Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are likewise included, as far as I know, under the scope of the presidential decree too.
Probably that will not lead to more Wagner-type revolts. However, it is worth asking whether or not the centralisation of each and every fighting unit under Shoigu and Gerasimov will produce more than the sum of its parts militarily? A dubious proposition, given the endemic corruption, the incompetence and the complete absence of politically coherent war aims. Prigozhin’s Wagner and Kadyrov’s 141st Special Motorised Regiment have proved to be by far and away the most effective military units.
Anyway, the pro-Kremlin left further claims that Putin will use the coup attempt to clamp down on opposition in the manner of the Turkish AKP regime in July 2016. Sure, every crisis is an opportunity - if there is the will and the determination to act.
Having crushed the Gülanist coup, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, swiftly staged his own countercoup. It saw the mass round-up of 40,000 people, including generals, admirals, judges, police officers, university teachers and journalists. Some 160,000 were subsequently sacked from their posts because of alleged connections with Fethullah Gülen and his shadowy Islamic movement. There was a clampdown on TV stations and newspapers too. Erdoğan wanted to transform Turkey into an autocratic quasi-democracy and found his moment.
But, to state the obvious, Russia is already an autocratic quasi-democracy. There is voting every four or five years, but everyone knows the result of the presidential election campaign even before a single vote has been cast. The Duma is a mere fig leaf - a talking shop and always obedient. There is no genuine opposition. What passes for the left is, in the main, supine. Inept Stalinite nostalgics predominate. Trade unions barely function. The media is almost entirely under direct or indirect state control. Even the mildest of liberal reformists have either fled abroad, keep their heads firmly down or rot in jail. Just to call the Ukraine war a ‘war’ is illegal.
Doubtless there will be further oppression. Not a sign of strength, however: rather weakness. And the simple fact of the matter, surely blindingly obvious, is that the Wagner coup attempt was itself a sign of weakness. To ram home the point, when the Zelensky regime bans the main opposition parties, closes papers, oppresses the Russian Orthodox church, this too speaks of weakness.
And imagine for one moment (not hard to do), that Ukraine’s offensive grinds to a halt, makes no headway whatsoever, because of Russian trenches, minefields, artillery killing zones and electronic warfare. Tens of thousands die, hundreds of tanks and fighting vehicles lie wrecked … and, in frustration, the famed Azov brigade rebels. Led by Mykyta Nadtochiy, they stage a march on Kyiv to much popular acclaim. They demand the sacking of the chief of staff and defence minister and their replacement by those acceptable to, or chosen by, the Right Sector.
Any such move testifies to government failure, constitutional breakdown and extreme political fragility (as is certainly the case with Putin). Members of the silovarchy will be thinking hard about a replacement: they will be jostling, manoeuvring, plotting between and against each other. Putin’s authority has taken a hammering.
And, in the midst of a war, an event like the Wagner rebellion will have a seismic effect … on both sides. Besides wars being decided by troop numbers, food, fuel and munition supplies and the quantity and quality of equipment, there is too the vital question of morale. A point emphasised again and again by the Prussian military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, in his classic 1832 study, Vom Kriege: “In combat the loss of moral force is the chief cause of the decision.”25
Wagner’s march on Moscow might conceivably have momentarily lifted the morale of regular Russian troops. Those bastards, Shoigu and Gerasimov, will be swept away. Just as conceivably its halt, the return to bases, might have momentarily lifted morale. Those Wagner bastards will be swept away. But, on balance, any sober-minded assessment must, surely, conclude that morale will not have been lifted. Quite the reverse.
From what we know about the Ukrainian side, hopes soared with news of Wagner’s march on Moscow. The expectation was not that Prigozhin would succeed and turn the Russian Federation into a North Korean war economy. Obviously not. Rather that the Putin regime was about to fall and the Russian Federation about to disintegrate.
While there is no clear evidence from the front lines about rising Ukrainian confidence and sinking Russian confidence producing any sudden shifts, a collapse of Russian morale is certainly all too thinkable now.
I have argued for many months now that the war is at an impasse - the predictable result of Russia’s inability to overwhelm what is a people’s war on the Ukrainian side, plus Nato’s Stingers, Nlaws, Switchblades, Himars, Patriots, Storm Shadows and Leopards. However, there is now the question of regime collapse in Moscow - not tomorrow, not the day after, but sometime soon.
The Guardian October 7 2022.↩︎
The Guardian October 2 2022.↩︎
The Independent June 24 2023.↩︎
WSWS editorial board, June 25 2023.↩︎
‘Russia’s melancholy oligarchs’ Financial Times September 7 2002.↩︎
The Daily Express May 24 2023.↩︎
M Goldman Oilopoly: Putin, power and the rise of the new Russia Oxford 2010, p103.↩︎
See D Treisman, ‘Putin’s solovrchy’ Orbis Vol 51, No1, 2008, pp141-53 2007.↩︎
Aviation Week June 26 2023.↩︎
C von Clausewitz On war Harmondsworth 1976. p310.↩︎