Prigozhin’s March on Moscow
In late May, the pro-Kremlin political PR hack Konstantin Dolgov published a startling interview with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of the Wagner private military company. Prigozhin said that the entire ‘denazification and demilitarisation’ rationale behind the invasion of Ukraine was a sham; that the war was a failure; that the Ukrainian army was now among the strongest in the world; that the children of the Kremlin elite ‘allow themselves to live a public, fat, worry-free life applying face cream and showing it on the internet while ordinary people’s children are coming back in zinc [coffins]’; and that ‘this divide might end with a revolution, like in 1917, when first the soldiers rise up, then the people close to them’ to ‘stick the elites on pitchforks.’
Last weekend Prigozhin appeared to put his money where his mouth was. After releasing an obviously staged video of an alleged Russian army artillery strike on a Wagner base, Prigozhin announced a ‘march of justice’ to Moscow to punish the offenders, above all his bête noire, the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. To everyone’s surprise, in the first few hours of the march Prigozhin’s mercenaries managed, almost without bloodshed, to capture Rostov-on-Don, the operational headquarters of the Ukrainian front.
With few units available in Moscow to repulse the uprising, only the poorly trained and ill-equipped national guard, it seemed possible that the Kremlin would get the worst of it: apparently caught on the back foot, Putin proclaimed his former caterer and close political ally a traitor and called on the military and the general population to resist him. Prigozhin was only a couple of hours from the capital when he abruptly stood down, disbanded the mutineers and agreed to depart for Belarus – apparently following mediation by Aleksander Lukashenko.
How much did Ukrainian and Western intelligence know about the uprising? Does it reveal Putin’s regime as a house of cards waiting to be toppled by an opportunist less scrupulous than Prigozhin? Will the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who deployed his own Akhmat unit in Putin’s defence, replace his rival at the president’s right hand? All these questions may be settled in time, but the answers for now remain murky. Prigozhin’s failure, like the attempted coup against Erdoğan in Turkey in 2016, may ultimately provide a useful pretext for a regime-strengthening purge of the political elite, but Putin’s response has so far been muted: even the treason charges against Prigozhin have apparently been dropped.
What is already clear is that the attempted coup is a watershed moment for the Russian far right. It may be tempting to read Prigozhin’s criticisms of the invasion, which echo Western reporting, as a nod to antiwar sentiment. They are not. His actual view of the war is: ‘We didn’t start this special operation, but once the village has ended in a shitshow and you and your neighbours are fucking each other up, you’d better fuck them up to the end.’ Thomas Friedman said something similar about Iraq, though he used a more genteel analogy.
Prigozhin’s admiration for the Ukrainian military, on the other hand, is real enough: he would like Russia to be what he thinks Ukraine has become in the crucible of conflict – a society single-mindedly devoted to mobilising and sacrificing for ultimate victory. The main crime of Russia’s wealthy elites and bureaucrats like Shoigu, in Prigozhin’s eyes, is their failure to take the war seriously enough to achieve this end: instead of the frozen conflict in which the country now finds itself, Russia needs to ‘live for a certain number of years like North Korea, close all the borders, stop pussyfooting around.’ These points are familiar touchstones of the Russian nationalist right, especially its most vocal representative, the video streamer and Telegram poster Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov.
It must have been galling for the likes of Strelkov to see their cherished slogans trumpeted by a man who exemplifies the cronyism and atrophy of Putin’s regime, using their rhetoric for positional advantage in an internecine elite power struggle. Prigozhin has long reaped the advantages of being a nominally private businessman responsible for essential state functions: beyond the military supply contracts that first earned him his billions, his Internet Research Agency carries out social media manipulation on behalf of the state, while Wagner PMC has been among the most effective tools of Russian hard and soft power in Africa as well as Ukraine.
Wagner’s participation in the fighting around Bakhmut, where the unit performed much better than its formal military counterparts, helped bolster Prigozhin’s position – but since then the military has improved while Putin and Shoigu have cut off Wagner’s access to ammunition and other supplies. Prigozhin was in a bind: he could either watch his independent role consign him to increasing irrelevance while the defence ministry regained the upper hand, or find a way to act.
His deployment of nationalist slogans was a poor fit with the audience he was trying to mobilise, however. Their nostalgia for a strong empire in the 1848 or 1948 mould (resplendent in either case with gold braid and muscular patriotism) doesn’t sit well with the kind of late Roman decadence represented by a private army marching on its own capital. Yet they also dream of a popular uprising against the regime, of the kind to which Prigozhin was gesturing – a March on Rome in which rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers would finally force their decrepit governing class to take their responsibilities to national greatness seriously.
But this was not the moment. Strelkov and the rest of the ‘war correspondent’ right rushed to declare the rebellion premature, a Dolchstoss that was treasonous and irresponsible in the context of an ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive (though after the taking of Rostov, a few posts did start to appear that could be interpreted ambiguously, only to vanish when the curtain fell). Prigozhin would not be their Mussolini.
This outcome lays bare the predicament now facing the Russian right. Unlike the liberals, they are a real political force: much of the country in one way or another seems to share both their disgust at the elites who live as if nothing has changed, and their sense that the war might have been a mistake but fighting it halfway is worse than trying to win it. Yet everything that has brought the self-appointed tribunes of Russian nationalism to prominence since 2014 has been underpinned by the machinations of the Kremlin elite, and at every step they have been boxed out of decision-making or co-opted for their symbolic value. If they were ever to seize power for real, nothing good would come of it.