Is the US Taking Advantage of the Prigozhin Coup?

Following the attempted coup in Russia carried out by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group, US President Joe Biden "made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”

It is not quite so clear that Russian officials believe him. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Russia’s security services are investigating whether Western or Ukrainian intelligence services were involved in the rebellion. Former President and current deputy chairman of the Russian security council Dmitry Medvedev released a statement that it is likely that Western intelligence services were working with Prigozhin.

It is very unclear what happened in Russia that day. But whether or not the US, Ukraine or other Western intelligence services were working with Prigozhin or actively involved in the rebellion, there are other ways to be complicit in a coup. Before the coup, you can enable it by not sharing intelligence that it is being planned; after the coup, you can take advantage of it with information or disinformation that exploits or creates cracks.

Because what happened in Russia is so unclear, what is happening in response in Washington is unclear. But it would be concerning if the US was taking advantage of the attempted coup.

One thing that has become clear is that US intelligence knew in advance that Prigozhin was planning some sort of rebellious military action. CNN reported that US intelligence was aware of Prigozhin’s planning "for quite some time" and that they saw signs of the preparations, including the massing of weapons and ammunition. The New York Times reported that US intelligence briefed military and Biden administration officials that Prigozhin was preparing military action against senior Russian defense officials. But both CNN and The Times say that they did not brief Moscow.

Two reasons for the decision not to inform Moscow are given. Both CNN and The Times report that the motivation was to prevent Putin from weaponizing US knowledge to imply US involvement. The Times adds the second motivation that the US "clearly had little interest in helping Mr. Putin avoid a major, embarrassing fracturing of his support."

But both explanations are troubling. Not sharing the intelligence with Moscow may create the appearance that the US was not involved. But it also risks, if that lack of sharing becomes known, as it very quickly did, creating the appearance of complicity. And it is complicity. What better way could there have been to demonstrate a lack of complicity in a coup – if you really don’t want it to happen – than to inform Moscow of the intended coup?

The second explanation makes that complicity clear. The US didn’t share the intelligence because – whether or not they thought the mutiny could succeed – they didn’t want to help Putin avoid, at least, the embarrassment.

The denial of knowledge of the coup planning was intended to prevent the appearance that there was complicity; the revelation of the knowledge of the coup planning appears to confirm that there was.

The charge of enabling could be upgraded to involvement if information in the Discord intelligence leaks turn out to be true that Prigozhin had offered Ukrainian intelligence, with whom he was alleged to have maintained secret communications, information on Russian troop locations in exchange for Ukraine withdrawing forces from Bakhmut. If confirmed, such reports would suggest that Prigozhin was collaborating with Western intelligence.

Whether or not the US was involved before the coup, they seem to be taking advantage after the coup. As The Times says, the US has an interest in embarrassing Putin and fracturing his support. Hence the many statements insisting, rightly or wrongly, that Prigozhin’s march reveals the cracks in the Russian military and the weakened position of Putin in Russian politics.

There is also the oddity of one of Prigozhin’s statements just before his rebellion in which he repeated the West’s claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked. He said that “There was nothing extraordinary happening on the eve of February 24. The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO block. The special operation was started for a completely different reason.” What was the real reason? "The war was needed … so that Shoigu could become a marshal, … so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal. The war wasn’t needed to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine."

It is odd that Prigozhin, in the days leading up to his rebellion, was reading off the Western script. It is especially odd since Prigozhin is no supporter of Shoigu – indeed, the removal of Shoigu was one of his key demands – but has been a leading supporter of the war. Prigozhin has called, not for Russia to end the war, but for Russia to fight it more aggressively.

The West has repeated this rejection of Putin’s narrative uncritically, reinforcing the already set public doubt of Putin’s claims of provocation. As if Putin was deceived by an ambitious politician and had not been issuing warnings – along with Yeltsin and Gorbachev before him – about NATO expansion into Ukraine and demilitarization for decades.

The Western media has also shifted a key piece of the narrative to reframe loyalty to Putin at the highest levels to disloyalty to Putin at the highest levels, suggesting instability and cracks and a weakening of Putin’s hold on government.

