26 June 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
We need to reflect and comment on a recent episode of political life that has been both dramatic and incongruous at the same time. For 24 hours, the country waited tensely on developments – and in that anticipation, the desperate fears of some mirrored the desperate hopes of others.
But, as we know, it all came to nothing – literally nothing – politically. Though let us not forget that what happened on 24 June also entailed loss of life. Mr. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner PMC, is probably a very impulsive man, capable of independent political actions. But his year as head of a military group fighting on the front lines has made him neither a real politician nor a strategist.
So let’s recount the events without going into unnecessary detail. On the evening of 23 June, Mr. Prigozhin announced that his units’ positions had been shelled by artillery of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and as a result Wagner’s units were going to march in the direction of Moscow on a March for Justice.
Prigozhin’s statement resembled a political declaration which usually precedes a military coup. He promised that ‘this creature (Defence Minister Shoigu) will be stopped,’ reporting that the Russian military in Ukraine ‘are shedding much blood,’ while the Ukrainian army is successfully advancing. According to Prigozhin, 25,000 fighters of his military organization were ready to participate in the March for Justice.
Wagner units then advanced towards Rostov-on-Don and by nightfall had occupied key strategic facilities in the city. According to available information, the military personnel sent to meet Wagner (probably conscript soldiers) did not engage in combat with the mercenaries. Soon footage appeared on the internet showing Prigozhin talking at the headquarters of the Southern Federal District with Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Evkurov and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Vladimir Alekseev.
Various Russian government bodies reacted to this demarche as an attempted mutiny. The Prosecutor General reported to Putin that a criminal case had been opened for incitement to mutiny, and the FSB conducted searches in offices belonging to Prigozhin’s organisations located in St Petersburg. Russian state TV channels had already branded Prigozhin’s actions as treason.
Prigozhin himself stated: ‘Anyone who resists, we will consider as a threat – and destroy them immediately. Including any roadblocks in our way….’
He pointed out that ‘this is not a military coup. This is a March for Justice. Our actions do not interfere with the troops in any way.’
Putin, who went on to make an urgent appeal, expressed, as one would expect, a different point of view. He called the actions of the Wagner PMC treason, though he did not mention Prigozhin by name. He spoke of betrayal, resulting from excessive ambitions. He recalled that Russia was a victim of aggression by ‘neo-Nazis and their accomplices.’ He acknowledged that the situation in Rostov-on-Don remained difficult and called on the armed forces to quell the military insurgency. Interestingly, he drew historical analogies with the events of 1917, when ‘victory was stolen from the country.’
This raises another important question – why? Why did Prigozhin do all this? He was considered one of the people most loyal to Putin. He has had an astonishing career. Over the past year he, an entrepreneur who is better known as a chef and catering specialist, has gained new fame. He has become popular as a military leader. So what is going on? First of all, it seems that over this past year – since March 2022 – he has had enough of this war and learned the price of it. He is a thug, but not an idiot. He knows who started the war, he seems to have suffered when some of his friends died, and he has seen the indifference of the military bureaucracy. He has seen cities burned down and thousands of their inhabitants slaughtered. But all this, of course, is not enough. Putin is right about something – Prigozhin has ambitions. And they came to life when he saw that he, no military man, was fighting better than those generals in uniform. And it also looks like he already had a hunch that he was going to be removed. And that was quite likely. But he still had to make up his mind. And he did…
It is clear now, as it was on the evening of 23 June, that Prigozhin’s mutiny didn’t stand much of a chance. It did not seem that he had a clear plan or programme of action. But, at any rate, he established control over key facilities in Rostov-on-Don and then sent several of his columns towards Moscow. On the way, the Wagner troops bypassed cities, including the major city of Voronezh, in the vicinity of which they shot down several helicopters that tried to attack them. Indeed, they know how to fight. It was not very clear, however, how the columns would be able to make up for the shortage of fuel and ammunition. Until now, Prigozhin had always depended on supplies from the Ministry of Defence.
No one can say for sure how many fighters were really under Prigozhin’s command. He speaks of 25,000, but this figure is open to doubt. However, even 7-8,000 professionals soldiers who have served at the front are a serious force. Those who confronted them – riot police, conscripts of the Ministry of Defence, people from the FSB, had every reason to be afraid of the front-line soldiers armed with heavy equipment. And the equipment is there – tanks and military trucks. Again, it is not clear in what numbers.
Theoretically, Putin could have withdrawn some units from the front. But would they have fared well against their recent comrades-in-arms? And could the front be weakened in the face of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive?
That was the key problem from a military point of view. In theory, Putin had far more forces than Prigozhin, but those forces were either of little use in urban combat or not very reliable. All in all, clearly, this was enough to make Putin very nervous.
Politically, things were even more complicated and interesting. The main thing that can be found in several speeches Prigozhin recorded in succession – one after the other – is the partial truth about the war, carefully avoided by propagandists. Putin himself, speaking, on the morning of 24 June, used the same false and despicable thesis that has now become basic in official propaganda: that Russia is ‘the victim of aggression by neo-Nazis and their accomplices.’
Prigozhin, on the other hand, told the truth. He said that the war had been unleashed by a group of people at the highest levels of power in Russia in pursuit of their own selfish interests. Prigozhin also said that all talk of ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine was also false. He also recalled the vested interests of some Russian oligarchs, who hoped to gain assets from the seized Ukrainian lands. At the same time, he either made no mention of Putin, or presented him as a victim of distorted information and lies by military bureaucrats. Prigozhin knew it was not to his advantage to directly attack the dictator who had initiated the war. But it must be stressed: Prigozhin had accumulated a fair amount of dislike for Putin in recent months. We remember his words about the ‘happy grandfather’… That has serious implications.
