Scott Ritter on Progozhin and the attempted mutiny

Scott Ritter on Progozhin and the attempted mutiny

There has been so much written and said about the events last weekend.

This is but a cross-section.

Wagner, I hardly Knew Ye


The dust has settled following last weekend’s abortive insurrection by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the private military company known as the Wagner Group, and some 8,000 fighters he employed, against Russian President Vladimir Putin. A clearer picture has since emerged about what exactly transpired during this coup, and why these events unfolded as they did. It also has allowed time to shine a light on Wagner Group, revealing it as something more than the invincible band of heroic Russian patriots celebrated by Russian society at large. Instead, a less complimentary image of Wagner emerges, one which portrays it as a business venture run by a corrupt narcissist who used Russian state funds to build a cult of personality that hypnotized an unwitting Russian populace into believing that Wagner was the sole source of salvation for Russia from the threat posed by the war with Ukraine.

As a military analyst with no small amount of experience in covering armed conflict, I don’t believe that I am susceptible to being star-struck in the presence of men who have earned, through experience, reputations as warriors of formidable stature. I was myself a US Marine, a member of a fraternity of sea-going warriors proud of both their martial history and military abilities, which are held to be second to none. I have served in harm’s way with special operators from America’s most elite military units and have worked closely with similarly skilled professionals from other nations. I think I have a good judge of what constitutes military competence and am not hesitant to give credit to where it is due.

Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Ep. 78 of Ask the Inspector.

As someone who follows events in the Middle East closely, I had been tracking the activities of the Wagner Group in Syria since their initial deployment in 2015. Their reputation as skilled fighters was earned in the blood of dozens of their comrades who lost their lives fighting terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. As such, when in 2022 rumors started to circulate about the presence of Wagner Group fighters operating alongside the Russian Army in the region of the Donbas, I took notice. It was difficult to find credible sources of information, and the Wagner Group was reticent about anyone giving out information about its activities. But eventually I was able to piece together an understanding of the role played by Wagner in the Donbas, along with the impact Wagner had on the war. My analysis, both spoken and written, reflected the high regard I had for the Wagner Group as a combat formation, and the heroism and skill of the soldiers it employed.

Prior to my recent visit to Russia, my host informed me that the Wagner forces engaged in the fierce fighting around Bakhmut spoke highly of my analysis and could be counted among my biggest fans. Indeed, during my visit, I was introduced to several Wagner veterans, and a few serving Wagner employees, all of whom wanted to shake my hand, and many of whom presented me with gifts signifying the depth of their appreciation for my work. Whether it was a combat knife, a chrome-plated sledgehammer (an unofficial symbol of the Wagner Group), or various Wagner combat patches (including one embroidered with my name), I was taken aback by the level of genuine and heartfelt affection these Wagner men—noted for their toughness under fire—showed for me.

When the events of June 23-24 unfolded before me, I was taken aback. An organization that I held in the highest esteem was engaged in an act of self-destruction before my very eyes, engaged in conduct—an armed insurrection against a constitutionally-mandated government—that any military professional imbued with a respect for the chain of command and the nation he or she served would find reprehensible. Like many others, I was compelled to reexamine my understanding of the Wagner Group, the people it employed, and its history in the service of Russia.

Relatively little is known about the formation of the Wagner Group. What little information is available comes from Yevgeny Prigozhin himself and, as such, must be seen in the context of his tendency for self-promotion. Prigozhin long denied any involvement with Wagner Group, and indeed initiated legal action against journalists (including Bellingcat) who reported on his involvement. This changed in September 2022, when Prigozhin openly discussed his role with Wagner Group in a post published on his Telegram page.

Wagner’s origins date back to February 2014, following the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s constitutionally-elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, by Ukrainian nationalists backed by the United States and European Union. At that time, Crimea was part of Ukraine. Shortly after the Maidan revolution ousted Yanukovych, right-wing Ukrainian nationalists attempted to take control of Crimea, which had a majority ethnic-Russian population whose loyalties leaned decisively toward Moscow. The nationalists were confronted by so-called “self defense units” drawn from the local pro-Russian citizenry.

But there were other actors on the ground as well. Concerned that the Ukrainian government would call out the Ukrainian army to intervene, the Russian government mobilized a force of several hundred “little green men,” consisting of elite Russian special forces who, because of constitutional limitations regarding the deployment of regular Russian army forces on the soil of a foreign nation, were “sheep dipped” (a US term made popular during the CIA’s covert war in Laos in the 1960’s and 70’s, where active duty US Air Force officers would be transferred to the CIA’s “Air America” proprietary company for operations inside Laos.)

