The hall of mirrors that Vladimir Putin has built around himself and within his country is so complex, and so multilayered, that on the eve of a genuine insurrection in Russia, I doubt very much if the Russian president himself believed it could be real.
Certainly the rest of us still can’t know, less than a day after this mutiny began, the true motives of the key players, and especially not of the central figure, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group. Prigozhin, whose fighters have taken part in brutal conflicts all over Africa and the Middle East—in Syria, Sudan, Libya, Central Africa Republic—claims to command 25,000 men in Ukraine. In a statement on Friday afternoon, he accused the Russian army of killing “an enormous amount” of his mercenaries in a bombing raid on his base. Then he called for an armed rebellion, vowing to topple Russian military leaders.
Prigozhin has been lobbing insults at Russia’s military leadership for many weeks, mocking Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense, as lazy, and describing the chief of the general staff as prone to “paranoid tantrums.” On Friday, he broke with the official narrative and directly blamed them, and their oligarch friends, for launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Ukraine did not provoke Russia on February 24, he said: Instead, Russian elites had been pillaging the territories of Donbas they’ve occupied since 2014, and became greedy for more. His message was clear: The Russian military launched a pointless war, ran it incompetently, and killed tens thousands of Russian soldiers unnecessarily.
The “evil brought by the military leadership of the country must be stopped,” Prigozhin declared. He warned the Russian generals not to resist: “Everyone who will try to resist, we will consider them a danger and destroy them immediately, including any checkpoints on our way. And any aviation we see above our heads.” Given the snarling theatricality of Prigozhin’s statement, the baroque language, the very notion that 25,000 mercenaries were going to remove the commanders of the Russian army during an active war—all of that immediately led many to ask: Is this for real?
Up until the moment it started, when actual Wagner vehicles were spotted on the road from Ukraine to Rostov, a Russian city a couple of miles from the border (and actual Wagner soldiers were spotted buying coffee in a Rostov fast food restaurant, formerly known as McDonalds) it seemed impossible. But once they appeared in the city—once Prigozhin posted a video of himself in the courtyard of the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov—and once they seemed poised to take control of Voronezh, a city between Rostov and Moscow, theories began to multiply.
Maybe Prigozhin is collaborating with the Ukrainians, and this is all an elaborate plot to end the war. Maybe the Russian army really had been trying to put an end to Prigozhin’s operations, depriving his soldiers of weapons and ammunition. Maybe this is Prigozhin’s way of fighting not just for his job but for his life. Maybe Prigozhin, a convicted thief who lives by the moral code of Russia’s professional criminal caste, just feels dissed by the Russian military leadership and wants respect. And maybe, just maybe, he has good reason to believe that some Russian soldiers are willing to join him.
Because Russia no longer has anything resembling “mainstream media”—there is only state propaganda, plus some media in exile—there are no good sources of information right now. All of us now live in a world of information chaos, but this is a more profound sort of vacuum, since so many people are pretending to say things they don’t believe. To understand what is going on (or to guess at it) you have to follow a series of unreliable Russian Telegram accounts, or else read the Western and Ukrainian open-source intelligence bloggers who are reliable but farther from the action: @wartranslated, who captions Russian and Ukrainian video in English, for example; or Aric Toler (@arictoler) of Bellingcat and Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) formerly of Bellingcat, the investigative group that pioneered the use of open source intelligence. Grozev has enhanced credibility because he said that the Wagner group was preparing a coup many months ago. (This morning, I spoke to him and told him he was vindicated. “Yes,” he said, “I am.”)
But the Kremlin may not have very good information either. Only a month ago, Putin was praising Prigozhin and Wagner for the “liberation” of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, after one of the longest, most drawn-out battles in modern military history. Today’s insurrection was, by contrast, better planned and executed: Bakhmut took nearly eleven months, but Prigozihin got to Rostov and Voronezh in less than 11 hours, helped along by commanders and soldiers who appeared to be waiting for him to arrive.
Now Military vehicles are moving around Moscow, apparently putting into force “Operation Fortress” a plan to defend the headquarters of the security services. One Russian military blogger claimed that units of the military, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, and others had already been put on a counterterrorism alert in Moscow very early Thursday morning, supposedly in preparation for a Ukrainian terrorist attack. Perhaps that was what the Kremlin wanted its supporters to think—though the source of the blogger’s claim is not yet clear.
But the unavoidable clashes at play—Putin’s clash with reality, as well as Putin’s clash with Prigozhin—are now coming to a head. Prigozhin has demanded that the Defense Minister Shoigu come to see him in Rostov, which the Wagner boss must know is impossible. Putin has responded by denouncing Prigozhin, though not by name: “Exorbitant ambitions and personal interests have led to treason,” Putin said in an address to the nation on Saturday morning. A telegram channel that is believed to represent Wagner has responded: “Soon we will have a new president.” Whether or not that account is really Wagner, some Russian security leaders are acting as if it is, and are declaring their loyalty to Putin. In a slow, unfocused sort of way, Russia is sliding into what can only be described as a civil war.
If you are surprised, maybe you shouldn’t be. For months—years, really—Putin has blamed all of his country’s troubles on outsiders: America, Europe, NATO. He concealed the weaknesses of his country and its army behind a façade made of bluster, arrogance, and appeals to a phony “white Christian nationalism” for foreign audiences, and appeals to imperialist patriotism for domestic consumption. Now he is facing a movement that lives according to the true values of the modern Russian military, and indeed of modern Russia.
Prigozhin is cynical, brutal, and violent. He and his men are motivated by money and self-interest. They are angry at the corruption of the top brass, the bad equipment provided to them, the incredible number of lives wasted. They aren’t Christian, and they don’t care about Peter the Great. Prigozhin is offering them a psychologically comfortable explanation for their current predicament: they failed to defeat Ukraine because they were betrayed by their leaders.
There are some precedents for this moment. In 1905, the Russian fleet’s disastrous performance in a war with Japan helped inspire a failed revolution. In 1917, angry soldiers came home from World War I and launched another, more famous revolution. Putin alluded to that moment in his brief television appearance on Saturday morning. At that moment, he said, “arguments behind the army’s back turned out to be the greatest catastrophe [leading to] destruction of the army and the state, loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war.” What he did not mention was that up until the moment he left power, Czar Nicholas II was having tea with his wife, writing banal notes in his diary, and imagining that the ordinary Russian peasants loved him and would always take his side. He was wrong.