Russian war games: Putin wounded by Prigozhin’s failed rebellion – Professor Abel Esterhuyse

A weekend of war games in Russia. A coup that wasn’t. A failed armed rebellion. A violent clash of egos between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his warlord Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin. BizNews speaks to Professor Abel Esterhuyse from the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University who says the failed rebellion nevertheless spells the beginning of the “unmaking” of the Putin regime in Russia. He thinks the “March for Justice” was for military-, not political justice and that it could have been sparked by a move to integrate Prigozhin’s Wagner Group fully into the Russian military because it was increasingly getting out of hand – and taking the credit for battlefield successes. Professor Esterhuyse says the failed rebellion has also put the loyalty of the Russian military in question. He believes the Ukraine should now just use time as a strategic commodity and wait for Putin’s position to be eroded to the point that a change of leadership becomes inevitable. – Chris Steyn

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 00:25 – Prof Abel Esterhuyse on the attempted rebellion by Russia’s Wagner Group
  • 05:21 – Prof Esterhuyse on Putin’s thinking on attempted rebellion
  • 09:07 – On Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin and Putin’s Russian concerns
  • 11:48 – On what a successful coup by Prigozhin and Wagner Group would have looked like
  • 13:34 – On the clash of egos between Prigozhin and Putin and how he sees the Russia-Ukrain conflict ending

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Highlights from the interview

“I don’t think it was an armed rebellion. I don’t think he was trying to execute a coup, an old school coup.  We need to keep in mind he’s never criticised Putin. He’s never ever directed any criticism against Putin. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Putin has tolerated him for so long. Every single one of his criticisms was directed at the Russian military, the Russian generals, the way that they were running – and is – running the operation in Ukraine.’

However, with this so-called “March for Justice, for the first time, I think he was questioning the rationale for this whole operation. What it was that Russia was doing in the Ukraine and what is it that Russia wants to achieve in Ukraine. If I had to read between the lines, for me, that was the first time that I see a criticism of Putin…And then, of course, it was very, very critical of the way that the war was conducted in Ukraine.”

But the “trigger incident” of 36 hours of rebellion was “perhaps the decision by Putin…I’m not sure to what extent this was driven by the Russian military, but that they in essence want to disband the whole Wagner group and that by the 1st of July, if I’m correct, they want them to be fully integrated into the Russian military”.

Read more: Vladimir Putin is reaping the fruits of his own misjudgments – FT Editorial Board

Professor Esterhuyse points out that the Wagner Group has been in many ways a counterforce for the Russian military and the Russian security apparatus. “But it was a counterforce that was increasingly getting out of hand, I think, and more and more…|

“Prigozhin and Putin…they have big egos. And Prigozhin was increasingly sort of taking the honour of the success and what happened on the battlefield, claiming that for Wagner and claiming that for himself and in a way sort of irritating the Russian military, becoming an irritation for Putin. 

“So over time, I think we have seen a divide starting to develop between the Putin regime and the Wagner Group that I think eventually led to this March for Justice over the weekend.

“It was not a march for political justice. It was a march for military justice… And I don’t think his intention initially was to go to Moscow and to challenge Putin’s political rule…But then eventually, this is the ironic outcome of military operations; they tend to develop a character of their own over time… And so, you know, as it unfolded and the popular support…the way that the military wasn’t really actively resisting, stopping him and resisting what he was doing, you know, he became perhaps a little bit ambitious as well and started thinking about perhaps we need to expand this and go to Moscow as well.”

Read more: Russia’s elite gripped by gloom as Putin’s war in Ukraine stumbles: A desperate search for a ‘Frozen’ outcome

Professor Esterhuyse notes how the Prigozhin’s advance towards Moscow caused “some tense discussions in European capitals because Russia is sitting with a huge nuclear arsenal – and it becomes a case of the devil we know versus the devil we don’t know”. 

As to the kind of president Prigozhin would have made and what support he might have had, Esterhuyse says:  “And I think, you know, if you sit back and you think about the Western intelligence knowing about this…On the one hand, yes, they wanna create opportunities for Ukraine. They want to turn Russia on itself and create weakness within Russia in that way. But at the same time, I think they were very, very, very cautious in terms of the devil.

“One should keep in mind he’s an old-school criminal. Let’s be honest about that. He served some time in prison in a former Soviet Union. The way that he conducted operations and engagements in places in Africa and other places in Syria, there’s nothing good to be said about Wagner and the way that he handled Wagner and his willingness to engage in all kinds of activities that if not criminal, it borders on the criminal. 

“And a lot of that has to do with who he is as an individual. At least Putin has a refined understanding, I think, of international politics. And not to do stupid things. Not that the invasion of Ukraine wasn’t stupid…but I think there’s still some limits and rationality in what Putin is doing. I would be very cautious in wanting to see Prigozhin as President in Russia.”

Read more: How Ukraine views SA’s arms-to-Russia scandal, offering Putin immunity, claimed “non-aligned” status

Nevertheless, the weekend’s events shows that Putin is not necessarily a popular leader in Russia anymore. “It is quite clear that there’s not much popular support for Putin in the rural areas. I’m not talking about the oligarchs and the Moscow, St. Petersburg environment. Nobody was really willing to put their lives on the line to protect Putin – and I think that’s a very important point – not even the military. In fact, one has to question the loyalty of the military to Putin. I think this whole operation put the loyalty of the Russian military in question.

“So I think what we have seen and what we have witnessed is perhaps the beginning of the unmaking of the Putin regime in Russia. It’s probably going to take some time still, but I have no doubt that as the war progress, and Ukraine just needs to play the factor of time as a strategic commodity. They can just…they just need to last. They don’t have to be successful. They just need to survive. And in the process of surviving, killing as many, and it sounds strange to say that, but let Russia pay a price for its involvement in the Ukraine. 

“And the longer the war lasts, the more Russian soldiers coming home in body bags, the more the war is costing Russia and the Russian economy runs into problems…I think Putin’s position eventually will be eroded to the point where they will have to make a change.”

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