The weekend mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has left intelligence analysts, government officials, and news correspondents reeling. After months of publicly accusing Putin’s Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief-of-Staff of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence, corruption, and even treason, Prigozhin gathered several thousand Wagner troops and set out to “seize” Russia’s Southern Military Command Center in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
Astounding the world, and probably himself, Prigozhin reached the Command Center and took it, almost without resistance. Acting very much like the dog who finally caught the car he was chasing, video showed Prigozhin sitting on the porch of the command center, looking bewildered, tired, and very uncertain.
Prigozhin then ordered an even more Quixotic operation – a convoy of armored vehicles and Wagner troops was then ordered north – embarking on a 600 mile (1,000 km) “raid” on Moscow itself.
Enroute this Wagner convoy was set upon from the air by Russian attack helicopters. In a confusing series of engagements two attack helicopters were shot down by a Wagner operated Pantsir surface-to-air missile complex.
Also blown out of the sky was a Russian Mi-8 transport helicopter, three snooping Mi-8 electronic warfare helicopters, and a high-value asset fixed wing Il-22M command and communications aircraft.
As wreckage rained down over the Russian countryside, Wagner’s “assault” on Moscow suddenly turned around to return to its base – 120 kilometers short of Putin’s office and a long way from accomplishing anything.
One might be forgiven for asking: What the hell just happened?
Black swan had followed black swan, each event and eventuation less likely than the last, until finally the most preposterous and incredible event imaginable happened – Putin took to the radio to announce that he had “forgiven” the mutineers. And like that, their first armed rebellion against Putin was over.
In a development that no Hollywood screenwriter could have dreamed of – a “deal” was then announced between Putin and Prigozhin; an amnesty of sorts for the Wagner mutineers and a “pass” that allowed the Wagner boss to transfer his operation to Belarus in a deal that Belarusian dictator Lukashenko claims to have brokered, which saved Prigozhin and possibly also Putin.
One of the central reasons that Prigozhin gave for his adventure was the urgent need to oust Shoigu. However, just days after Wagner’s putsch fizzled, Putin hosted an uneasily looking Shoigu at a closed-door ceremony in Moscow, congratulating the Ministry of Defense for preventing a civil war.
Putin seemingly has forgotten that the Wagner convoys had passed through dozens of Ministry of Defense checkpoints during their armed mutiny – with almost no resistance from the Russian Army.
Though Prigozhin’s gambit may appear to have been a failure, it may actually be a key event to usher-in Ukraine’s victory at a hastened speed. Putin is now surrounded by military officers and political advisors whom he is not sure if he can trust.
Tracking-down who was loyal, and who betrayed him, will not be an easy task and undoubtedly the Kremlin elites will try to use the palace intrigues to their favor. The infighting, as had been seen between Prigozhin and Shoigu, may start anew with a different cast of supporting characters.
By exiling Prigozhin, and putting Wagner’s rank and file on ice, Putin has benched 20,000 of what were arguably his best fighters. For his many faults (and sins) Prigozhin was, at least, a man whose orders soldiers would follow – into the meatgrinder of Bakhmut, and then across the equally deadly line into mutiny.
With Prigozhin gone, who will lead? And more to the point, whom can Putin trust?
By a process of elimination, Shoigu and Gerasimov are now Putin’s only supports – and the “Special Military Operation” [illegal full-scale war] is back in their hands alone. Even without a mutiny, Putin’s invasion wasn’t going well— and it isn’t likely to get any better.
And that may be Prigozhin’s greatest gift to Ukraine: By making Putin choose between Wagner and Putin’s own stable of incompetent yes men, Prigozhin has made his former boss embrace the authors of his greatest failure.
For better or worse, Putin’s dreams of empire and his political future are now hitched to Shoigu and Gerasimov.
The Minister and the General are unlikely to inspire the troops they ostensibly lead – and they are even less likely to suddenly start winning the war that Putin set loose on Europe. Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine now teeters on a precipice – and so does Putin.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post
Chuck Pfarrer is a former Squadron Leader of the US Navy’s SEAL Team Six and has served the United States Government as a counterterrorism analyst and advisor.
Jason Smart, PhD, is a Kyiv-based American political analyst and advisor, specializing in Russia and the former Soviet states.
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