Who would have thought that creating a large well-armed mercenary army including a large proportion of convicts would turn out to be a bad idea?
I am not going to pretend to know what is going to happen – I did not predict Russia invading Ukraine. But here are a few thoughts:
It is very hard to see how Prigozhin and Putin both come out of this alive.
Prigozhin crossed a line yesterday when he started criticising not just the conduct of the Ukraine war, but its pretext.
Today, Putin’s speech made no overtures towards Prigozhin. He did not offer to dismiss the defence minister or bring Prigozhin on board. He characterised this as a rebellion – although holding out the prospect of an amnesty to the rank and file of Wagner if they desisted – and compared it to an eclectic mix of rebellions against central authority in Russian history.
This seems to be an attempted coup.
It does not have widespread popular support. Ordinary Russians are entirely surprised and bemused. Prigozhin had obtained a measure of popularity with the narrative that Wagner were the most effective of patriotic fighters, but that does not mean people want him to run Russia.
I do not see this developing into a sustained civil war. Civil wars in states are sustained by ethnic, ideological or religious division. None of that seems to apply in this case. It is hard to see what would motivate Russian troops to kill each other.
The caveat is of course that Wagner has its own morale and identity, forged in combat and sustained by a common mercenary motivation. There is a strong sociopathic element in any mercenary outfit, and one including many criminals still more so. It is therefore possible Wagner will be more ruthless and motivated than government troops opposing them.
A fast strike for Moscow is not a hopeless plan for Wagner.
Wagner does not have an air force. The Russian air force is an elite liable to remain largely loyal to Putin, which could be crucial.
I don’t see this turning into a widespread Russian civil war. I expect it will be over, one way or another, in a fortnight. One problem with mercenaries is that somebody else might pay them more, and I don’t rule out that Prigozhin has been turned.
But we should all hope that, rather than unleash more chaos across Eastern Europe, this development brings negotiations and an end to the conflict in Ukraine.
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