The man put in charge of these “sheep dipped” special operators was Dmitry Utkin, a recently-retired Lieutenant Colonel who had previously commanded a Russian special forces (Spetznaz) unit affiliated with Russian Military Intelligence (GRU). Utkin and his “little green men” played a leading role in the Russian takeover of Crimea on February 26, 2014, four days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, Utkin’s “little green men” were dispatched to Lugansk, where they were tasked with providing training and assistance to the pro-Russian fighters that had taken up arms against the Ukrainian nationalists who had seized power in Kiev.

As the fighting expanded, so, too, did the role of the “little green men,” and by April it became clear that the Russian government would need to create a more formal organization which would serve as the conduit for military assistance to the pro-Russian militias fighting in the Donbas. On May 1, 2014, a new entity, known as the “Wagner Group” (named after the call sign—“Wagner”—used by Utkin) was created and given a contract with the Ministry of Defense to serve in this role. While Utkin served as the military commander of this new organization, “Wagner Group” itself was managed by a group of civilian businessmen headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who by that time had established himself as a successful restaurateur whose clients included Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner was heavily involved in the fighting that raged in the Donbas from May 2014 through February 2015, when a ceasefire came into effect after the signing of the Minsk 2 accords. With the fighting in Ukraine winding down, Prigozhin and Utkin sought to exploit Utkin’s own past experience as a mercenary in Syria. The ability to deploy a professional military unit capable of operating on foreign soil where regular Russian forces were prohibited was attractive to the Russian Ministry of Defense, who contracted with Wagner to provide military assistance to the embattled Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. Wagner’s success in Syria led to additional “support contracts” being executed for operations in several African countries. In addition to being paid by the Russia government, Wagner Group was able to arrange its own economic relationships with its African clients, which led to several profitable ventures designed to enrich its owners, including Prigozhin.

On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to commence what was being called a “Special Military Operation” (SMO) against Ukraine. The Russian military began deploying onto the soil of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (which were both recognized by Russia as independent states days prior to the SMO being kicked off), where they fought alongside local militias. Wagner Group continued to operate on the territory of the Donbas in a reduced capacity from 2015 until the SMO’s initiation.

After the collapse of the April 1, 2022, peace negotiation between Russia and Ukraine scheduled to take place in Istanbul, Turkey, the Russian military was instructed to begin large-scale offensive operations intended to liberate the territory of the Donbas still occupied by Ukraine. On May 1, 2023, a new contract was signed between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group for some 86 billion rubles, or $940 million, to expand the scope and scale of its Ukrainian operation from advisory and assistance to that of a combat unit of roughly division-size capable of largescale fighting against regular Ukrainian forces. To sweeten the deal, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a separate 80-billion-ruble deal (some $900 million) for the provision of food to the Russian Army using Prigozhin’s catering company.

War, it seems, had become very profitable business for Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Wagner played a major role in many of the battles waged in the spring and summer of 2022 which, collectively, became known as the Battle of the Donbas. Wagner was initially organized as a battalion-sized unit of several hundred highly-trained military veterans. As the fighting dragged on, the Wagner forces began to expand in size and capabilities, soon acquiring their own armor and artillery forces, as well as dedicated fighter aircraft. By the time the Lugansk city of Sievierodonetsk fell to Russian forces, on June 25, 2022, the Wagner Group was a division-sized unit which had developed a reputation for expertise in urban warfare, taking the lead in clearing Ukrainian troops who were dug in among the ruins of that city. By the fall of the neighboring city of Lysychansk, on July 3, 2022, the Wagner Group had become synonymous with operational excellence.

The fighting in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, however successful it was for the Russians and Wagner, had proven to be extremely costly from the standpoint of casualties. It became apparent to both the military command structure of Wagner, built around a cadre of experienced military veterans known as the “commanders council,” and Wagner’s corporate owners, headed by Prigozhin, that Wagner would suffer both in terms of military efficiency and profitability if it had to recruit and train seasoned veterans to replace those who had fallen in battle. During the house-to-house fighting that defined the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk battles, Wagner’s small unit commanders had developed tactics which combined firepower (indirect artillery and direct fire support from tanks) with aggressive infantry assaults which could overwhelm Ukrainian defenders.

