Even more than thoughts, there are questions and suspicions about Prigozhin’s rebellion.
Putin has maintained his stranglehold on power in Russia through keeping potential rivals off balance and fighting each other. At the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Sergei Shoigu was the second most popular public figure in Russia. So Putin gave free rein to Prigozhin to challenge him. At the same time, he gave Shoigu a license to hit back.
Why did Prigozhin choose to rebel at this time and in this way?
Don’t forget that there had been an order sent out that all Wagner fighters must sign up with the Russian army by July 1. Prigozhin could not possibly allow that. He withdrew his forces in Ukraine to the border with Russia. His attempted coup must have been many weeks in the making in order to prepare the logistics in Rostov and beyond. Shoigu and company must have suspected something, which is the reason they apparently actually attacked the Wagner encampment inside Ukraine.
The reception Wagner received in Rostov was positive from the crowd, but don’t forget that there were not exactly thousands who greeted him there. With a population that seems quite uninvolved politically, that should have been no surprise. An extremely interesting set of interviews was conducted in the streets of Moscow by “1420”. In general, most people seemed not very emotionally involved. How about the Russian generals? It was extremely interesting to see Prigozhin talking with two army chiefs in Rostov. Look at them talking with Prigozhin in Rostov-on-don. Surrounded by Wagner forces, they didn’t dare to denounce Prigozhin. But neither the expression on their faces nor their body language was enthusiastic at all.
A portion of Wagner troops set off for Moscow. The road blocks and military checkpoints were brushed aside like so many twigs. But Prigozhin was reminded of one force that no non-state actor has: an air force. His troops were apparently strafed (a little bit) on the highway and one oil refinery was blown up. Maybe Prigozhin had been planning to use that refinery to keep his vehicles fueled. Equally important, Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters attacked Wagner troops in Rostov from the east. These facts reminded Prigozhin that maybe he could reach Moscow, and with an estimated 80-95% of Russian army troops in Ukraine, maybe Wagner could have taken Moscow, but then what?
My own suspicion is that Prigozhin thought he could make a deal – maybe even thought he had one – with several different military leaders, maybe including Kadyrov and some air force leaders. When that didn’t pan out, he realized that his stay in the Kremlin – if he got there – would be violently chaotic and short lived, as would be his future life expectancy. An outsider as far as the Russian bureaucracy is concerned, he’d have no administrative support never mind support from the military. So he had to look for a way out.
As for Putin, he too knew that maybe Prigozhin could not rule for any length of time, but his own grip on power was precarious since nearly all his soldiers are in Ukraine. So he wanted to reach a deal too. But both sides seem to be irrevocably weakened. After in effect calling Prigozhin a traitor, Putin had to accept the face saving device of his former ally turned rival taking refuge in Belarus. There, Prigozhin had better hire a food taster and had better stay away from open windows above the second floor. Will he want to stay in Belarus? There are only a few alternatives since he’s wanted by the International Criminal Court. And how will Prigozhin’s troops take what amounted to an abdication? Won’t they see it as having been left in the lurch? How will they get paid? And now that they’re in Russia itself, will they be willing to return to Ukraine? It seems few of them will take advantage of Putin’s generous offer of amnesty and signing up to join the official army. Why would they? But on the other hand, what will they do in Rostov or anywhere else for that matter? Here you have thousands of battle hardened men, most of whom have already killed people in battle, armed to the teeth, without a central leader, probably now going without a regular pay check… Do you get the picture, especially when we consider the fact that many of them were recruited from prisons? It sounds like the perfect formula for the creation of large roving bands of armed bandits.
What effect will this have on the war itself, or more precisely: How much will this impact the morale and discipline of the Russian troops inside Ukraine? So far, CNN reports that Ukrainian troops on the frontline near Bakhmut are reporting no real decline in the discipline of the enemy. But it’s early yet and the crisis with Prigozhin is far from over. Putin’s spokesman is claiming that no deal was made to fire Shoigu, but that seems unlikely. What happens if – when – Shoigu and chief of staff Valery Gerasimov are fired by Putin? What will be the response of the officers beneath him, including those immediately commanding the troops inside Ukraine?
