Putin is in Charge … Until He is Not
I grew up in Chicago in the era of movie-style shoot ‘em up gangsters. We always considered it good news when mobsters knocked each other off. I was reminded of that seeing the recent conflict between two of the world’s most evil and ruthless gangsters – Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Wagner Group Commander Yevgeny Prigozhin. There are no good guys in that confrontation – only the possibility of a good outcome.
Like the old Chicago Mafia wars both Putin and Prigozhin preside over criminal organizations. In their pursuit of power or profit, both men are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands – arguably even millions. That have stolen and embezzled multi-billions of dollars in cash and valuables. They are both guilty of war crimes against humanity. They have both summarily murdered adversaries.
Prigozhin was once one of Putin’s most intimate trusted confidants inside the Kremlin. If that were not the case, the paranoid Putin would never have allowed Prigozhin to prepare his food.
It was under Putin’s sponsorship that Prigozhin was given the mandate and the resources to create the mercenary Wagner Group. It was to be Putin’s off-the-books military force. It served that purpose in Syria, Libya, central Africa and other locations – most notably in Ukraine.
The Wagner Group was composed of career soldiers and social misfits – many of whom were recruited out of prisons. In many ways, they were the dregs of society. Prigozhin, himself, is a convicted criminal and one of those indicted for the Russian meddling in the 2016 American election.
The Wagner Group was the military backbone for Putin’s ambition to take over Ukraine. Composed of dedicated and experienced fighters, the Wagner Group had the military competence and training that the conscripted and reluctant regular Russian soldiers lacked. Prigozhin’s Group was a key part of the separatist movement that took control of the Crimea and continued the military occupation of eastern Ukraine long before Putin’s invasion – and it was key to gaining initial ground during the invasion.
Over time, the relationship between them changed. First it was criticism of a corrupt Russian military establishment which – in Prigozhin’s judgment – were not serving Putin well. He claimed that his Wagner Group was not being adequately supported and supplied. Prigozhin avoided openly criticizing Putin because that is against the law in Russia – but a schism developed between Prigozhin and the top brass in Moscow.
The verbal warfare between Prigozhin in the field and the generals in the Kremlin expanded to incidents of military conflict. Prigozhin accused the Russian military of actually attacking his troops. The schism between Prigozhin and Putin resulted in Wagner Group pulling out of Bakhmut after gaining control of that city – predicting that the Russian troops would not be able to retain control. That seems to be the case in the face of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Prigozhin was literally surrendering the city back to Ukraine forces.
As unimaginable as it may seem, the rift between Putin and Prigozhin has arisen to the level of open warfare. The breaking point was a major attack by Russian troops on Prigozhin’s army – killing a large number of soldiers. Some analysts viewed it as the first round in an effort by Putin to destroy the Wagner Group and ultimately kill Prigozhin — who Putin has now declared to be an enemy of the state and a coup plotter.
In a recent speech, Putin accused Prigozhin of treason and promised to punish him and his soldiers. Prigozhin knows that Putin’s remarks are tantamount to a death sentence. The conflict between the two had become mortal combat.
The seriousness of Prigozhin’s threat seemed evident in the fact that Putin ordered what is left of his military inside Mother Russia to form a defensive line around Moscow – with tanks and troops surrounding the Kremlin. The Wagner Group was on the move – reaching just 25 miles from Moscow.
Nothing since the precipitous collapse of the old Soviet Union had taken the world by greater surprise then the recent turn of events inside Russia. It raised innumerable questions about Prigozhin’s ambition and ability. It forced a reassessment of Putin’s hold on power.
Within 24 hours, there was said to be a peace deal between Putin and Prigozhin – and the Wagner leaders ordered his troops to end their advance on the Kremlin. The Wagner Group would be absorbed into the regular Russian military and Prigozhin would exile himself in Belarus. Apparently, the deal was brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
The sudden about face by Prigozhin was as surprising as his Insurrection(?) … coup attempt (?) … or whatever it was.
The Prigozhin /Putin confrontation has ended, but it is not over. Is Prigozhin under investigation by the Putin government? Is Prigozhin “retiring” in Belarus … or re-grouping? Like a typical Mafioso, had Putin ordered his enforcers to take out Prigozhin?
And what about Putin himself. There seems to be a general consensus that Putin is significantly weakened – even to the point of being ousted from power. That may be more wishful thinking than solid intelligence analysis.
As of this moment, the threat to Putin from the Wagner Group is over. Prigozhin is a military leader without a military. Putin’s generals have not been replaced – as Prigozhin demanded. In fact, there were no defections by the Russian military or those surrounding Putin. With Prigozhin sidetracked, there seems to be no heir to lead the insurrection. There was no general uprising among the people.
So … was the march on Moscow the attempted launch of another Russian revolution or more of a Gilbert and Sullivan production. No one seems to know because no one has been able to explain why Prigozhin launched his insurrection – and why he ended it so unceremoniously.
But it has provided a benefit to the Ukrainians. The most effective military force on the Russian side of the invasion has descended into chaos and uncertainty – leaving the Russian military weakened and confused.
It could not have come at a better time for the Ukrainians – at the onset of the Spring counteroffensive. The Wagner Group is gone for now. The Russian military in Ukraine is in disarray. The Wagner Group’s withdrawal has resulted in a number of new “weak points” in the Russian line of defense.
To speculate on the potential of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, it is important to understand that the only thing slowing the advance of Zelenskyy’s military are physical defense barriers – essentially trenches and land mines. Without those, the Russian military would be routed from key locations fairly quickly.
There is every reason to believe that Putin will survive both his ill-conceived war in Ukraine and the rebellion from Prigozhin.
Many say that Putin is weakened – even to the point of political impotency. Some speculate on his ousting. However, nothing at the time of this writing suggest that Putin will not suffer any more serious consequences than he is having from his ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine. At this moment his grip on power is still firm. He is in charge – and will be until he isn’t.
So, there ‘tis.