On 23 June, I visited the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, in the agency’s compound located in a secluded peninsula on the Dnieper river in Kyiv. Russian propaganda had recently declared the wartime commander dead or lying in a coma at a German hospital. But when I met him, he was in good health, sporting a shaved head and preparing to leave Kyiv on a new, unannounced mission.
His team showed me the damage done to one of the buildings by Iranian drones on 29 May, the attack in which Budanov had reportedly lost his life. It was minimal.
We discussed several urgent subjects related to the war, from the Nord Stream bombing in September 2022 to the risks of a nuclear terrorist attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Then Budanov bid me goodbye with an enigmatic sentence: “Putin has already lost control.”
Three hours later, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the private military contractor Wagner Group, announced on social media that the Russian army had just bombed one of his camps, and that he intended to drive a military column to the army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a port town about 1,000km south of Moscow, to punish the military leadership in a “march for justice”. Shortly after midnight on 24 June, Wagner troops crossed from Ukraine into Russia, facing no resistance from border guards. Prigozhin mockingly proclaimed his troops had been received as liberators. “Border guards were coming to us and greeting our troops,” he wrote on Telegram.
Russia was being invaded for the first time since Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By Russians. It soon became clear that Wagner was heading for Moscow with the kind of speed that Napoleon and Hitler only dreamed of.
When the group halted its advance, it was only 200km from the capital. The Russian army, which started the war as the second most powerful in the world and was then degraded to second in Ukraine, now seemed capable of winning only an honourable second place inside Russia itself. The National Guard, the Moscow regiments and the security services seemed to ask of Prigozhin, “Do you want the state?” There was also no great revulsion at the prospect of a Wagner revolution among a Russian public too anaesthetised by years of Vladimir Putin’s rule to feel strongly about anything.
Why did Prigozhin launch his vertiginous assault and why did he stop?
The answer to the first question is straightforward. On 10 June, the defence minister Sergei Shoigu issued a directive ordering all “volunteer detachments” to sign contracts with his ministry by the end of June. It spelled the end of Wagner. In the prison language favoured by its fighters, the group would be moved from blackness to redness, from the underworld, beyond state power, to the world of rules and administration. The paramilitary group, first created in 2014 to operate in Crimea and the Donbas and designed as a hidden branch of the Russian state, would be absorbed by its creator. Its lucrative activities in Africa would now be captured by the ruling bureaucracy. Prigozhin had three weeks to prevent that outcome and he started preparing a rebellion immediately. “Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu,” he declared on 11 June. Ukrainian intelligence officials have since told me that they had been aware of Wagner’s plans for almost two weeks before they were enacted.
Despite Prigozhin’s protestations against Shoigu’s directive, Putin did not intervene. Yet Prigozhin must have felt confident that he could force Putin’s hand. No one better than the Wagner boss knows the calamitous state of the Russian forces. Losses in Ukraine have been monumental, morale has collapsed, and reserves have been mobilised to stop the Ukrainian offensive. Many within the army were sympathetic to Prigozhin’s criticisms of how the war had been conducted. The “march for justice” was pitched in prison language as being about ponyatiya, “principles” which the military leadership has failed to demonstrate in combat: truth, courage, honesty. It was a rebellion from the margins of society and led by “thieves in law” – legalised thieves or “thieves who have become the law”.
The Kremlin authorities had been negotiating with Prigozhin since the evening of 23 June, when Wagner launched its expeditionary campaign. Russian sources with knowledge of events told me that Anton Vaino, the head of the presidential administration, spoke with Prigozhin on the morning of 24 June when he was already in Rostov. The Wagner chief most likely expected Putin to travel to Rostov and meet with him and Shoigu, but the defence minister was nowhere to be seen and Putin was preparing to make a statement that compared Prigozhin to Lenin and promised swift punishment for “those who chose the path of betrayal”.
Prigozhin is no Lenin, nor should his desperate gamble be regarded as an attempted coup. A better historical analogy is Yemalyan Pugachev, the ataman of the Yaik Cossacks and leader of the eponymous rebellion, an uprising that emerged from the provinces against the reign of Catherine the Great, and culminated in 1775 when Pugachev was decapitated and quartered in a Moscow square. The purpose of Prigozhin’s rebellion was to resist the subjugation of Wagner – the source of Prigozhin’s security and power, without which he cannot survive. There was little chance that Wagner could overwhelm the forces loyal to the Kremlin and bring all the main centres of Russian power – the leadership of the armed forces, the security services, the oligarchs and the technocrats – to his side.
But although Prigozhin recoiled from the risks of an armed clash on the banks of the river Oka, Putin was just as afraid of rolling the dice. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, when pushed against the wall, Putin did not lash out or become more dangerous. Rather, he became amenable to compromise and negotiation, focused on salvaging his position. The events of 24 June should be regarded as a laboratory test for understanding Putin and his regime and inform Western actions for what remains of the war in Ukraine.
By the time Wagner was approaching the Oka, where a line of fortifications had been improvised, a deal had been reached. To all evidence, Prigozhin got most of what he wanted. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced the criminal case opened against him would be dropped and his troops were no longer legally obliged to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defence. Prigozhin apparently agreed to settle in Belarus, although this seems rather immaterial to whether Wagner will survive and to what its leader plans to do in the future. It is far from confirmed either. On 25 June, I messaged Budanov, the Ukrainian spymaster, to ask him if he thought Wagner will survive. His reply: “We know – yes.”