Rather than waste experienced fighters in this style of fighting, Prigozhin began recruiting new fighters from Russian prisons, promising them expungement of their criminal record in exchange for a six-month contract to fight on the frontlines. The Wagner commanders would train these inmate recruits over the course of a 21-day program that focused on the rudimentary combat skills needed to execute the Wagner urban warfare tactics, before organizing them into “shock” units which would be fed into the fighting. These units, while ultimately effective, suffered up to 60% casualties. Between 30-50,000 convicts were eventually recruited by Wagner, of whom 10-15,000 are believed to have been killed in the subsequent fighting for the cities of Soledar and Bakhmut.

The battles for the twin cities of Soledar and Bakhmut began on August 1, 2022. Wagner Group and its inmate “shock” units played a central role in the intense combat that followed. By this time, the world was starting to take notice of the fighters of this private military company. Labeled as mercenaries by the Western media and governments, and patriotic heroes by the pro-Russian citizens of the Donbas whose homes, villages, towns, and cities were being liberated, Wagner began emerging from the shadows. Whereas previously the Russian government and media were reticent to even acknowledge its existence, by the end of September 2022 Prigozhin, who had famously sued journalists who (accurately) reported that he was the owner of Wagner Group, wrote a posting on his Telegram channel admitting that he was, indeed, the owner.

While many observers took Prigozhin’s unexpected step into the spotlight as a sign of Wagner’s increasing public profile, the reality behind Prigozhin’s decision was simple business. From September 25-27, 2022, the citizens of the Donbas undertook a referendum on whether they wanted to be incorporated as part of the Russian Federation. By the end of the first day, it was clear that the result would be an overwhelming “yes.”

Prigozhin went public with his role as the owner of Wagner Group on September 26, 2022. This was the first salvo of what would become a massive public relations campaign designed to create the impression that Wagner was an essential part of the Russian war effort, whose fighters were singularly capable of defeating the Ukrainians. Prigozhin’s public relations campaign was further enhanced by the fact that the Russian public had been shocked by the retreat of the Russian army during the Ukrainian Kharkov Offensive, which began on September 6, 2022. While the regular army was in retreat, the forces of Wagner continued to advance along the Soledar-Bakhmut front, providing the Russian people with the only example of battlefield success during these dark times.

For Prigozhin, it became essential that he separate Wagner from the Russian Army in the eyes of the Russian people. The reason why was simple—with the Donbas now part of the Russian Federation, Wagner Group was in technical violation of Russian laws which prohibited the operation of private military contractors on Russian soil. Already there was talk about the need to change the contractual status of Wagner’s relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense as soon as Wagner’s contract expired on May 1, 2023.

But Prigozhin had a money-making system in place, especially when it came to the use of convicts. Prigozhin could pay them less than a regular Wagner recruit, and the cost of their training was miniscule compared to that given more specialized fighters. The money saved by this process was estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, all of which flowed back into the pockets of Prigozhin and his fellow owners and investors. Desperate to keep this enterprise intact, Prigozhin went on the offensive, publicly condemning senior Russian generals and officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

In November Wagner unveiled a shiny new center in Saint Petersburg designed to propel the company into the psyche of the Russian public as a major player in Russian national security affairs. All the while, the fighters of Wagner pressed forward their attacks on Soledar and Bakhmut, driven by Prigozhin’s desire to be seen as the only effective fighting force fighting the Ukrainians. And, increasingly, the fighters leading the charge were units composed on former Russian inmates.

But Prigozhin was running into a problem. He was forced to stop recruiting from prisons for the simple fact that he lacked a contract vehicle to pay the inmates after May 1,2023, meaning the last inmate recruit was processed by Wagner by December 1, 2022. Prisoners were still allowed to volunteer as frontline fighters, but they would have to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense going forward. Since the prisoner contracts were linked to specific periods of service that had to be fulfilled before their records could be expunged, Wagner could not commit inmates to anything less than a full-six-month term of enlistment. Wagner could still recruit non-inmate persons, since there would be no legal headaches created if Wagner did not renew its contract with the Ministry of Defense.

While Prigozhin’s PR campaign was a tremendous success (Wagner even released a feature-length film, Best in Hell, in February 2023 that brought the horrors of urban warfare—and the individual heroism of the Wagner fighters—to the screen), he was failing to win over the Minster of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defense, Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin turned what should have been a professional disagreement about legalities into a personal matter filled with allegations of corruption and incompetence. Prigozhin also began accusing the Russian Ministry of Defense of deliberately holding back on the provision of ammunition to Wagner forces, a phenomenon he described as “shell hunger,” which resulted in Wagner forces suffering disproportionally high casualties.

Prigozhin began to behave erratically. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Wagner contract was not going to be renewed, meaning that Wagner forces would have to be incorporated into the very Russian Ministry of Defense Prigozhin was publicly denigrating, a move widely rejected by the rank and file of Wagner as well as its leadership. It also was becoming clear that Prigozhin’s lucrative food contract with the Ministry of Defense was likewise not going to be renewed, an action most probably related to Prigozhin’s attacks on the Defense Ministry’s two most senior officials, Shoigu and Gerasimov.

It was around this time that Prigozhin first discussed the issue of what would become of Wagner’s 50,000-strong force if the Russian Ministry of Defense continued to insist on their formal incorporation. In an interview in February 2023 with Semyon Pegov (“War Gonzo”), a pro-Russian combat correspondent and blogger, the topic of a potential Wagner attack on Moscow was raised in the context of why the Ministry of Defense was restricting ammunition. While Prigozhin noted that the idea did not originate with him, he indicated that it was interesting—not something one wants to hear from who owns a large, combat-hardened, well-equipped private army.

It was also in February 2023 that, according to US intelligence, Prigozhin and the Ukrainian intelligence service began communicating directly. Perhaps picking up on Prigozhin’s frustration and paranoia, the Ukrainian intelligence service notified the Wagner owner of a plot involving former Wagner personnel to orchestrate a coup in Moldova. Prigozhin and Wagner had, by this time, been conducting secret talks with Ukrainian intelligence. Concerned that Russian intelligence had gotten wind of these discussions, Ukraine raised the possibility of Prigozhin’s arrest and subsequent labeling as a traitor.

The impact of Prigozhin losing nearly $2 billion in contacts, combined with an increasing level of paranoia on his part that he was caught up in a life-or-death struggle with Shoigu and Gerasimov, led the Wagner owner to double down on his vitriolic attacks on Russia’s military leadership, and thereby create the impression that he and Wagner alone could guarantee military victory for Russia over Ukraine. These attacks reached their culmination in the final fights for Bakhmut, which concluded on May 20, 2023, when Prigozhin announced that his fighters had captured the city. Prigozhin spoke of the “meatgrinder” aspect of this battle, and how Wagner—at great sacrifice—“broke the back” of the Ukrainian army, killing between 55-70,000 Ukrainian soldiers for a loss of between 20-30,000 of its fighters.

As Russia celebrated the accomplishments of Wagner in Bakhmut—elevating even further the near-mythological status Wagner and its fighters enjoyed in the eyes of an adoring Russian public—Prigozhin had more pressing matters to deal with. His contract with the Ministry of Defense had expired. He had been given a two-month extension—through July 1, 2023—given the fact that Wagner was heavily engaged in the fighting in Bakhmut. After that time, however, the Wagner forces operating in the Donbas would have to enter a contractual relationship with the Ministry of Defense or else be disbanded. Prigozhin withdrew his fighters from Bakhmut to camps in eastern Lugansk, where he lobbied his combat-hardened commanders to reject the terms of the Ministry of Defense, and instead join him to create a common front of opposition to the leadership of the Russian military.

Prigozhin’s opposition to Shoigu and Gerasimov, and his plotting to supplant them, did not escape the attention of either the Russian government or Russia’s enemies in Ukraine, the US, and Great Britain. Vladimir Putin, in a speech delivered to Russian security officials on June 27, indicated that Russian officials were in constant contact with the commanders of Wagner to warn them not to help Prigozhin use Wagner for his own personal ambition. Days before Prigozhin sent Wagner forces to Rostov and Moscow, the CIA briefed US Congress and President Biden on the existence of Prigozhin’s plot. The British MI-6 did the same, briefing the British Prime Minister as well as Ukrainian President Zelensky.

According to Ukrainian sources, the British also lobbied the Ukrainians to pause offensive operations during the window of time Prigozhin was expected to move on Moscow in the hopes that a civil war would break out that would cause Russia to withdraw combat troops from the frontline, providing the Ukrainian army with increased opportunities for success. MI-6 also used its connectivity with the Ukrainian intelligence services, in coordination with MI-6-controlled Russian oligarchs operating out of London, to reinforce Prigozhin’s belief that he had the support of the Russian military, politicians, and business elite, all of whom Prigozhin was led to believe would rally to his side once Wagner began marching on Moscow.

The failure of Prigozhin’s gambit has already become cemented in history. However, there remains an element of Russian society which, having been swayed by Prigozhin’s intensive PR campaign, continue to believe that Prigozhin’s complaints against Shoigu and Gerasimov were legitimate and, as such, so too was his march of Moscow. The facts speak otherwise. At the time of Prigozhin’s precipitous move on Moscow, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov were overseeing a Russian military campaign that was eviscerating Ukraine’s NATO-trained army, inflicting casualties at a 10-to-1 ration. During the first three weeks of the current Ukrainian counteroffensive, more than 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, along with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles—many of which were just recently supplied to Ukraine—destroyed. The Russian military was well-equipped, well-trained, and well-led. Morale was high. Any notion that Shoigu and Gerasimov were professionally incompetent was belied by the facts.

Prigozhin has bragged about the superiority of the Wagner forces when compared to those of the Russian Army. But the real reason the Wagner forces halted their march on Moscow and returned to their barracks was the fact that they had encountered the Russian military outside Serpukhov, south of Moscow. There, some 2,500 Russian special forces backed by Russian air power were waiting. At the same time, some 10,000 Chechen “Akhmat” special forces had closed in on Rostov-on-Don, where Prigozhin had taken up headquarters, and were preparing to assault the city with the intent to destroy the Wagner forces deployed there, along with their leader. Wagner’s combat experience could not make up for the fact that they were not prepared to carry out sustained ground combat against Russian ground and air forces.

Prigozhin was not only confronted with the reality of his imminent demise and of the men who had accompanied him, but, contrary to the expectations created by the British and Ukrainian intelligence services before the Wagner mutiny, the fact that not a single military unit or officer, not a single politician, and not a single businessman—no one—rallied to Prigozhin’s cause; Russia had sided with its President, Vladimir Putin. While Prigozhin’s extensive PR campaign had succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of Russian people, it had failed to convince people that they should betray their president.

In the interest of avoiding Russian-on-Russian bloodshed, Prigozhin accepted a compromise, brokered by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, that had he, Dmitry Utkin (the only senior Wagner commander to join him) and the 8,000 Wagner fighters who participated in the failed coup return to their camps in eastern Lugansk. There they would disarm, turning over their heavy weapons to the Russian military, before being sent off into exile in Belarus. For those Wagner fighters—some 17,000—who refused to participate in Prigozhin’s act of treachery, they, along with their commanders, were given the option to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense or go home. Prigozhin’s contracts were cancelled, and Wagner disbanded. Moreover, there would be no changes in the Russian Ministry of Defense—Shoigu and Gerasimov would remain in their respective positions.

Even had Prigozhin not betrayed Russia, the Wagner Group would have ceased to exist as Prigozhin’s private army. However, the Wagner Group’s honor would have remained intact. Prigozhin’s treachery guaranteed that Wagner will be forever tainted by the greed and naked ambition of its owner, a man who sought to exploit the goodwill of the Russian public that the fighters of Wagner had earned with their blood and sacrifice on battlefields in the Donbas, Syria, and Africa, all in a misguided effort to usurp a constitutionally-mandated government the people had themselves put in power.

Farewell, Wagner—I hardly knew ye.

Here is an earlier article

Prigozhin’s Gambit—Treason by any other name

JUN 25, 2023
All is not well in Russia: Wagner Group's leader Yevgeny Prigozhin calls for toppling Russia's military leadership, marches into Russia

In the 1997 Disney animated musical fantasy film, Hercules, there is a particularly catchy number, Zero to Hero, which describes the rise of the star of the film from a clumsy boy into a strong and capable man. In the span of less than 24 hours, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the public face of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor with shadowy ties to Russian military intelligence, has flipped the script of this ashes to diamonds tale, transforming an organization that had, through virtue of its impressive battlefield performance, become a legendary symbol of Russian patriotism and strength, into a discredited band of disgruntled traitors seeking the violent overthrow of the constitutional government of Russian on behalf of nations who seek the strategic defeat and ultimate destruction of Russia.

If Disney were to write a song about Prigozhin and Wagner today, it would be called Hero to Zero.

Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind—Yevgeny Prigozhin has become a witting agent of Ukraine and the intelligence services of the collective West. And while there may be those within Wagner who have been unwittingly drawn into this act of high treason through deception and subterfuge, in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Russian nation on June 24, and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s impolitic reply, there can be no doubt that there are only two sides in this struggle—the side of constitutional legitimacy, and the side of unconstitutional treason and sedition. Anyone who continues to participate in Prigozhin’s coup has aligned themselves on the wrong side of the law and have themselves become outlaws.

Scott Ritter will discuss this article on Ep. 42 of Scenes from the Evolution Sunday (tentative) at 1 PM ET, and on Ep. 77 of Ask the Inspector Tuesday at 3 PM ET, when he will also answer audience questions.

