Prigozhin vs Putin: the near civil war in the Russian army

What happened on Friday, June 23, in Russia was not expected by anyone. The head of Wagner, one of the most well-known and ruthless paramilitary organizations internationally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, started a “March for Justice” from eastern Ukraine to Moscow. His army “marched” without facing any resistance and proceeded to capture the important city of Rostov-on-Don, which is the headquarters of the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin stayed in Rostov and sent his second-in-command to march towards Moscow with Wagner’s army. His main objective was to force Putin to remove Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, whom Prigozhin accuses of incompetence and corruption.

Prigozhin had systematically avoided targeting Putin. But Putin took a clear stand against him, speaking of treason and backstabbing, and machining it clear that punishment would be severe.

After Putin’s speech, Prigozhin turned against Putin, but realizing he had no hope of achieving his aims, he stated that he and his 25,000 men marching against Moscow were prepared “to die for Russia.” In reality, the “25,000 soldiers” did not exceed 8,000. Prigozhin had no hope and after mediation by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, he agreed to retreat. Within 24 hours or so the whole thing was over.

A talented cook

The first field in which Prigozhin excelled, in his younger days, was robbery – but he was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison in the 1980s.

The 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were a haven for mobsters and predatory capitalists. Here, Prigozhin excels as a cook and a restaurant owner. Putin is delighted with Prigozhin’s menus and promotes him to his “cook” (or more accurately his “butcher”, according to another approach to meal preparation).

Putin will harness the gifts of his talented cook and help him build the largest of the private mercenary armies that exist in Russia (and possibly the world) – Wagner. Wagner became internationally known after its interventions in Syria and Libya over the past decade. It then expanded its activities to West and Central Africa.

How the Putin-Prigozhin relationship broke down

Prigozhin is considered a hero in Russia – according to Western “media” he is the most popular figure after Putin. He mainly owes this to the role played by Wagner’s forces in the capturing of Bakhmut, Russia’s most significant success in the war with Ukraine over the past year. According to the Western media, Wagner dropped at least 40,000 troops in the battle of Bakhmut and lost about half of them. Of course, we may never learn the actual numbers. But it is certain that both the Russians and the Ukrainians lost tens of thousands in the battle of Bakhmut – based on indirect statements by the belligerents themselves.

Prigozhin celebrated his victory in Bakhmut and used it to attack his rivals, Shoigu and Gerasimov.

The reality is that his criticisms was not entirely unfounded – despite his “excesses”. The whole planning of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was completely inadequate to say the least – it underestimated to the degree of total naivety the resistance of the Ukrainian forces and the assistance the West would offer them, it underestimated the weather conditions that trapped Russian troops around Kiev and made them an easy target for the Ukrainian army in the first phase of the war, etc.

Prigozhin directly attacked the Russian elite. He came out saying that when “Wagner’s heroes” were giving their lives for Russia, the rich and their children were having fun at tourist resorts. This is definitely true. But saying that in public, was equal to opening Pandora’s Box. He didn’t say these things from a left point of view aimed at mobilizing the masses, he mobilised his own personal army, attempting a military coup.

The question of course is how different is Prigozhin so as to denounce others for elitism and corruption. He himself is part of the elite he is attacking; a personal friend of Putin as well as Lukashenko; a man of the underworld and the mafia where he started his ascent; an adventurer who sends people to be slaughtered in order to make a profit; a superrich multi-millionaire – with huge properties in the countries where his mercenaries intervene; finally, the bulk of the forces he threw into the battle of Bakhmut consisted of ex-cons from Russian prisons whom he treated as completely expendable, according to various accounts from the frontline.

Prigozhin’s conflict with the leadership of the army and the defense ministry forced Putin to choose. And he chose, of course, the ministry and the military command, deciding that all mercenary armies, such as Wagner, should be brought under the control and command of the Ministry of Defense and the Army.

The Ministry gave a deadline for July 1 to all the private armies to accept their incorporation into the official army. A total of 40 such organisations operate in eastern Ukraine, outside the official structures of the Russian army (according to Nikolai Pankov, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister).

By June 22, 20 organisations had accepted to join the official structures of the Russian army. But it was impossible for Prigozhin to accept his own forces to join under the orders of Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Was there logic behind Prigozhin’s actions?

The only possible logic behind Prigozhin’s move against Moscow could only be to test whether there were other sections of the army ready to revolt against the “incompetents” in the central command. To attempt this, it is reasonable to assume that he had known that there was discontent. After all, criticism of the central command had been heard from other directions as well, e.g. from the leader of the Chechens fighting in Ukraine, Ramzan Kadyrov.

In the end, however, no one followed him and he was forced to give up while Wagner’s troops had reached within 200 kilometres of Moscow.

An unexpected gift

For the Ukrainian regime, this mutiny was godsend. If a crisis broke out within the Russian army, how could it hold the front in Ukraine? As a result, articles immediately began to appear in the international press saying “Victory for Ukraine could be closer than we thought“.

In the West (USA, NATO, EU) it caused contradictory feelings: on the one hand jubilation at the weakening of Putin, of his regime and of his army, on the other hand real anxiety at what would happen in case Prigozhin was supported by other parts of the army. Such a thing could cause a political upheaval that could possibly bring to power the most hardline nationalist parts of the Russian regime and Prigozhin-type characters: uncontrollable, incoherent and totally unpredictable. We are talking about Russia, the most powerful nuclear power in the world.

Limited results from the Ukrainian counter-offensive

As of the time of writing, the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive is not having much success.

According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, by Monday June 26, the Ukrainian army had recaptured 130 square kilometres from the Russians. Even if this is true, it is not a particular success – especially considering that the Ukrainian troops have not yet reached the heaviest fortifications of the Russian side. It’s suffice to recall that in last autumn’s counter-offensive, which had much more limited preparation and less equipment than the current one, the Ukrainian side captured vast areas of thousands of square kilometres in a matter of days, around Kharkiv in the northeast (in September) and in Kherson in the south (in November).

Directly or indirectly, the Western media and even Zelensky himself admit that the Ukrainian counter-offensive is not going as they would like, as reported, for example, by CNN and BBC.

As the New York Times reports on June 26,

“In Washington, officials in the Biden administration are publicly urging patience even as they privately fret that the initial progress has been slow. One senior administration official called the results of the first couple of weeks “sobering,” adding, “They’re behind schedule.”

The report continues,

“They dug in, they mined, they are ready,”

said a Ukrainian private with a paramilitary police unit, referring to the Russian army.

“It is difficult, but there is no other option.”

Can the tables be turned?

Can the facts change after Prigozhin’s failed coup? This question cannot be answered with any certainty. As things stand now, the Russians still have an advantage. As we wrote before, once the Russian army goes on the defensive it will have great advantages over the (expected) counter-attack of the Ukrainian side. So, at first glance, it would seem that Prigozhin’s move, since it did not escalate into an armed conflict, will not have an immediate impact on the situation. In the medium and long term, however, the picture becomes more complicated.

The reason is that the recent developments clearly show that there are major contradictions within the Russian regime. This reinforces the stubbornness on the part of the Ukrainians to fight and on the part of the West to strengthen them, hoping that new internal clashes will resurface, which will contribute to the defeat of the Russian army. At the same time, the Prigozhin’s rebellion will surely have an impact on the morale of Russian soldiers and Russian society, which feels trapped in a conflict with the West that is reflected in the risk of civil war within the country.

At the same time, these developments show how rotten and reactionary the Russian regime is, which, while suppressing every opposition voice within the country, imprisoning and killing its political opponents, relies on bandits and gangs who create private armies to fill their pockets with millions. Let us note a not so small detail. In denouncing the “traitor Prigozhin”, Putin drew a parallel between his attempted coup and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – on this basis Putin seems to choose the role of Tsar Nicholas II and sees Prigozhin as a modern-day Lenin! Words can only fail to comment on such nonsense.

Of course, the Westerner leaders are not in a position to criticize Putin for the mercenary armies he creates to promote his foreign policy, because they do the same.

But the Left internationally can and must stand up to Putin, denouncing his regime, just as it must denounce NATO and the Zelensky regime, which is just as undemocratic and corrupt as Putin’s. There is a serious mistake made by those sections of the Left that support Putin in the war in Ukraine because of his opposition to NATO, underestimating the reactionary nature of this regime.

The Left ought to side neither with Putin, nor with Zelensky and NATO! This is the only correct position to take. Against Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and in favour of the right to self-determination of the Russophone populations in eastern Ukraine; and against the expansion of NATO in the former Eastern Bloc countries.

Since the Left is not in a position to influence the actual course of the war, all it can do is to state the political positions that represent its principles. To explain what it would do if it were in a position to influence developments. Precisely because there is no such consistent, mass anti-capitalist Left, in Russia, Ukraine and internationally, the Russian people, the Ukrainian people, the Russophone people in Ukraine, especially the youth, are paying an unimaginable blood price, with hundreds of thousands of dead so far.

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