Image montage: Mikhail Metzel / SNA / IMAGO; AP / dpa; RIA Novosti / SNA / IMAGO; REUTERS; Valentin Sprinchak / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO (via Spiegel International)
The extraordinary action of Yevgeny Prigozhin is predicated on a conflict between him and the Russian Ministry of Defence which is headed by Sergei Shoigu.
In a nutshell, the root of the matter is based on the fact that the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine - limited to the ethnic Russian-speaking area of the Donbas - has relied heavily on the use of the Wagner Private Military Company, and Wagner’s leader, Prigozhin, feels that he and his soldiers have not got enough credit from the Russian Ministry of Defence.
To be clear, Russia has barely used members of its army except some detachments of special forces. Therefore the burden of urban fighting which is aimed at “demilitarising” the Donbas of Ukrainian military forces has been shouldered by Wagner PMC with support from the Donas militias of Donetsk and Luhansk (who had been fighting the Ukrainian military since 2014) and from Chechen forces in 2022.
Instead of using air power to inflict colossal damage on all forms of infrastructure before sending in ground troops as is the style of NATO, Russian military planners opted to use Wagner for hand-to-hand fighting in order to physically destroy the Ukrainian army in Donbas, as well as to systematically dismantle the fortified structures built up by the Ukrainian army for 8 years.
This has meant that since the beginning of the Russian “Special Military Operation” (SMO) in February 2022, the Wagner PMC were largely responsible for effectively destroying two separately constituted Ukrainian armies.
The first Ukrainian army in the Donbas was destroyed by June 2022 and a second one by October 2022.
A third army raised, ill-equipped and under-trained, is presently being slaughtered in an ill-conceived, doomed-to-fail "counter-offensive".
For Prigozhin things appear to have come to a head in regard to the Battle for Bakhmut.
He felt that taking Bakhmut, which is physically the last line of defence in Donbas (after which it is open land in a westwardly direction) and which Ukrainian political and military leaders had said was of paramount importance, was a tremendous accomplishment for which he and his group were getting little or no credit in the Russian media. He even claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defence had deliberately undersupplied the Wagner PMC with ammunition.
Prigozhin was correct to highlight the fact that his group was largely responsible for destroying two differently constituted armies of Ukraine which had been trained and equipped to NATO standard over the 8 years since the US-orchestrated coup in Kiev in February 2014.
It is also important to note that Russian forces have always been outnumbered by Ukrainian forces right from the commencement of the SMO. This is no mean feat and something Prigozhin is proud of, albeit that Wagner and others on the ground have been aided by Russian air forces, Russian rocket forces and Russian naval forces who have maintained air supremacy.
Despite being outnumbered, Wagner, with the aid of Russian superiority in artillery, consistently inflicted substantially more on the Ukrainian side than they sustained. This ratio has ranged from one Russian loss for four Ukrainian losses to one Russian loss for ten Ukrainian losses.
However, the losses to Russia of which Wagner bore the brunt, weighed heavily in the mind and ego of Prigozhin whose erratic and bombastic behaviour bore traces of post-traumatic stress syndrome. One example was his decision to film the corpses of his dead comrades during the battle for Bakhmut.
He was instructed by the Russian Ministry of Defence to detach himself and Wagner PMC from the warfront and demobilise.
But instead of doing this, he has announced a “March of Justice" to Moscow.
Some commentators have sought to compare his actions to previous acts of rebellion in Russian history, drawing parallels to Stenka Razin, the 17th century Cossack leader who led a rebellion against the Tsar, and Yemelyan Pugachev who led a peasant’s rebellion against Catherine the Great in the 18th century.
But it might actually be closer to the "Putsch des generaux", the 1961 coup by French generals stationed in Algeria.
This itself is a decidedly tenuous analogy since Prigozhin is himself not a general (he is not a military man) and while the French generals did have support among the French community in colonial Algeria and among French nationalists on the mainland, there is no support for Prigozhin among the Russian population.
General de Gaulle ensured that the coup fizzled out and President Vladimir Putin will also want to act resolutely but in a manner in which Russian blood is not spilled.
Russian nationalist critics will again blame the Kremlin’s policy of limited intervention in Ukraine for creating the conditions for Prigozhin’s mutiny.
They insist that Putin and the Kremlin should have brought the full weight of the Russian armed forces to bear at the start of the intervention in 2022 by mounting a devastating air attack on cities and by sending a much larger military force composed of the Russian army proper despite the huge loss of life this would have caused in terms of collateral damage. The Kremlin has held firm to its policy of striving to minimise the deaths among a people they consider to be fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs.
But by conducting a cut-price, limited war, Putin, they charge, opened up avenues through which NATO could intervene by sending military equipment to Ukraine. By relying on the Wagner PMC and Donbas militias to slowly and surely dismantle Ukrainian armies in attritional warfare, they claim that he has enabled Western mainstream media to assert that the Russian army is overrated and incompetent - despite the fact that Ukraine has lost all the battles and an extraordinarily high number of personnel.
After securing the city of Bakhmut, Prigozhin hoped to show that Russia could not cope with the counter-offensive. But as even admitted by the Western mainstream media, the Ukrainian army has been soundly defeated, losing large numbers of ill-trained and under-equipped soldiers.
The fact that Wagner is dispensable to Russia’s war effort has stirred Prigozhin to pursue his desperate act of mutiny which Putin in a speech described as “a stab in the back to our country and our people.”
Instead of taking a break and basking in glory for defeating successive Ukrainian armies, he will, in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the Russian population, go down as a traitor whose egotistical behaviour, fuelled by probable post-traumatic stress syndrome, led to his downfall.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.