Having taken Wagner down this unfortunate path, one needs to examine the motivations—stated and otherwise—that could prompt such a dangerous course of action. First and foremost, Prigozhin’s gambit must be looked at for what it is—an act of desperation. For all its military prowess, Wagner as a fighting force is unsustainable for any period without the logistical support of the Russian Ministry of Defense. The fuel that powers Wagner’s vehicles, the ammunition that gives its weapons their lethality, the food that nourishes its fighters—all comes from the very organization that Prigozhin has set his sights on usurping. This reality means that to succeed, Prigozhin would need to rally sufficient support behind his cause capable of not only sustaining his gambit but offsetting the considerable power of the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Federation which, if left intact, would be able to readily defeat the forces of Wagner in any large-scale combat.

In short, Prigozhin is looking to create a so-called “Moscow Maidan” designed to replicate the success of the events of early 2014 in Kiev, where the constitutionally elected government of President Victor Yanukovych was toppled from power through violence and force of will that was orchestrated by Ukrainian nationalists supported by the US and Europe. The fantasy of a “Moscow Maidan” has been at the center of the strategy of the collective West and their Ukrainian proxy from the very start. Premised on the notion of a weak Russian president propped up by a thoroughly corrupt oligarch class, the idea of creating the conditions for the rise of sufficient domestic unrest capable of bringing down the Putin government like a proverbial house of cards was the primary objective of the sanctions regime imposed by the West after the initiation of the Special Military Operation (SMO) on February 24, 2022. The failure of the sanctions to generate such a result compelled the collective West to double-down on the notion of collapsing the Russian government, this time using a military solution. The British Prime Minister pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to forgo a negotiated settlement to the conflict that was ready to be signed in Istanbul on April 1, 2022, and instead engage in a protracted war with Russia fueled by tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military and financial assistance designed to inflict military losses on Russia sufficient to trigger domestic unrest—the elusive “Moscow Maidan.”

This effort likewise failed.

Failing to create the conditions conducive for the collapse of domestic support for Putin and the Ukrainian conflict by pressuring Russia from without, the collective West began working to create the conditions for bringing down Russia by sowing internal seeds of dissention. This strategy hinged on a very sophistical information warfare scheme which simultaneously sought to suppress and discredit narratives which sustained the official position of the Russian government, while building up covert agents of influence within social media outlets deemed to be influential amongst the Russian public. Using these channels, the pro-Ukrainian practitioners of information war began promulgating narratives intended to highlight the failings of the Russian government and, more specifically, persons close to President Putin who were affiliated with the SMO. By focusing their angst on what these channels were highlighting as the “failures” of the SMO, the information warfare practitioners were able to wrap themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” claiming only to be looking out for the best interests of “Mother Russia,” all the while denigrating the character of the constitutional government.

There were several compelling narratives that were used by these information warfare specialists to serve as the foundation of their attack on Putin’s Russia. One of the more popular was grounded in the mythology of “2014” and the early resistance to the Ukrainian nationalists who sought to impose their policies of cultural and linguistic genocide on the ethnic Russian population of the Donbas. Let there be no doubt—the fighting that took place in the initial months and years of the Donbas conflict was difficult and bloody, and those who rallied to the cause of the ethnic Russians of the Donbas deserve tremendous credit for their courage and resilience in the face of a dangerous enemy. But this resistance also served to foster a sense of entitlement among the early leaders and participants of this resistance which often transformed into resentment against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, for abandoning the citizens of the Donbas to their own fate. The combination of resentful entitlement turned into hostility after the initiation of the SMO, when these “originals” took umbrage at whet they deemed to be the inadequate intervention on the part of the Russian government and the perceived incompetence of the Russian military. Characters such as Igor Girkin (perhaps better known by his nom de guerre, Strelkov) and Russell “Texas” Bentley perfected the art of “patriotic” criticism which, intentionally or not, was used by Russia’s enemies to further the notion of a weak and ineffective Russian government vulnerable to intervention by “real” Russian patriots who were concerned about “corruption” and “inefficiency” in the Putin regime. The pro-Ukrainian information warfare outlets were able to help magnify these “patriotic” voices of dissent by disseminating their message using Telegram and YouTube channels.

An expansion on the theme of “betrayed patriot” involves the Wagner Group itself and is pertinent to the present matter. The origins of the private military contract company, Wagner, are murky, but appear to be linked to the events of 2014 in the Donbas and the need for the Russian government to create a vehicle for the provision of relevant military expertise and material to the ethnic Russian resistance in the Donbas that would not conflict with Russian constitutional prohibitions against the deployment of regular Russian Army personnel on foreign soil. From its inception, Wagner was an adjunct of Russian Military Intelligence (GRU), and responsive to the commands of the Russian General Staff. This placed Wagner in the shadowy space between being an official agent of government policy and an independently-funded private military contractor.

Following the initiation of the SMO, the role played by Wagner in the Donbas conflict expanded, transitioning from an advisory capacity to major combatant by expanding the scope and scale of the Wagner presence. Wagner grew into a Corps-sized formation equipped with heavy weapons, including armor and artillery, as well as fixed-wing fighter aircraft, and was assigned responsibility for a section of the frontlines which included the twin-salt mining towns of Soledar and Bakhmut, both of which had been heavily fortified by the Ukrainian military. The bloody fighting for the Soledar-Bakhmut complex, which became known by the sobriquet “the meatgrinder,” helped transform Wagner into a legendary combat force in the minds of most Russians, and elevated Prigozhin’s profile considerably.

Wagner achieved its well-deserved martial reputation largely because it was able to operate independent of the suffocating bureaucracy of the Russian military. Thus liberated, Wagner was able to best exploit the experience and skill of its veteran fighters, streamlining command and control and tactical decision-making to enable Wagner to seize and maintain operational initiative, allowing Wagner to dominate the battlefield. While Wagner had operational independence, it received its operational tasking from the Russian General Staff, which also provided Wagner with the weapons, ammunition, fuel, and other logistical sustainment necessary to carry out its assigned mission.

The legal status of Wagner was secure so long as the territory it operated on was not Russian. This changed, however, in the aftermath of the September 2022 referendum which saw the Donbas transition from being an independent entity to being part of Russia. Wagner was able to maintain its unique status during the political transition of the Donbas to full Russian constitutional control, but once this transition was completed, sometime in early 2023, reality came home to roost. Logistical requisitions, which used to be treated as special requests approved as part of the general support provided by Russia to the Donbas, were not treated as part of the routine logistical establishment of the Russian ministry of Defense. From a practical standpoint, this meant that the quantities of ammunition, especially in terms of artillery shells, was cut back to reflect the “norm” used to support military formations of a similar size. Wagner tactics, however, were contingent upon the ability to support their operations with overwhelming fire support. Denied the quantities of ammunition they were used to receiving, Wagner’s assault detachment began to take heavy casualties, prompting Prigozhin to initiate a public feud with both Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom he accused of incompetence and corruption.

Prigozhin’s antics, which were played out in intimate detail on social media, caught the attention of pro-Ukrainian information warfare specialists, who began promoting the narrative of Prigozhin—a former convict with zero political experience—assuming a leadership position in Russia. Prigozhin himself seemed to feed off this notion. While publicly denying any such ambition, Prigozhin continued his public trolling of Shoigu and Gerasimov. The vitriol became so intense that Putin was compelled to summon both men to the Kremlin, where they were read the riot act by an irate Russian President and told in no uncertain terms to cease and desist or pay the consequences. Putin also at this time had Shoigu step back from being the overseer of Wagner logistical support, instead turning that task over to General Sergey Surovikin, a senior military commander overseeing the air component of the SMO.

In retrospect, this was a mistake, as it only reinforced the notion in Prigozhin’s mind that if he made a big enough scene, Putin would yield to his desires.

At some point in time, Prigozhin appears to have gone off the rails completely. Even after the presidential intervention, Prigozhin continued his public feud with both Shoigu and Gerasimov, at one point threatening to pull Wagner out of Bakhmut before that battle was concluded. Prigozhin went out of his way to promote himself as a frontline commander, appearing in videos he published on Telegram visiting the Wagner fighters on the frontline, often under fire, and then contrasting this with what Prigozhin articulated as the timid behavior of Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom Prigozhin mocked for managing the SMO from the safety of bunkers far from the zone of conflict.

At some point in time Prigozhin’s antics caught the attention of Ukrainian intelligence, and their British and US counterparts. The narcissistic need for attention, coupled with grandiose notions of self-importance, made Prigozhin an ideal candidate for recruitment by a hostile foreign intelligence service. A financial component—basic greed—can be added to this behavioral model as well. In addition to seeking to bring Wagner under the operational control of the Ministry of Defense through the rationing of ammunition, Defense Minister Shoigu announced that Wagner fighters would have to sign legally binding contracts with the Russian Minister of Defense to allow them to continue to serve in their capacity as a combat unit. The reason for this was the constitutional ban on private military companies operating on Russian soil. The Russian government was willing to turn a blind eye to this legality while the battle for Bakhmut raged, but once the “meatgrinder” shut down, and Wagner was withdrawn from the front for a period of well-deserved rest and refitting, the Ministry of Defense announced that before Wagner could resume its combat operations (Prigozhin indicated that Wagner would return to fighting around August 5), its fighters and commanders would have to sign contracts. The deadline for signing contracts was set for July 1.

According to Prigozhin, the military council of commanders—the real leaders of Wagner—refused to allow these contracts to be signed. Wagner and Shoigu were heading for a confrontation. Wagner was, during this time, building upon the good will of the Russian people that had been earned in the bloody fighting for Bakhmut. Wagner was engaged in an unprecedented public relations campaign designed to imprint on the Russian people the heroic status its fighters enjoyed, all the while seeking to recruit new fighters into it ranks. The success of this public relations campaign only reinforced in the mindset of Prigozhin the notion that he and Wagner were more popular amongst the Russian people than were Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The collusion between Prigozhin and the Ukrainians, while unproven at this juncture, appears obvious in retrospect. One of the key indicators is the decision by the Ukrainians to send so-called “anti-Putin” Russian forces across the border into the Belgorod region of Russia, helping create the impression of Russian impotence and incompetence, notions Prigozhin was only too happy to magnify on his own Telegram channels. This message was then further disseminated by Ukrainian-controlled Telegram channels, including those which operated under the guise of serving “Russian patriots.”

Soon both Prigozhin and the ostensible “pro-Russian” social media accounts were highlighting the potential of a Russian Civil War and the collapse of the Putin regime in a repeat of the collapse experienced in the Russian Army in 1917, leading to the downfall of Tsarist rule and the Romanov dynasty. Indeed, informed observers have stated that many of the Wagner fighters who accompanied Prigozhin into Russia as part of the ongoing armed insurrection apparently believed that they were being dispatched to reinforce the border region to guard against future incursions into Russia by forces loyal to Ukraine.

If the goal of Prigozhin was to achieve the collapse of the Putin regime, it appears to have failed miserably. No political leaders, no military leaders of units, no oligarchs have rallied to Prigozhin’s cause. Russia appears to be firmly behind President Putin, and supportive of his stated goal of bringing this insurrection to an end using all means necessary. While Prigozhin claimed to have assembled a force of some 25,000 men for his march of Moscow, the reality is the total number of Wagner soldiers involved is no more than half that number.

Unless Wagner receives substantial assistance, this invasion force will soon run into sustainability issues—gas, ammunition, and food supplies will become problematic. Moreover, as Russian forces begin to physically confront Wagner, it will become crystal clear to the actual fighters that far from defending Russia from a corrupt and inept regime, Wagner has become a pariah, forever linked in the minds of Russia as traitors who sought to stick a knife in Russia’s back at a time of great peril to the survival of the nation—in short, Wagner will have transitioned from Hero to Zero.

What Prigozhin and his supporters, both in the command and rank and file of Wagner, and those collaborators in the social media universe, have done in attacking the constitutional government of Russia is nothing short of treason. Unless something extreme happens in the next day or two, it is inevitable that Wagner will be defeated. The history books will always punctuate its existence as an organization with perfidy of having betrayed Russia to its enemies. But the critical point here isn’t Wagner’s treasonous behavior, but rather the fact that Russia’s enemies—in particular the British and American intelligence services—saw fit to facilitate a substantive armed insurrection designed to remove from power the government of a nuclear armed power. Imagine, for a moment, the righteous ire that would be on display in the halls of Congress and within the walls of the White House if Russian intelligence had actively conspired to have an entity like Blackwater march on Washington, DC with the goal of removing President Biden from power.

It would, some might say, constitute an act of war.

Russian nuclear doctrine allows for Russia to use nuclear weapons when faced with an existential threat to the survival of the Russian state.

If the CIA and MI-6 were involved in the recruitment of Prigozhin with an eye toward facilitating Wagner’s march of Moscow, then they would have been directly engaged in an action that constituted an existential threat to Russia.

Russia would, under its doctrine, have every right to use nuclear weapons in response.

For everyone cheering Prigozhin along this morning, think on that long and hard as you chew on your breakfast.

Because if Prigozhin were to succeed, there may be no tomorrow.

From Redacted

Col. McGregor:  Prigozhin breaks his silence on the mercenary rebellion in Russia

From a Russian commentator

The Truth About Wagner’s March on Moscow

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