24 Jun 2023
By Gwynne Dyer
The Don is a much bigger river than the Rubicon, but Yevgeny Prigozhin and his army crossed it anyway on Friday.
Not being classically educated, the boss of the Wagner mercenary army probably did not mutter ‘Alea iacta est’ to himself – ‘The die is cast’ – as Julius Caesar reportedly did when he crossed the Rubicon and launched his rebellion against the Roman Senate in 49 BC. But Prigozhin is now on the same Death or Glory ride as Caesar was.
He is currently in Rostov-on-Don, the biggest city in southern Russia, having pulled all his troops out of Ukraine over the previous 36 hours. A video showed him in a seemingly amicable conversation with two local Russian army generals at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in that city.
Prigozhin went ‘rogue’ after air strikes on Friday on his troops’ camps in Ukraine that he claims were ordered by Russia’s Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, and army commander Valery Gerasimov. However, there was no resistance by Russian army units as the Wagner troops drove the hundred km. east from the Ukrainian border to Rostov.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice. The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” Prigozhin said on the widely used Telegram site, calling for the Russian army to stand aside and let him deal with them.
The Wagner commander blames Shoigu and Gerasimov both for starting the war and for failing to conduct it efficiently, but Rostov is a thousand km. from Moscow. How can he force the resignation of those two men from there?
Well, Moscow is only two days’ drive from Rostov up the M-4 freeway – and other Wagner troops, also just pulled out from Ukraine, are in Voronezh, only half as far from the capital. They probably smashed through a few checkpoints on the way, as did the ones with Prigozhin further south, but they met no organised resistance either.
Because President Vladimir Putin has been so reluctant to declare mobilisation, almost the entire Russian army has been committed to Ukraine. There are very few quick-reaction military units available across the vast reaches of Russia’s land, and the Russian army’s troops are clearly ambivalent about Prigozhin. It could happen.
In a Saturday national TV broadcast, Putin accused the Wagner group of a “stab in the back” and said that Russia is “facing treason”, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? He is effectively held hostage by Shoigu and Gerasimov (let’s just call them S&G), whose troops still control Moscow.
That is not to say that Putin didn’t want to destroy the independence of Ukraine. He gladly committed to the invasion on 24 February, 2021 when S&G assured him that the ‘special military operation’ would require three days’ easy fighting and then a victory parade in Kiev. But it all went terribly wrong, and he may now be looking for a way out.
Prigozhin has left the door open for him. He repeats the familiar old trope of the Good King misled by evil advisers, implicitly absolving Putin of blame for the disaster. If enough people side with Prigozhin and he takes Moscow, Putin could claim he had been deceived and remain safely in power (although he would become Prigozhin’s puppet).
Here’s the cover story, in Prigozhin’s own words, and it’s even true.
“We were hitting [the Ukrainians], and they were hitting us. That’s how it went on for those eight long years, from 2014 to 2022. Sometimes the number of skirmishes would increase, sometimes decrease.”
“On 24 February  there was nothing extraordinary happening in Ukraine. Now the Ministry of Defence is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president and tell a story that there was some crazy aggression by Ukraine, that – together with the whole NATO bloc – Ukraine was planning to attack us.”
“The war was needed [only] so that Shoigu could become a Marshal, so that he could get a second Hero Star…The war wasn’t for ‘demilitarising’ or ‘de-nazifying’ Ukraine. It was needed for an extra star.” So the Good King wasn’t to blame, and he can switch sides safely if he is able to get rid of S&G.
Which is not to say that Prigozhin will really reach Moscow, or that Putin would use that open door if he does.
Many years ago, when the old Soviet Union was tottering to its end, Russians used to ask me (and every other foreign journalist) if there was going to be a civil war. If I had a thousand dollars for every time I replied “Grazhdanskoy voyny ne budet” (“There won’t be a civil war”), I would now be a rich man.
But if they asked me today, I don’t know what I’d say.