Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader the Wagner group, has ended his siege of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and turned around his march on Moscow. It is not clear what happened nor what was staged and what was real. Each expert and commentator offers a different expert commentary.
To the West, the event was an attempted coup that revealed the cracks in the Russian government and military that left Putin badly weakened. Others say it was not really an attempted coup at all and that a still calm Putin quickly and decisively ended the crisis with little bloodshed.
It is impossible to say at this stage, before a lot more information becomes known, what really happened. There are at least four possible theories, and probably many more.
It Was Exactly What it Looked Like
The first possible explanation is that the event was exactly what it looked like. According to this explanation, and increasingly erratic Prigozhin, outraged by an alleged attack on his forces by the Russian military or by corruption in the Russian elite or by a fierce rivalry with the Russian Ministry of Defense and top generals, said enough and marched on Moscow to stop it.
However, his protest failed when two things happened. The first is that General Sergei Surovikin remained loyal to Putin. Surovikin is a respected general who is even respected by Prigozhin. In demanding the removal of Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Prigozhin had nominated Surovikin to replace him. In a video appeal, Surovikin said, "I urge you to stop. The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to worsen in our country. Before it is too late, it is necessary and it is needed to obey the will and order of the popularly elected President of the Russian Federation." No one in the Russian military, government or security services defected to Prigozhin.
The second is that the rebellion may have been a lot smaller than portrayed. There may not have been 25,000 troops ready to march on Moscow as Prigozhin boasted. Prigozhin seized Rostov-on-Don; his troops may have been deceived. There are reports, that may or may not be reliable, that Prigozhin informed his forces that they were being routed through Rostov on the way to defend Belgorod, the city that had come under Ukrainian attack. Most of his troops may not have known that they were turning on Putin and the Russian military and occupying Rostov. When they realized what they were being used to do, they rebelled against the rebellion. The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement claiming that a large part of the Wagner force laid down their arms and left. According to several reports, no Wagner commanders or officers joined the rebellion.
As the rebellion unfolded, Prigozhin may have been revealed as a Wizard of Oz.
Getting Rid of an Increasingly Troublesome Prigozhin
A second theory is that Prigozhin was not getting rid of Putin, Putin was getting rid of Prigozhin. The respected former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar has suggested the "possibility . . . that Russian intelligence gave him a long rope to hang himself."
According to this theory, Putin took advantage of Prigozhin’s betrayal to put an end to his betrayal. Putin may have allowed the situation to unfold to set up the negotiations that would separate a volatile Prigozhin from a valuable Wagner while putting an end to Wagner as an independent mercenary force and incorporating into the Ministry of Defense. There are even unconfirmed reports that the Kremlin allowed the march on Moscow. According to one unconfirmed video, for at least a small part of the way, the Wagner convoy was escorted by Russian police. Of course, it cannot yet be known how much of this is true.
Putin Was Working with Prigozhin
Prigozhin has had an intense and bitter rivalry with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has been publicly attacking them in his speeches for weeks. Putin is very close to Shoigu, but he may also have become dissatisfied with Shoigu and Gerasimov.
At a recent meeting with war correspondents and military bloggers for a question and answer session at the Kremlin, Putin referred to "parquet" generals and "carpet knights" who in time of actual war "are ineffective, to put it mildly."
It has been pointed out that Putin stood back for a long time, not getting personally involved in Prigozhin’s very public dispute with Shoigu and Gerasimov, potentially allowing the rift to come to a head before stepping in and quickly and efficiently ending it.
Permitting a desired outcome to unfold through the agency of others would not be atypical of Putin nor look out of place on his long resume. Putin may have permitted the Prigozhin insurrection to put pressure on Shoigu and Gerasimov without having to initiate it or directly involve himself.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that there will be no personnel changes, but there are unconfirmed rumors that the two men targeted by Prigozhin could be vulnerable. It would be consistent with Putin’s leadership style, which is risk averse to creating enemies, to wait a time and then, not eliminate Shoigu or Gerasimov, but move them to new positions.
It Was a Western Supported Coup
The fourth, and most sinister, theory is that the whole thing was a Western backed coup. The counteroffensive is going very badly. If the goal could not be achieved through overt means, perhaps the shift in strategy was made to covert means.
Prigozhin is, by definition, mercenary. Could he be induced to switch sides if the Russian brass was out to remove him, if the Wagner group was about to be incorporated into the military and if there was suitable reward?
It is interesting that Prigozhin’s tale of the mutiny changed. He originally said that the entire reason for the rebellion was that his forces were attacked by the Russian military. But when he negotiated an end to the rebellion, his stated reason changed. Now the sole reason was that “They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner." On June 14, Putin enforced Shoigus’ order that all volunteer units have to sign contracts with the military by saying that Russian "volunteer detachments" fighting in Ukraine had to be quickly placed under the direct control of the Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin refused to give up his Wagner force.
Prigozhin’s initial story may have been staged as an excuse to launch a coup.
Former President and current deputy chairman of the Russian security council Dmitry Medvedev has reportedly released a statement that it is likely that Western intelligence services were working with Prigozhin. On June 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia’s security services are investigating whether Western or Ukrainian intelligence services were involved in the rebellion. There were Western reports in May, which were denied by Prigozhin, that he had offered Ukraine intelligence, with whom he was alleged to have maintained secret communications, information on Russian troop locations in exchange for Ukraine withdrawing forces from Bakhmut.
A number of sources, including Bhadrakumar, say that the Kremlin is angry because Prigozhin "has been manipulated by western powers."
CNN has reported that US intelligence was aware of Prigozhin’s intentions. They report that US officials remained quiet to avoid giving Putin the ammunition to accuse the US of being involved in the coup. The New York Times goes further, saying US intelligence briefed military and Biden administration officials that Prigozhin was preparing military action against senior Russian defense officials. The Times adds that the US "clearly had little interest in helping Mr. Putin avoid a major, embarrassing fracturing of his support."
But, despite the decision to say nothing, the US must also have been worried that the erratic and hard to control Prigozhin might take over a nuclear armed country at a time of war, as The Times suggested: especially since he has been critical of the Russian military’s reluctance to go further. One reason to be unconcerned about an uncontrollable leader, though, would be if you were controlling him.
US President Joe Biden has denied that the US or NATO had any involvement in the rebellion: "We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within Russian system."
There is very little reliable information at this point. The events in Russia were certainly confusing. These are four possible theories about what happened. There are likely many more.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.