The March on the Kremlin
by Israel Shamir on 18 Jul 2023 0 Comment

Russian generals are similar to the US generals depicted in Catch-22, the jolly novel by Joseph Heller: quarrelling, arrogant, caring more about their position and reputation than about the war. They too make their fighters fly more missions, perhaps leading their careers to greater glory. Fighters get killed, but who cares? They were greedy, too, and ready to bomb their own airfields if the enemy paid them enough to do it. The Russian general Ivan Popov was very popular with his troops for his panache, but he was forced out by general Gerasimov, the Head of General Staff.


Wagner PMC head Eugene Prigozhin, the hero of Bakhmut, needed ammo, but Shoygu from the MoD lusted after another medal (to add to the 60 he has already amassed), and ammo for the Wagner group was not a priority for him. Prigozhin marched with his army to the gates of Moscow to get Putin’s attention, which he got – along with his ammo after some delay. Some journalists accused Prigozhin of mutiny, but instead he was given millions in roubles and dollars, gold and guns that were taken from him in the aftermath of his escapade. Foreign minister Mr Lavrov described the event as peredryaga, meaning trouble, mess, or confusion. General Popov also wants to speak to Putin, to explain himself, but he has no soldiers to march with him.


Both Popov and Prigozhin openly criticized the way Mr Shoygu of the MoD, and General Gerasimov, his head of Staff, are managing the war in Ukraine. But some US officials and the Russian pro-Western opposition preferred to call their criticism a coup d’état. So many people wanted this coup to happen that now it is difficult to claim it was a nothing-burger. Let’s examine in detail what happened between the Russian state, the General Staff, the Ministry of Defence and the proprietor of Wagner PMC, Mr Prigozhin.


Prigozhin is a Russian billionaire and entrepreneur. He did some catering for the Kremlin (a position of great trust), then delivered meals to schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and lately has expanded into media operations. He established the so-called Troll Factory: a major source of influence in Russian social media. Before this, it was the Western intelligence services that ruled supreme in Russian social media, be it Facebook, Instagram or VK.


Prigozhin’s Trolls were able to quickly counteract the efforts of Western propaganda warriors, and as a result he became close to Putin personally. Around 2015, he moved from commanding internet trolls to commanding real warriors: he established a private military company called Wagner, after the nickname of its co-founder. They fought for Russia in many countries – in Africa, in Syria, in Latin America. At some point, the Russian state turned to them for help.


The head of the General Staff, General Gerasimov personally addressed Mr Prigozhin, and asked him to take part in the Ukraine War. Wagner initially participated in the battle for Popasnaya (Lugansk People Republic). Prigozhin was proud to fight a heroic war for the sake of victory and the glory so desired by men, but after more than a year of fighting Prigozhin could see that the Russian army was not in a hurry for victory. The war seemed designed to achieve a stalemate, not conquest.


The real reason behind the delay is that the Ukrainian resistance was a surprise for Russians. Before the war, they thought it would take a few days. That the Ukrainians won’t fight. That the West wouldn’t supply weapons. Even such knowledgeable and wise people as Anatoly Wasserman thought it would be over in a few days; they only wondered would it be a three-day war, or a four-day war? Putin also had unrealistic expectations of a rapid victory. When the Russian generals saw that this was not going to happen, they began to withdraw South, and they deliberately left expensive military equipment behind them as they retreated. I was told by knowledgeable people that this was a US trap set for Putin.


Here the big dichotomy of Russian politics began to play an important part. There are Yeltsinites and Patriots. An experienced man at the top of the administrative ladder, Shoygu was a Yeltsinite. He was close to Yeltsin, managed his re-election in 1996, led the ruling party, and became a minister in 1992 while Yeltsin was the president and Putin was as yet nobody in St Petersburg. Shoygu was a minister for Emergency Situations (EMERCOM), and later he was selected as Minister of Defence. At thirty-two years in the government, he holds an absolute record. Shoygu is a personal friend of President Putin. So is Mr Abramovich, the oligarch.


Yet both Shoygu and Abramovich hold very different views from Mr Putin. Putin seeks Russia’s greatness and independence. On the other hand, Yeltsinites like Shoygu would prefer Russia to be defeated and quietly returned to the Neoliberal policies of Yeltsin’s days. Still, Putin is a man of his word and once upon a time he promised Yeltsin that he would safeguard the Yeltsinites, so he could not easily dismiss Shoygu, even if his war management was atrocious.