I think Putin himself has no doubts on this point.
According to Prigozhin, the war has been conducted in a botched manner – the officers had no care about the numbers of casualties and chaos reigned in the management of combat units. Actual losses were many times greater than those reported by the General Staff and the Ministry of Defence.
This was all exactly the case. But it needs to be pointed out that at that point Prigozhin ran out of ideas. He had no idea how to proceed with the war. He also seemed undecided as to whether he should say Putin was mainly responsible for the war. Nor was he in a hurry to say what role he himself would like to play in the state. I think he simply did not know. And what this state should be like – it would even be strange to ask him about it. He had no ideas about any of these questions.
But he willingly talked about ‘all kinds of scum’ in the general’s offices and on the Rublevka where so many of Russia’s elite lives. His was the view from the trenches. But what should follow? Trying to remove Gerasimov and Shoigu, only to take their place and continue the defence of the seized Ukrainian territories?
I think the lack of answers to all these questions played a part in the fact that the head of the rebellion suddenly seemed to back out when his units were 200 kilometres from the capital.
The main thing, however, was that the candidate for dictator realised he clearly lacked the resources to establish control over Moscow and over the political situation as a whole. He was confronted near the border of the Tula (or Ryazan) region by a force that Wagner’s mercenaries would probably have been able to cope with. They undoubtedly remain one of the most combat-ready military units in the country. The downed helicopters alone are evidence of this.
But Prigozhin seemed to already know that there would be no easy march on Moscow. And even if his men did fight their way into the capital, what would he do next? It seems these thoughts that somehow had never occurred to him before proved suitable grounds for peace-making conversations with Mr Lukashenka who called the head of the Wagner PMC at the right time at the Russian president’s behest.
And looking ahead we can assume that Prigozhin’s fate could take a tragic turn in the coming months. There are some things the Russian dictator does not forgive.
And we need to realize a few truths. We are already very close to what used to be called, in Russian history, a ‘time of troubles.’ This is when more or less organised power is gradually, step by step, replaced by strife and chaos.
After reviewing these unprecedented developments in Russian affairs, another cowardly act by the so-called Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation seems quite trivial. Still, it deserves a mention, given the importance of legal analysis.
On 20 June the website of the Constitutional Court published its dismissals of 13 complaints. It turns out that they were adopted at the end of May. The dismissals are absolutely uniform brief refusals in response to requests to check the constitutionality of Article 20.3.3 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences. Article 20.3.3, it should be pointed out, concerns ‘Public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, maintaining international peace and security….’ More than 7,000 Russians have been fined under this law. This is not an article of the Criminal Code, although criminal prosecution may in some cases follow.
What do we need to pay attention to here? The Constitutional Court did not take up these complaints at all. There have been no public hearings with presentation of the parties’ positions. We can judge the position of the Constitutional Court by the terse reasoning in these rejected rulings. But it is also creates a strong impression.
Until now it seemed to me that there could be nothing more shameful than the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the inclusion of territories, captured during the war, into the Russian Federation. But no. The bottom had not yet been reached.
In the dismissals of 13 complaints we see a completely new face of our constitutional justice – now it is the face of a deputy secretary for ideology at a Moscow Research Institute. This is the guy, who should be cheerfully explaining the latest turn in party policy, say, the next introduction of troops somewhere or other. Or justifying exclusion from the party.
In these 13 complaints the applicants pointed out that the article in question of the Code of Administrative Offences violatea the constitutional freedoms of speech, thought and assembly, because on its basis people have been seized on the streets for holding posters that read ‘No to War,’ ‘Peace to Peace,’ ‘No to Fascism,’ and also for those texts where some of the letters were missing. The applicants also pointed out that the contested provision of the Code of Administrative Offences contradicts the article of the Russian Constitution prohibiting the creation of any state or compulsory ideology.
It must be said at once that the Constitutional Court did not seem to pay any attention to the applicants’ arguments. In the texts published in the name of the Constitutional Court, there is almost no legal argumentation as such. I did, however, try to pick out phrases which at least hint at the legal specialisation of the authors of the text. According to one argument, the norm subject to challenge ‘does not prevent the pointing out of deficiencies’ if this does not involve ‘an arbitrary denial of the constitutionally predetermined nature, aims and objectives of the activity in question and is based on openly available and reliable information.’ That is, the decisions of the Russian authorities cannot be arbitrarily questioned as they are aimed at ‘protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security.’
But this is completely at odds with the very principle of constitutionality, as it implies precisely the questioning of the legitimacy of the actions of the authorities and the need to limit its powers. It turns out that the Constitutional Court is a priori confident in the constitutionality of the actions of the authorities – without providing any arguments.
It is also absurd that the Constitutional Court puts forward such grounds for possible criticism as the use of ‘openly available and reliable information’ to ‘point out deficiencies.’ What is openly available and reliable information’? Any information on YouTube is openly available. And the reliability or unreliability of a particular fact quoted by someone can be challenged in court. And in what does the unreliability consist of the information on which the poster ‘No to War’ was based, for which the author was fined?
Lawlessness and arbitrariness reign in my homeland.
Translated by Rights in Russia