People were hoping for Tchaikovsky, but got Wagner instead

26 June 2023, 0536 EDT

If you spent the entire Friday night and Saturday glued to the news about Prigozhin’s armed rebellion, you are either an IR-head, a Russia-watcher or the Ukrainian army running out of popcorn. The avalanche of hot-takes about the start of a civil war, theoretical debates about a coup or not a coup and an army of blue-check grifters with the latest FSB letters reigned the day. The pundits who rushed to their keyboards with the news of Russia’s impeding collapse saw their takes turn to pumpkins even before midnight: after Wagner’s mostly unobstructed march to Moscow and seizing Rostov on Don without any resistance, Prigozhin announced the retreat of his forces “according to plan”.

For those not permanently online, the weekend featured quite a hullabaloo with Wagner mercenary group moving significant parts of their troops to Rostov, on the Russian side of the border from the occupied Ukrainian regions, as well as moving fast towards Moscow and shooting down several Russian aircraft around Voronezh. Voronezh is already featured in the Russian popular vocabulary as a proverbial foot/penis one might shoot themselves into (bombit’ Voronezh). Life imitates art, or, in this case, folklore. After accusing the Russian government of fabricating the pretences for invading Ukraine, Prigozhin demanded the ‘heads” of Defense Minister Shoigu and chief of the general staff Gerasimov angrily asking for respectful attitude from the deputy defence minister Evkurov on tape. The morning of June 24th was tense to say the least with Putin’s angry accusations of treason on TV (without naming names) and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s sanctimonious appeals to unity from a monastery outside of Moscow. The “heads” that Prigozhin demanded notably stayed silent, while a number of functionaries didn’t rush to declare support to the commander in chief.

The resolution came somewhat unexpected through (supposedly) Belarus’ Lukashenko’s mediation: according to the official communications, Prigozhin and his fighters were granted immunity “based on their military record” and Wagner’s head was supposed to leave for Belarus. After the initial mocking of the deal (and Prigozhin himself earning a record number of clown emojis on Telegram as a reaction to his retreat) and incredulity at the fact that you can dance in a church for two years prison time, but shoot down military aircraft and stage an armed rebellion for an exile in Belarus, Russian State Prosecutor’s office announced today that they are not dropping the criminal charges against Prigozhin. Interesting. Especially after one of the main TV pundits Kiselyov warning that the only thing that Putin does not forgive is treason, many are warning the Wagner chief to stay away from the windows. Prigozhin’s trolls rushed to praise the “wisdom” of everyone involved that prevented the bloodshed. After all, “you don’t want Russia to turn into Ukraine”, according to them.

So far, the best explanations I have seen come from Jeremy Morris, Tatiana Stanovaya, and Sam Greene (apologies for missing others). Jeremy’s central point is that Prigozhin’s stunt (not a coup) was an elaborate attempt at political communication with the power vertical. While I am not entire sure I agree with Prigozhin’s designation as “chthonic Karen” , Wagner’s chief’s threat to the regime stability was not insignificant. The true repercussions of the rebellion are yet to come as it’s unclear what exactly is Prigozhin going to do in Belarus or even whether he will get there, what will become of Wagner’s troops (will they sign MoD contracts? Will there be changes to the military command?). The short timeline of the rebellion does indicate it’s “not a coup” nature: there didn’t seem to be much coordination with other factions within Russia and specifically in Moscow. Granted, there were some unfazed street-cleaners and happy bystanders handing out food to the uniformed personnel in Rostov (remember, this city is one of the main areas of recruitment for Wagner), most population’s reaction was summarised in yet another Russian saying: a toad having intercourse with a viper. You don’t root for either.

When there is instability in the Russian state, people expect to see Swan Lake on TV. So far there was only a short Wagner interlude.