There are also the considerations in Africa. Wagner forces are stationed and are playing a critical role in a number of African countries including Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and others. Will they continue to get paid? Will they remain loyal to Prigozhin? If not, then doesn’t Prigozhin lose an important source of income and don’t those African dictators lose an important source of power?
The Biden administration is apparently conflicted about this development, just as they were conflicted over and delayed sending arms to Ukraine all along. They want to see the defeat of the invasion, but the collapse of the Putin regime and even the possible breakup of Russia is both an opportunity and a threat. It would remove a major rival, but also the collapse of the Putin regime could lead to a chaotic civil war in Russia. Who would control the thousands of nuclear weapons that Russia has? At the time that Ukraine separated from Russia, the US brokered a deal for Ukraine to return the nuclear weapons that the Russian government had inside Ukraine. The reason was that the US correctly thinks that the more governments there are that hold nuclear weapons, the greater the chance that some lunatic might use them and this is not in the interests of any capitalist regime.
The entire basis of this crisis for the Putin regime is the courage and determination of the Ukrainian people. Putin had thought that he would be able to roll right into Kyiv like a seam roller rolling over hot tar. Instead, the Ukrainian people stopped the initial thrust to Kyiv in its tracks. Time and again they have exhibited their determination to stop the imperialist invasion.
The Putin apologists on the “left” completely ignore this. One would think they would be embarrassed by Prigozhin’s speech, in which he said “the Russian Defense Ministry is trying to deceive the President and the public and tell them there was insane aggression on the part of Ukraine and they were going to attack us together with the entire NATO bloc. So, the so-called ‘special operation’ on February 24 was launched for completely different reasons. Why was the war needed? The war was needed so that a handful of scumbags could have
a blast and get PR attention showing how strong the army is….. The war was not started… in order to ‘demilitarize and denazify’ Ukraine… It was needed for one star (Russian generals) with additional embroidery so that one mentally sick man could look good on a coffin pillow….. There’s no control [in Ukraine]. There is still hysteria in which the head of the General Staff after a glass of vodka is squealing like a fishwife, like a pig into the phone receiver ordering to take back positions, and all a commander can do is say: ‘It’s been taken back’ and draw a red line on the map marking several kilometers further North than it really is today. So what they are telling us is a deep fake.”
The Putinized “left”
Some on the Putinized “left” say the revolt is largely NATO inspired. One commentator on Facebook said that Prigozhin was “probably turned by the CIA”. Another, in a personal communication to me, equated the Ukrainian and Russian governments. In other words, there is no difference between the democratic and the totalitarian forms of capitalist rule and national liberation struggles don’t exist. In all cases the interests and role of the Ukrainian working class and of the masses of Ukrainian people are irrelevant. They are just like the Trump supporters who, the more Trump’s crimes are revealed, the more they sink into their delusions. In the case of the Putinized left, the more the actuality of this imperialist invasion is revealed, the more this “left” ignores the Ukrainian working class.
Zaporizhzhia power plant
This brings us to a scarcely commented huge danger: On June 22 Zelensky warned that Russian forces had planted additional mines at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, including in the cooling pool. He had made similar warnings before the Russians blew up the Nova Kakhovka Dam. Putin has said nothing about having mined the power plant. That means that planting such mines at the power plant is not like Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, which has proven to be a bluff. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive makes major advances, and if it threatens to retake the Zaporizhzhia region as a whole, it cannot be ruled out that Russia would blow the power plant, just as they did the dam. That could be a catastrophe even worse than Chernobyl. What’s needed is a workers movement throughout the region, one that reaches out to the Russian working class. So far, it seems most workers and working class youth in Russia are simply trying to survive and leave politics to the politicians. They are not all that different from the US working class in this regard. A possible Zaporizhzhia meltdown would shatter that life strategy.
Update/further thoughts on Wagner in Belarus: It is now being reported that Wagner forces may be resettling in Belarus. Will that destabilize the Lukashenko regime? Will this be something like the African countries in which Wagner is providing “security” for some local dictator? Also, what will be the effects in the countries that surround Belarus? Don’t forget that Wagner got a major boost by being one of the principle forces sent from Russia into Donbas in 2014. Will Wagner forces do something similar in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, all of which border on Belarus?
A renewed working class based socialist movement is needed now more than ever in history. Those who stood by the principle of international working class solidarity are the ones able to build such a movement out of the ashes of the old.