Prigozhin Wagner Group
Paul E Vallely MG, US Army (Ret) and Michael Maloof
(The Conflicts Forum – Alistair Crooke)
June 26, 2023
Prigozhin’s ‘coup’: A coup ‘theatre’ that melts away: No helicopters downed; no blitz on the Wagner convoy heading to Moscow (rumors salted with fake videos); and within hours, all is settled. Prigozhin is dispatched without sanction to Belarus; Wagner is re-configured within Russian formal military structures — and all falls quiet.
Was this a severe insurrection, or was theatre played out for other ends? Ostensibly, the ‘story’ is that Prigozhin, on his initiative, launched his plan — not for régime change, but to force Russia’s Defense Minister, Shoigu (whom he regarded as ‘too soft’ and incompetent) out of office. Prigozhin sauntered into Rostov on Don, some 700 miles south of Moscow, with a small band of followers to stage a ‘sit-in’ at the military HQ commanding Russian forces in Ukraine. A video shows Prigozhin settled, very informally, on a balcony with the generals in Rostov, insisting that, whilst he does not want to disrupt their conduct of the war in Ukraine, he insists rather only that the Defense Minister, Shoigu, must come to Rostov to meet him.
Meanwhile, the citizens in Rostov seem wholly nonchalant, milling around the Wagner forces with no concern. Prigozhin also sent three thousand troops in a long convoy of trucks (at least 60) on a road trip to Moscow — a mere 20-hour driving distance. Out of the 25,000-35,000 personnel of the ‘PMC Wagner’, perhaps 8,000 participated in the ‘insurgency’. They were told they were defending Belgorod against the backdrop of recent Ukrainian incursions into Russia’s border area. From Rostov, Prigozhin and his men marched on Voronezh; the furthest the second convoy reached was the Tula Oblast (whose Governor is thought a likely candidate as a future Defense Minister).
Recall the Wagner men are ‘national patriots’ strongly supportive of Mother Russia. They are the opposite of Russian urban liberal critics of the war in Ukraine. They are not seeking to overturn the State (as many external viewers presume). Of note, Khodorovsky was the only Russian oligarch in exile who publicly supported the mutiny and called on Russians to raid arms depots and prepare to fight. What is going on, then? The first and most crucial point is that Wagner was a GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) creation. Prigozhin is neither its military commander nor has any military experience.
Militarily, Wagner is run by a tight circle of commanders — all of whom are said to be ex-GRU (like Anton Yelizarov, codename Lotus, the leading military strategist.) He is young, with deep experience – and is viewed – as a talented commander. So how is it possible they (the GRU), or the Defense Ministry, which supplies Wagner, would not know precisely what Prigozhin and Wagner were about? This brings us to the second important point: It is no secret that Prigozhin has contacts with Western intel services. In the wake of a series of business mishaps in St Petersburg, one of his fellow Russian ‘magnates’ suggested he might fare better if he reached out to the West. Recall that the Pentagon ‘Discord leaks’ in May showed Prigozhin offering Kiev Russian troop locations in exchange for a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut/Artemovsk.
The Washington Post reported that two Ukrainian officials had told the Post that Prigozhin had offered Ukrainian Intelligence the Russian troop positions more than once but that Kyiv had rejected it, because Ukrainian officials did not trust Prigozhin, nor his intentions. Prigozhin once bragged that he has his own ‘contacts’ with intel services of the other side. Does anyone seriously imagine that Russian Intelligence was unaware of this fact? Of course, they knew it. As it were, Wagner was a GRU offshoot (resourced from the MoD). Prigozhin will have informed Russian Intel — and Russian Intel, in turn, may have decided to let Prigozhin’s dalliance with Western Intelligence ‘run’, so they could gather intelligence on Western intelligence intentions.
More importantly, this double game would allow the Russian security services to smoke out any Russian ‘fifth columnists’ who were reacting supportively to Prigozhin’s putative mutiny (by monitoring for any upticks in messaging with the West from ‘persons of interest’). To this end, they would have briefed Prigozhin to play along – feeding the MI6 and CIA officers with criticism of the Russian leadership and exaggerations of MoD incompetence and Russian military collapse (which the West would love to hear). That is the ‘price’ (reputational damage) that double operations inevitably incur. Though Western intelligence services certainly would have displayed skepticism at the Prigozhin ‘plot’, the West presently is besotted with the prospect of plunging Russia into turmoil and seeing Putin evicted from office. The ‘prize’ that Prigozhin seemed to offer would have been too tempting! — ultimately one sufficient to overcome any doubts.
Western Intelligence must have decided to go along with it (albeit initially keeping the ‘insurgency’ at arm’s length). We can have some assurance that the ‘mutiny’ was taken more seriously than subsequently claimed by the West because Biden and select Congressional figures, the NY Times reported, were briefed as early as Wednesday (so they were aware of what was coming in advance). In Poland, the authorities, too, began preparing for an uprising in Belarus against President Lukashenko that would coincide with the Prigozhin insurgency.
And more significantly, Russian security authorities arrested several covert cells (immediately before the Wagner march), being orchestrated from Ukraine, and were preparing a campaign of bombings in Moscow to deepen the turmoil amongst citizens as the insurgency convoy arrived in the capital. From the Russian Intel point-of-view, ‘smoking out’ these Ukrainian sabotage cells would have justified the reputational damage Russia suffered from Prigozhin’s ‘wild claims of Russian incompetence’ that had to be absorbed to give Prigozhin credibility with Fifth Columnists in Russia — as well as in the West.
So, in the end, the insurgency ‘faded out’; no one rallied to its cause; quiet returned, and Wagner is being re-orientated and returned to the conflict in Ukraine (plus a detachment in Belarus). The ‘operation’ ended satisfactorily from an Intel perspective for Russia, with all political figures in Russia siding with the State — in a show of collective support. And Prigozhin walks free.
Released and Distributed by the Stand Up America US Foundation and the Conflicts Forum
 The Conflicts Forum Alastair Crooke Retired MI6 6.26.2023