By Marco Levytsky
For a brief 24-hour period from June 23 to 24, the world watched with bated breath as a gripping drama unfolded in Russia. Yes, that murderous mercenary Yevgeny (“The Sledgehammer”) Prigozhin had gone rogue and was advancing to Moscow with 25,000 of his criminal recruits on a “March for Justice”. But Christmas in June was not to be. No sooner had he reached within 200 kilometres of the Russian capital, than he suddenly announced he was pulling his troops back to Ukraine, while he himself would go into exile in Belarus.
The conflict between Prigozhin and the top echelon of the Russian military establishment had been brewing for some time. In past tirades, he had lambasted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov for the way they have conducted the war, asserting that they have starved his forces of ammunition. The final straw apparently was the announcement that mercenaries would be required to sign contracts with the ministry by July 1.
On June 23, he not only accused the military of targeting his units with rockets and fire from helicopter gunships but also flatly denounced the invasion itself, admitting that it was based on lies.
“The Defence Ministry is trying to deceive society and the president and tell us a story about how there was crazy aggression from Ukraine and that they were planning to attack us with the whole of NATO,” Prigozhin said in a video clip released on Telegram by his press service, calling the official version “a beautiful story”. The “special operation” was started “so that Shoigu could become a marshal … so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal. The war wasn’t needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine.”
As he crossed the border, Prigozhin took Rostov-on-Don, the Southern Military District headquarters, without firing a shot, then proceeded to Voronezh and Lipetsk, also unopposed. On the morning of the 24th (Moscow time) Russian dictator Vladimir Putin delivered a fuming address calling the actions “a betrayal of our people”, “a stab in the back”, and pledging a brutal reaction.
Within a few hours Prigozhin announced that his troops would turn back in order to avoid bloodshed and return to their base in Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have brokered the deal which included amnesty for the Wagner mercenaries. The Kremlin later announced that Prigozhin would have all charges against him dropped and move to Belarus.
The details of this agreement are not known, nor are Prigozhin’s actual whereabouts. But the whole arrangement is being greeted with scepticism from just about all observers. How did Putin go from calling the mutineers traitors and terrorists to suddenly dropping all charges? Is he really going to forgive Prigozhin for launching the most serious challenge to his authority since he became Russia’s Capo di tutti capi 23 years ago? And what of Prigozhin having exposed the blatant lies Putin had spread to justify his genocidal war? As the Wagner chief pointed out, Russians were in no danger in Ukraine, there were no “Nazis” in Ukraine, and NATO posed no threat to Russia., Meanwhile, will Prigozhin, who has the reputation of extreme brutality, meekly retire to the sidelines after coming so close to succeeding?
Regardless of the outcome, Putin has been seriously wounded. His weakness has been exposed. As the saying goes, the emperor has no clothes. And the root causes of this insurrection remain unresolved. The morale of Russian troops in Ukraine is at rock bottom. They have been thrown into the meat grinder without proper ammunition and support. Casualties are estimated at over 200,000. The ease with which Prigozhin was able to march to within 200 kilometres of Moscow demonstrates that Russian forces have been depleted to such a degree they can’t even defend their own territory.
Historically, revolutions and regime changes in Russia have followed military disasters. The humiliating Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 contributed to the revolution of that same year The 1917 Revolution began when soldiers on the frontline, plagued by horrendous casualties and the incredible incompetence of their military leaders, mutinied on a massive scale. The Soviet debacle in Afghanistan during the 1980s eventually led to the disintegration of the USSR. Putin himself referred to the 1917 revolution during his tirade on the morning of June 24:
“It was such a blow that was dealt to Russia in 1917 when the country was fighting in World War I, but its victory was stolen.
“Intrigues, bickering and politicking behind the back of the army and the people turned out to be the greatest catastrophe, the destruction of the army and the state, loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war,” he said.
Aside from his nonsensical claim that “victory was stolen”, Putin, who once claimed that the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, now asserts that it was the USSR’s creation that “turned out to be the greatest catastrophe.”
But having had his weaknesses exposed not only to the Western World, and his own allies, but to the people of Russia themselves, Putin may be headed for “the mother of all greatest catastrophes” – the end of his own regime.