The short ride of the Valkyries

02 July 2023

By Dave Stockton

EVENTS IN Russia on 24 June momentarily upstaged the Ukrainian counter offensive. The sudden mutiny of the Wagner private army of Yevgeny Prigozhin, which had been playing a major role in the war, led to its swift takeover of the main wartime military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don.

But as Wagner troops advanced towards Voronezh and, according to Prigozhin, reached within 125 miles of Moscow, it fizzled out as quickly as it had appeared. Then followed some sort of deal brokered by Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.

The reason for their sudden turnaround and Prigozhin’s flight to Minsk may not be known, let alone why most Wagner troops were allowed return to base in Ukraine, unhindered, despite their ‘treason’ in Putin’s original words. Others have ominously relocated to Belarus, within striking distance of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. In another indication that it was Putin who climbed down, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quick to announce that Wagner would be free to continue its bloody business in Mali and the Central African Republic.

The revolt may have been triggered by the announcement that they were going to be put under the command of the detested Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, due on 30 June. But the lack of support for Prigozhin’s putsch, particularly from General Sergei Surovikin and his troops, certainly put an end to it.

Nevertheless it has seriously damaged Putin’s strong man image and that of the already discredited Russian army command. Though the Wagner chief’s main target seems to have been them rather than Putin, his statements about the war itself could prove more damaging in the long run, since they blow the myth the Russian leader has assiduously spread about the reason for his ‘special military operation’ which has already cost more lives than the Soviet Union’s nine year war in Afghanistan.

Prigozhin denied that the Russian invasion had thwarted Ukraine’s plans for ‘a massive attack on the Donbas, and then on the Crimea’, saying, ‘There was nothing extraordinary happening on the eve of 24 February. The ministry of defence 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 bloc.’

He also said Russia’s leadership could long before that have avoided the need for war by negotiating with Ukraine’s president: ‘When Zelensky became president, he was ready for agreements. All that needed to be done was to get off Mount Olympus and negotiate with him.’

While these charges are nominally aimed at Shoigu, no one will believe that Putin was deceived by his military advisers except perhaps in the belief that they would easily capture Kyiv and kill Zelensky.

What the whole incident shows is that divisions are opening up within the Russian elite and if they break into the open Putin’s days will be numbered. When the full-scale of the horrors suffered, as well as those inflicted by the Russian forces in Ukraine, become known to relatives, then talked about, then shouted out on the streets, then Putin could be for a lamppost.

That this will not please the White House and Europe’s capitals was shown by the alarm the Prigozhin rebellion caused there, contrary to the claims of the pro-Russian conspiracy theorists. Clearly for Biden and co. it’s ‘better the devil you know’. For all their democratic rhetoric they prefer a Putin, stripped of his role on the world stage, forced to concede to them, but still controlling his country to avoid the unknown consequences of military coups, let alone revolution.

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