What to make of the strange Prigozhin interlude? The putsch that was and wasn’t. The facts are simple. After an alleged attack on Wagner troops by the Russian army ordered by defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov, Prigozhin’s private army of 25,000 took control of the garrison town Rostov-on-Don and its airfield at 7.30am on 24 June. Shoigu fled the town and Gerasimov hid. A warrant for Prighozin’s arrest was issued in Moscow, as he quickly unleashed a ‘march of justice’ on the capital. The Kremlin doubled down and rolled out Putin on TV, who called the Wagner mercenaries’ actions ‘armed mutiny’, ‘a stab in the back’, ‘treason’ and warned that ‘everyone who deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal will suffer inevitable punishment’. He publicly all but proclaimed Prigozhin’s death certificate in terms that couldn’t be clearer.
Matters soon became surreal, however. Wagner troops found no opposition as they sped to Moscow and there were reports of even army-intelligence GRU not standing in their way. It was reported – wrongly, it seems – that Putin’s private planes had left Moscow. Then, deus ex machina-style the otherwise insignificant figure of Belarus president Lukashenko stepped in and brokered a deal. The rebellious Wagner troops, including Prigozhin, would be welcome in his country, he said, and, in return for complete amnesty, would have to call off their march on Moscow. Prigozhin promptly did. He even went further, saying that there had never been an army attack on his troops, and that he supported the war in Ukraine.
What to make of these 24 hours no one could have dreamt up in their wildest dreams?
One obvious explanation is that of the agent gone rogue. Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner Group, began to feel dizzy with success. He believed in his popularity (fanned by the Russian state-controlled media), and he thought himself independent and autonomous.