Prigozhin’s forces were small. Not only much smaller than Russian forces, but much smaller than the picture that he projected. His force of 25,000 was less than a third of that. He probably hoped, if the coup theory is correct – and we don’t even know that yet – that elements of the Russian military would defect to his side. One of the keys to that hoped for defection was General Sergei Surovikin. Surovikin is powerful, influential and respected: even by Prigozhin who, in demanding the removal of Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, nominated Surovikin to replace him.

But rather than defecting and taking part of the Russian army with him, Surovikin publicly condemned Prigozhin, stayed loyal to Putin and implored Prigozhin’s mutineers to lay down their arms. 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.”

Many expert commentators see this public appeal as a decisive moment in the rebellion. Many of the Wagner forces, when they realized they were in rebellion against the Russian government and military, reportedly laid down their arms and left. As far as is known at this point, no one in the Russian military, government or security services defected to Prigozhin. No Wagner commanders or officers joined the rebellion.

But the Western media has retold this story to undermine the loyalty narrative and recast Surovikin as the traitor and not the savior.The New York Times accepted the role of lead writer.

On June 27, The Times reported that, according to US officials, Surovikin "had advance knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to rebel against Russia’s military leadership." Despite the richness of the innuendo, of course he had advance knowledge of the rebellion. Everyone at his level of command had advance knowledge of the rebellion. That’s how they made the plans to quickly and effectively stop it. Knowledge does not imply involvement.

The Times, engaging in implication rather than reporting, then says that US officials "are trying to learn if Surovikin "helped plan Mr. Prigozhin’s actions." That the US is trying to learn if he did does not mean that he did. Nor is it a "sign" that Russian generals "may" have supported Prigozhin, as The Times claims, that Prigozhin "would not have launched his uprising unless he believed that others in positions of power would come to his aid." He likely did believe that. He was likely wrong.

Employing the word "if" as the foundation of their reporting, The Times then serves up the whole point of the innuendo: "If General Surovikin was involved in last weekend’s events, it would be the latest sign of . . . a wider fracture" in the Russian military and government.

Later in the article, The Times says that the US officials "emphasized that much of what the United States and its allies know is preliminary." The reporters go on to say, "Still, American officials have an interest in pushing out information that undermines the standing of General Surovikin."

Days later, reports broke that Surovikin had been arrested. Many outlets, including The Times, picked up the story. Surovikin, several media outlets reported, has not appeared in public; though his daughter reportedly claims this is untrue and that he is "at his work location." Stating that the "circumstances surrounding the status of the general, Sergei Surovikin, are still very murky" and that "the reports were not conclusive," The Times reports that Surovikin "appear[s] to have [been] detained." What is not often reported is that Surovikin seems to have been detained before The New York Times reported that he knew of the rebellion in advance.

The report then says that "American officials would not say – or do not know – if he was formally arrested or just held for questioning." That’s a big difference.

Maybe Surovikin has been arrested and maybe he hasn’t. But the story is being used to take advantage of the coup to exploit or create cracks with information or disinformation. Surovikin may have disappeared, and he may have been detained. But if he has been called in for questioning or debriefing that is normal and not news. If he has been called in for interrogation because he is suspected of participating in the rebellion, that is news. But since US officials "do not know," the headlines and the story seem to be being framed in such a way as to imply cracks and a weakening of Putin’s position.

Weakening Putin’s position may seem to be obviously desirable. However, there are many reasons why removing Putin could lead to a worse alternative for the West. A little discussed one is that the removal of Putin could lead to a replacement with a more hardline foreign policy toward the West. In line behind Putin are hardliners who pushed Putin to go further in 2014 and annex not only Crimea but the Donbas. Putin has been more a restrainer than a hardliner. The leader who emerges victorious from a coup, like Prigozhin, could be a worse hardliner.

It is still very unclear what happened that day in Russia. Time may tell if Biden is telling the truth that the US "had nothing to do with" the coup or if Russian concerns are warranted that they did. But whether they did or whether they didn’t, there are other ways to be complicit in a coup. The US may have been guilty of such complicity before the coup attempt by not sharing intelligence with Russia that the coup was taking shape. And they may be being complicit after the coup attempt by disseminating information or disinformation that exploits or creates cracks that could weaken the Putin government.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.