[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]
In a barely coherent speech delivered on the evening of 26 June, Putin claimed the rebellion could have been suppressed. No one should doubt it, least of all by looking at his decision to not to suppress it. Seemingly unaware of how pitiful the explanation sounded, he added that the state’s lack of reaction was only to give the rebel troops a chance to think. Finally, and after suggesting that the plot had been organised by Ukraine as revenge for the halted offensive, the sitting president, gaunt and puffing, told the rebel troops they were free to join rebel chief Prigozhin in Belarus.
Imagine that an armed group in Texas or Yunnan launched a march on Washington or Beijing, announcing everything in advance on social media in messages laced with prison slang and threats to destroy everything in their way. Imagine further that the group quickly advances to the environs of the capital, while the central army authorities scramble to destroy motorways as a last resort to stop the marauders. On its way, the group shoots down a few helicopters and aeroplanes. Finally, as it approaches the seat of power, Washington or Beijing are forced to sign an armistice. As a Russian user joked on Twitter, “today we found out that, God forbid, if Nato attacks us, the most we will be able to do is to dig out the asphalt”. The former Belarusian presidential candidate Valery Tsepkalo commented: “Only unfamiliar and unknown individuals emerged to address the people, and everyone laughed at them wholeheartedly. It seemed as [if] nobody was governing the country.”
The truth is out: there is no Russian state. There is a theatrical production called the Russian state, but for how long the production will run remains to be seen. As the Wagner tanks occupied the main roads in Rostov, a street sweeper was asked by a video blogger what he made of the situation. “Everything is going according to plan,” he said, sweeping some cigarette butts into the dustpan. It summarised the state of Russia in hilarious fashion.
Prigozhin may well be assassinated in coming days, but a network of hidden assassins is no way to run a modern state. An armed rebellion forced a form of power sharing in Russia. Putin cannot hide that. He tried to repress the mutiny in authoritarian fashion but was forced to drop the idea mid-course and, what is genuinely catastrophic for him, did so after announcing in a televised speech that no mercy would be countenanced. The power vertical crumbled. The Cossacks ran free. By Sunday 25 June, gossip rumbled throughout Russia that Putin had folded. It reminded me of a famous line in the 1973 Soviet comedy film Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession: “The army rebelled! They say the tsar is fake!”
“Do you think it is real?” the receptionist at my hotel in Kyiv asked when I returned on the night of 23 June. The streets were full of young people enjoying the summer weather and for the first time since the war started the capital felt normal to me. There were loud explosions over the city sky during the night, but the air defence has improved remarkably. In the meantime, Moscow saw military and police vehicles blocking main intersections and roads. It was a symbol of change. Ukrainians were hoarding popcorn to follow the weekend events.
The next day, at the Kyiv book fair, there were theories and predictions for every taste. Small groups gathered on every corner. When the foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba arrived for his talk, the crowd cheered him like a rock star. The mood was febrile, revolutionary. The soldiers, the streets, the writers, all coming together. Everyone had a vivid sense the wheels of history were moving, faster this time. Ukrainians believe those revolutions will be for the good.
[See also: Death and literature in Ukraine]
In a story about power and betrayal, a parable may help. In one of the most intriguing tales in Don Quixote a young man married to a beautiful woman of high birth cannot help thinking that her virtue is not as real as her beauty because it has not been tested. The only true virtue is that which has been forced to prove itself. As he tells his best friend, “what thanks are due to a woman for being good if nobody is asking her to be bad?” He wants his wife to be tested – pursued by temptation and offered the chance to resist it. His friend tries to dissuade him: if someone had a diamond which every expert agreed was perfect, would it be reasonable to place it between anvil and hammer and deal it blow after blow in order to see if it is truly as good as we think? If the stone passes the test, it will not become any more excellent than it already is. And if it is destroyed, if it turns out to be fake, all is lost, and through our own fault. It is inappropriate, he says, to perform “experiments on truth itself”. Do not expose yourself to the risk of destruction to gain what you already have. His friend listens in silence. He knows the danger, but he is unable to resist the temptation. The adventure starts. It will end in tragedy.
Think of Putin as someone who, in his sober moments, had his own doubts about how solid the foundations of the Russian state and of his own power truly were. Should he believe the official propaganda and the stories told by his numerous courtiers? I am convinced he so desperately wanted to believe them that he launched the war on Ukraine to prove to himself and the world that Russia and the Russian leader were as strong as he kept telling everyone they were. War was the test, but what it revealed was a crumbling state and a crumbling empire, whose final hour now inevitably approaches.
As the Ukrainian offensive gains speed, more and more of the rot at the core of the Russian army and the Russian state is being exposed. It is the war that has made any attempt at obfuscation essentially impossible. Its consequences can hardly be kept outside Russia’s borders. As the prospect of a military defeat begins to loom, many like Prigozhin are slowly moving to the sidelines and preparing themselves for the recriminations and purges that must inevitably follow. Do you want to go down with the sinking ship or save yourself for the day after? Internal conflict feeds back to further weaken the war effort, in a vicious circle.
Ukrainian officials have told me over the past few months that their priority is to control this circle and increase its motion through increased pressure on the battlefield. If Putin is too weak to win the war in Ukraine, then he must be too weak to crush the internal pressures to defy the power vertical, the political hierarchy. “They say the tsar is fake!”
[See also: Can Ukraine win the war?]
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia