British historian Lawrence Freedman has once again provided astute analysis and insight in his latest article attempting to make sense of the Prigozhin military mutiny in Russia, which he published on Twitter on June 24.

As the dust settles and we try to make sense of what has occurred, it is important to register a crucial observation made by Freedman,

He has drawn attention to a key moment in the accelerating standoff between the chief of the Wagner mercenary forces and the Kremlin, namely not only the military command but also Russian president Vladimir Putin himself. 

Throwing down the gauntlet, Prigozhin dared to declare publicly that Putin’s rationale for attacking Ukraine were based on lies. Not only was the pretext for the aggression contrived, but the very areas and people in eastern Ukraine that the Kremlin claimed to be saving have ended up in an even worse situation, suffering “harsh treatment at the hands of their protectors.”

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This admission and accusation coming from a notorious Russian imperialist, warmonger and war criminal is huge!  And there is no easy way for Putin to dismiss this charge and pretend that he and the Russian population have not heard it.

Prigozhin may have backed down and retreated but Russian soldiers, their families and the more receptive members of Russian society will, or should, be asking why Russians are dying by the tens of thousands in the meatgrinder that their war against Ukraine has become, why do they feel unsafe even in Moscow, why is Russia ostracized and sanctioned, and what does the future hold if this situation continues.

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Let’s read the relevant excerpts from what Friedman writes:

“It is the question of the war’s necessity that made Prigozhin’s latest accusations so incendiary. Those made on Friday [June 23] were quite different in nature and direction to anything that had gone before, challenging not only the conduct of the war but the whole basis upon which it was launched. The shots might have been aimed at Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the commander-in-chief, but Vladimir Putin was clearly in the firing line.”

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The historian continues:

“Remember that the pretext for this war was that Ukraine was mounting a ‘genocide’ against the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas, egged on by NATO. That made the invasion urgent, both to safeguard the potential victims and to remove the hateful neo-Nazi regime that was engaging in such terrible acts. The whole sequence of events leading to the 24 February 2022 invasion was orchestrated in line with this theory, starting with the Security Council meeting on the morning of 21 February which was asked whether the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DNR/LNR) be recognized. 

Putin immediately decided that they should be, confirmed the next day that this covered the classical boundaries of these oblasts rather than the DNR/LNR enclaves, and gained authority from the Duma to do whatever was necessary to defend them. This was followed by a staged incident in Luhansk, a request for help to meet Kyiv’s aggression, and then the full-scale invasion.”

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What exactly did Prigozhin do? Friedman explains.

“In his Friday morning video Prigozhin took down this whole contrivance. He explained that there was no extraordinary threat to the Donbas prior to the invasion, that artillery exchanges were no more than usual, and that the whole business was a put-up affair by Shoigu and other corrupt officers, backed by oligarchs making money out of the military build-up. So damning was the charge that the FSB, the security agency, opened a criminal investigation against Prigozhin.”

And what has been the result of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor – salvation for eastern Ukraine, or hell?   Friedman writes:

“One of the many tragedies of this war is how those supposedly being protected from mythical Ukrainian atrocities, (Russian speakers living in Eastern Ukraine, Kherson and Odesa), have suffered harsh treatment at the hands of their protectors. Vital cities have been reduced to ruin. Since the first moves in the Donbas to challenge the Ukrainian authorities in the spring of 2014 this region has been impoverished.”

And what conclusion does Friedman arrive at? 

“Even if Wagner is defeated quickly, which I would not take for granted, then this is still a big shock to the regime, and it will have been weakened. If the confrontation goes in the other direction, then all bets are off and panic may start to grip the Kremlin. The problem for autocrats like Putin is that they don’t really know what is going on among their people, and that tends to add to the panic. Moreover, once the high command looks vulnerable what will the junior commanders do in their battles with Ukrainian forces? How keen will they be to die for a cause that seems lost? For now, those watching events with the greatest enthusiasm will be the Ukrainian high command. There are opportunities opening up for offensive operations that they never expected.

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Thank you, Professor Friedman, for your perspicacity and setting down for the record what we cannot afford to overlook.

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