"The dry residue of the Prigozhin armed rebellion"
Gilbert Doctorow (June 26, 2023)
Analysis of the Prigozhin armed rebellion inside and outside Russia has just begun. Without any assistance from me, consumers of mainstream Western media know very well the official interpretation that, as always, is being handed down from Washington and is re-posted by our journalists as their own original reporting: how the Prigozhin affair demonstrates the fragility of dictatorships, how it shows the real weakness of the Putin regime, and so forth, and so on.
I will offer here a glimpse into what is now being said in Russian public space. I say ‘a glimpse,’ because the diversity of views inside Russia is almost as vast as the country itself and only our ignorant and bigoted opinion formers in the West miss that point.
Discussion of the Prigozhin mutiny on the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov show yesterday gave a nice insight into where Russians differ and where they agree on the events of Friday-Saturday.
As is often the case, Solovyov gave the opening word to panelist Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the RT television channel. She delivered a powerful and emotional argument in favor of the peaceful outcome to the crisis that appears to have been reached on Saturday, with the exile to Belarus of Prigozhin and the return of Wagner Group forces to their barracks and field camps.
Simonyan began her little speech with a reminder of the horrors of a civil war, wherever it breaks out. As she noted, the greatest number of casualties that the United States has experienced in any of its many wars since its founding came precisely during the Civil War. And in Russia, the country witnessed greater loss of life in its own Civil War of 1917-21 than it did fighting on the front in WWI. The official number is set at over 10 million. The Russian death toll from the Civil War was only surpassed on the battlefields of WWII. Simonyan’s account was not for the faint-hearted: she listed the kinds of cruel and horrific deaths that both White and Red forces practiced on captured enemy troops as well as on civilians who stood in their way.
For these reasons, Simonyan said, such a possibility of armed conflict on the home front had to be avoided at all costs. And to those who object that the terms of the settlement violate the legal norms of the Russian Federation, her answer is that laws are not God-given but are written by men to regulate relations and maintain order in the country. The legislators cannot foresee extraordinary circumstances wherein strict observance of legal norms would have exactly the opposite effect and cause complete disorder and chaos. Therefore the settlement of the crisis as it turned out deserves our support.
A diametrically opposite opinion, also very well argued, was made by Lieutenant General in retirement and State Duma member Andrei Gurulyov, who, like Simonyan, is an occasional panelist on the Solovyov show, where he may be said to represent hardliners on issues of patriotism and civic duty. Gurulyov said flatly that treason such as Prigozhin committed must be punished by the physical elimination of the perpetrators, by a bullet to the head.
This Lieutenant General went on to explain that he knows the Wagner Group from the time of its inception back in 2014 when it numbered less than 150 and he fought with their then unit commander Utkin side by side in the Donbas. Then they were fighting side by side in Syria in 2015. By 2016 Gurulyov and the Wagner detachments parted ways.
With regard to the events of Friday and Saturday, Gurulyov expressed shock and indignation that the rebels were able to enter and take control of an airbase in the Russian-Ukrainian border region and that they were able to march north to Voronezh without meeting resistance from local defense forces. Clearly measures must be taken to strengthen Russia’s defense preparedness in the regions closest to the military action of the Special Military Operation.
As regards the settlement negotiated by Lukashenko, Guyulyov said that only those Wagner soldiers who sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense and come under its direct control may be allowed to bear arms. All others should be disbanded and sent away from the war zone.
The third panelist on the Solovyov show whom I will cite very briefly was Alexander Babakov, deputy chair of the State Duma and a parliamentarian from the United Russia party. His point was that the armed mutiny failed because it was rejected by the regular Army, by the Russian government at all levels and by the people as a whole. In this way, Russia demonstrated to the world its unity in time of war, its readiness to stand up to the Collective West. The lesson for the West was precisely the strength of the country and of its Commander in Chief.
Is anyone listening in Washington?
I have two further comments to make in today’s dispatch.
The first arises from the video material Solovyov presented at the start of the show, before the discussion with panelists got underway. In particular, it was interesting to see video images of Solovyov’s visit to the front lines, which he now does almost weekly with assistance from the Ministry of Defense. His chat with soldiers operating drones in the battlefield complemented very well what you see from the reporting of war correspondents on the regular news programs of Russian state television. And it is this point: the war in Ukraine has upended traditional Soviet-Russian military doctrine about deployment of forces.
The use of both reconnaissance and kamikaze drones in tandem by Russian soldiers at the front reverses entirely the advantage in real time targeting that the Ukrainians may have had at the start of the war thanks to U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and satellite images. This new warfare which, as we see from the destruction of Bradleys and Leopards in the attempted attacks of the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive, makes clear the fact that the Russian army is emerging from the military operations in Ukraine much stronger than it entered the war. Not just in manpower numbers resulting from the autumn 2022 call-up of reserves, or from the 160,000 volunteer signups this year, not just from the near tripling of production by the Russian military industrial complex, but by being war hardened and possessing the latest knowledge of what works and what doesn’t on the battlefield. In this sense, the weakening of Russia that was said to be the objective of American support for the Kiev regime by Blinken, by Austin, by Biden, has had the opposite effect. I say this without considering the emptying of military equipment stocks across Europe resulting from massive deliveries of arms to Ukraine.
My second point is that talking heads everywhere, East and West, share the common susceptibility to talk in inverse proportion to what they know from the facts on the table. What we hear on the BBC, on Euronews, on CNN about the Prigozhin affair, about the war’s progress in general, is nearly all unfounded speculation.
Russian public space also has its share of idle chatter. Yesterday evening the news portal Tsargrad published an attention grabbing feature article on Shoigu’s expected resignation Monday morning and speculation on who might be tapped to replace him.
I do not entirely dismiss the possibility that Shoigu will leave office as part of the overall settlement of the Prigozhin affair. But at this point, the discussion is being spun from thin air.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2023