“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Thus spoke Winston Churchill in October 1939. World War 2 had just started. When Hitler and Stalin unexpectedly signed a pact of non-aggression, Churchill got worried, he felt caught between two fires.
But what about the Russia of present time? With instability threatening Putin’s regime, in a country with 4,000 atom bombs, the Russian enigma risks turning into a truly global holocaust, bizarrely mixed with elements of theatre of the absurd. Vladimir Putin, the “president forever” who sees himself as another Peter the Great, on a mission to restore his country’s past and grandeur, is in deep trouble. His credibility is in question after an aborted mutiny of 36 hours led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former convict turned billionaire caterer, ruthless warlord with Putin’s blessing, and even organizer of “troll factories” of fake news to influence foreign voters, including those of the U.S.
What’s more, as Putin let it slip in a hurried TV appearance, Prigozhin’s Wagner private army, that operated in Ukraine, Africa, Syria and elsewhere, is largely paid by the Russian taxpayer. In the current year, the president revealed, the Wagner mercenary outfit received from the State two separate payments of 1 billion dollars each. Prigozhin confirmed, explaining that the cash was paid out for salaries and expenses related to the war in Ukraine. A war that it is still not clear, if Ukraine will win, but that Russia is definitely losing.
About the mutiny, it transpired that when Prigozhin gave the order to his 25,000 men to abandon the Ukrainian frontline, in protest for the lack of cooperation from the Russian army, and drive to Rostov-on-Don, the logistic base in Southern Russia where the invasion is coordinated, initially the president ordered to “liquidate” Prigozhin. He changed idea only after talking to the Byelorussian strongman Lukashenko, who offered asylum to Prigozhin with his 25,000 men and convinced Putin to give up on the assassination.
The Wagner convoy, complete with tanks and heavy armaments, was however repeatedly attacked by Russian forces during its “march of justice” towards Moscow. Mercenaries fired back shooting down several Russian helicopters and at least one command-and-control plane. Some 20 Russian troops and a number of Wagner soldiers were killed in the attacks. Once the rebels reached Rostov, they took over the Russian Army command without firing a single shot.
In response to Putin’s emergency message, where the Russian president accused the mutineers of betrayal and, without using Prigozhin’s name, vowed that he and his supporters would “suffer an inevitable punishment”, here is the transcript of the reply by Prigozhin to Putin sent via Telegram, as provided by the Meduza independent news service:
“Regarding the betrayal of the Motherland, the President is sorely mistaken. We are patriots. We have fought and will continue fighting. All Wagner Group fighters. And none of us is going to turn himself in at the demands of the President, the FSB, or anybody else. Because we don’t want the country to go on living in corruption, deception, and bureaucracy.
When we fought in Africa, they told us that we need Africa, and then they abandoned it, because they stole all the money that was supposed to help. When they told us that we were fighting against Ukraine, we went and fought. But it turned out that ammunition, weapons, all the money that was allocated for them, was also stolen.
And the bureaucrats sit there, specifically for the day when this happens, when someone marches on Moscow. Now they are not saving anything – they’re using planes and helicopters to bomb columns where there are civilians. And they’re bombing civilians because they can’t hit their targets. And they’re just hitting whatever they hit. So we’re the patriots, and those who are resisting us are the ones that have gathered around scoundrels”.
These, from the same source, are some excerpts of the “negotiations” that took place on Saturday 24th June at the Southern Military District of Rostov-on-Don between Prigozhin, Deputy Defense minister Yevkurov and Deputy Chief of Staff Alexeyev, to try and dissuade Prigozhin from setting out on a “march of justice” to Moscow against Russia’s military leadership.
- Yevkurov [about Russian planes firing at the Wagner convoy]: “You shot them down ?
- Prigozhin’s: “Shot them down. The third one already. And we’ll shoot them all down if you keep sending them. Because you’re hitting innocent civilians. You’re destroying civilians – you just blew up a bus, and you have no conscience about it.”
- Yevkurov: “First of all, it’s the first time I hear this. And let’s not generalize”….”If you say…[unintelligible] But let’s listen, we still need to think…what should we do? [unintelligible]
- Prigozhin: “Once again. We came here. We want to get the Chief of the General Staff [Valery Gerasimov] and [Defense Minister] Shoigu.
- [Lieutenant General Vladimir Alexeyev, recording the meeting]: Take them! (laughs)
- Prigozhin’s: We’ll remain here until we have them. We’ll blockade the city of Rostov and go to Moscow.
- Yevkurov: Then I ask you to withdraw your guys from here…
- Prigozhin’s: No. Under no circumstances. The guys are staying here.
- Yevkurov: No, well, you’re coming from the perspective…
- Prigozhin: We’re not preventing you from commanding your troops.
- Yevkurov: You shouldn’t prevent us of course [unintelligible]. People are dying here, like all the others.
- Prigozhin: The reason guys are dying is because you’re throwing them into the meat grinder.
- Yevkurov: (distracted by his phone ringing) [unintelligible] this question.
- Prigozhin: This question isn’t rhetorical. People are dying because you’re throwing them into the meat grinder. Without ammunition, without any thoughts, without any plans.
- Yevkurov: (answering phone) Hello?
- Prigozhin: You’re just senile clowns!
- Alexeyev: What upsets me most is that they’ll be celebrating in Kiev for at least three days…
- Prigozhin: Where?
- Alexeyev: In Kiev.
- Prigozhin: It’s not a big deal. They celebrate with champagne in Kiev for a week when you abandon Krasnyi Lyman, Izyum and everything else. But we don’t retreat. And that’s why we came here, to end the disgrace of the country we live in.
- Yevkurov: If we’re talking in that kind of….then what kind of negotiation can we have?
- Prigozhin: Listen. One more time. If we were talking to you all in a normal time, we wouldn’t have arrived here in tanks. Do you get it?
Soon after that fruitless non-negotiation, the Wagner armada, with Prigozhin, greeted by the crowds of Rostov like a rockstar, continued its race toward Moscow. They arrived undisturbed at only 200 kilometers from the capital. No army, police or security forces made any attempt to stop the convoy. Then the warlord called a halt. “We gave them a Master lesson”, he said to his men. “For now, that’s enough. We don’t want a civil war and a bloodbath”. The humiliation of Putin, his Defense Minister Shoigu and his generals will not be easily forgotten. Smutnoe Vremya, turbulent times indeed.
(c) 2023 Longitude Magazine and VNY La Voce di New York.