There is a growing opinion that Shoygu assisted the US in their plans to mislead Putin and trap him in the quagmire of the Ukraine. In not entirely unrelated news, Shoygu is considering the run for presidency in 2024 to supplant Putin. Alternatively, the post of President might be occupied by other pro-Western officials: by the Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin, or similar figures. All the work done by Putin would be undone, and Russia would return to the days of Yeltsin. Prigozhin would prefer Putin do at least one more term, else he himself might compete for the patriotic electorate.


The role of PMC Wagner in this war has changed unexpectedly. Instead of acting as a special group of assault troops to provide victory in the most crucial battles, the Wagner group has more and more become an infantry unit, albeit a special one, but infantry assigned to trench warfare all the same. What was worse – instead of thanking them for this – they were turned into perpetual beggars for armaments.


In the logic of Prigozhin, this is very strange. If you were called up for military service and asked to shoulder the burden, one shouldn’t have to march to beg for ammunition, getting nothing but excuses and squabbles. In this sense, he considered himself deceived. Furthermore – not an unimportant aspect – is the question of profit. After all, the businessman (including the patriotic businessman) still understands that he must earn money to be able to feed his army. And this was the case for the Wagner group: Prigozhin made sure that his soldiers were fed and dressed. In contrast, the soldiers under the MoD were poorly fed and even worse clad. They had to apply to kind-hearted grannies for socks and underwear.


The generals had stolen the army budget and provided for themselves, while soldiers were unkempt and uncared for. Wagner group soldiers were well provided for, except when it came to Russian arms and ammunition. The MoD had no intention of sharing their armaments with the Wagner group, and Prigozhin began to worry that there was nothing left to share: he suspected that the generals had sold their stores of weapons to enlarge their profits. Moreover, Prigozhin understood (after his previous conflicts with MoD and their squabbles over armaments) that no matter what he did, he was going to be framed as the bad guy.


Next came the story of the new contract. The MoD tried to form a PMC of their own, but it was unsuccessful. Then the minister decided to appropriate the Wagner group. Prigozhin’s fighters were told to sign a contract with the MoD. Prigozhin recognized this as a blatant attempt to steal the Wagner group out from under him. His glorious force would be sent to die in the trenches, and Prigozhin would be kicked out. He complained that he did not apply for a position with the MoD. He rightly considered that his own Wagner group was a wonderful unit to be deployed strategically even in the most dangerous places, but it was not to be wasted in trench warfare. He felt he was deceived and misused by Minister of Defence Shoygu and by his Chief of Staff General Gerasimov.


It is not the first time Prigozhin had a problem with Mr Shoygu. In March 2016, in Syria, he was asked to help and take Palmyra, an important position in the desert. He took it, and passed it back to Syrian/Russian forces; but in December 2016, as a result of a surprise attack, a tiny ISIS force recaptured Palmyra, and the garrison placed by the Russian MoD fled the city, leaving huge stockpiles of weapons, ammunition and equipment – and even cooked food in the dining room! Russian forces could not retake Palmyra, and once again they turned to the Wagner group, which was able to recapture the city in March 2017.


Despite the fact that Wagner did not brag about his military successes, Shoygu was embittered with hatred. His opportunity for revenge appeared in less than a year. In February 2018, the Wagner group, with the consent of Assad, decided to “squeeze out” the pro-American Kurds from Conoco’s large refinery near the village of Hasham in the province of Deir ez-Zor. Knowing that the Kurdish defences were covered by the US Air Force, Prigozhin agreed in advance with the Russian command in Syria to have his operation covered by Russian air defence (armed with S-300 and Panzyr) and their full cooperation was promised to him.


On the night of February 7-8, 2018, the Wagner group attacked the Conoco plant. The Pentagon immediately contacted Shoygu by direct special line: “Are these yours?” – to which the Americans received the unambiguous answer “No”. After that, the American HIMARS, Apache helicopters and the AC-130 flying battery attacked Prigozhin’s soldiers. The Wagner group suffered the largest (before Ukraine) losses in its history – 334 killed and about 700 wounded. According to Prigozhin, by Shoygu’s order the entire air defence unit was withdrawn and the liaison officers cut off their communication lines with the Wagner group.


Much later, when it was time for the generals to hand out medals to their troops, Prigozhin walked in. He asked Shoygu: “Can I talk with you about the situation that occurred on February 8 under Deir ez-Zor?” Shoygu turned, calmly and arrogantly answered: “Did you want to act a hero? All the heroes are here in this room” – and he waved his hands to indicate all the officers in their splendid formal uniforms – “and you just lost your bearings.”


This is the way Prigozhin told it. According to the Russian side, Shoygu could not hope to defeat the Americans and so he cut a deal with them. In the first Russian reports, all participation of Wagner group was flatly denied. In the Wikipedia, there are a few versions of the encounter. Yet another version is given in the New York Times. In any case, the Wagner group was badly beaten and relations between Prigozhin and Shoygu were permanently spoiled.


After the battle for Bakhmut it became even worse, if that were possible. The MoD did not reply to Wagner group telephone calls, and they were given none of the armaments they needed. Prigozhin worried that if the Wagner group was thrown onto the frontlines, it would now be only for suicide missions, beyond his normal issues with shells, lines of communications and other supply difficulties.


Thus, the rebellion of June 24, 2023 is not a sudden madness of Prigozhin, but only the next stage of an old confrontation. This feud is not just between Shoygu and Prigozhin (although here the personal factor takes precedence), but can be traced much deeper – between the Ministry of Defence and GU (Military Intelligence). Formally the GU is subordinated to the Ministry of Defence, yet practically it has always been and continues to be “a ministry within the ministry”, pursuing its own policies for its own ends.


Prigozhin, from his point of view, has completed his tasks, capitalised on his image, and attacked his adversaries. His was no rebellion; he planned no seizure of power from the start. He proved his loyalty to the president Putin. Though Putin’s enemies have trapped him in the Ukrainian quagmire, Prigozhin proved that his men are still the president’s storm troopers. Prigozhin has consistently completed all the tasks set before him brilliantly. Those on the outside who observe the implementation of Prigozhin’s operations, may (I suppose) differ on the correctness or incorrectness of his actions.


I do not have any behind-the-scenes or secret information about the motivations of all the participants in these controversies, but I expect that, in addition to what we observe on television screens and on the Internet, each of these parties has his own private motive. For example, the battlefield tactics of respected generals like Surovikin or Alekseev were naturally constrained by preventive measures to avoid collusions with Prigozhin, and were not intended to influence or injure the Wagner group. Military delays are not always incompetence; often they are tactical moves designed to solidify positions. With any such complex behind-the-scenes gambits, each of the public participants (including those whom we cannot see) have their own reasoning and goals.


What do we mean when we say “Prigozhin went to Belarus”, asked Andrew Pinchuk, the author of Clausewitz and Emptiness, the book approved by Prigozhin? He removed himself from the controversy. Furthermore, he stepped up into international space. Tomorrow, the presidents and leaders of at least two or three dozen different countries – Asian, African, Latin American, Central American and, I think, some European will line up at the ASEAN conference. At the same time, because of all the news swirling around both Prigozhin himself and the agency headed by him, the Wagner group is now the most famous non-state paramilitary brand in the world. And what will it be called next? PMC Wagner? PMC Asia? PMC Global? No, we cannot say that Wagner ceased to exist. I think we need to say that Wagner got a new life.


The story of General Popov is quite different. This brave general has been squashed by the MoD. It was said the reason was his harsh critique of general Shoygu. But there is another plausible explanation. A unit under the command of general Popov succeeded in seizing intact one of Britain’s most prized missiles, called “Storm Shadow”. Instead of being congratulated, the unit was punished, and general Popov promptly retired. It is possible that the MoD intended to use the Storm Shadow in a different way. Popov’s soldiers had delivered it to a scientific institute for studies. Did Shoygu and Gerasimov want to return it to the UK? Or were they just upset that the missile went to the institute connected with Mr Rogozin, former head of Russian Space Research?


It could be; Russia is a new Byzantine Realm, full of complicated intrigues. Meanwhile, the rapidity of the Popov dismissal shows that Yeltsinites are as powerful as ever and President Putin continues to follow their disastrous advice. As he says, he does not want to act under pressure. But even the laughing-stock generals from Catch-22 won the war that is WWII. So will the Russian generals, or rather Russian soldiers.


Courtesy Israel Shamir; Edited by Paul Bennett.

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