Russia: The Kayfabe Coup is Under Way

Prigozhin’s troops seize Rostov and regime looks paralysed. Updates follow.

As I write, Russian Telegram channels are flooded with videos of Wagner Group detachments staging a coup in Rostov. In Voronezh they’ve reportedly exchanged fire with regular forces; in others, paramilitaries at checkpoints designed to stop them are shown hiding as they pass.

UPDATE 05:37 CET: Putin has still not reacted.

Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, declared war on the Russian general staff yesterday, and claimed his mercenaries had been hit with artillery fire from the regular Russian Army. This morning his troops are in control of the Southern Military District HQ in Rostov and attempting to move north. He said:

“After we finished what we started, we will return to the frontline to protect our motherland. Presidential authority, Government, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Rosgvardia, and other departments will continue operating as before. We will deal with those who destroy Russian soldiers. And we will return to the frontline. Justice in the Army will be restored. And after this, justice for the whole of Russia.”

Meanwhile, numerous people with contacts inside the Moscow elite report paralysis. So what’s going on?

First, we can be 100% certain this is not any kind of popular uprising. It’s a long-signalled and advance-choreographed conflict between factions within the regime, in response to failure in Ukraine. The clue is precisely in Prigozhin’s description of the end-state, above: everything back to normal.

Second, we can be pretty certain of the aim, which is to depose the current military leadership — Shoigu and Gerasimov. Prigozhin himself has stated his beef is not with Putin. His video rant blames the MoD for deceiving Putin about Ukraine’s intent; he claims they were allied to “oligarchs” aiming to plunder Ukraine and the war cannot be won.

Russia is losing

Third, the context. Whatever the difficulties of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which is still at an early stage, Russia is losing strategically.

The moment the West committed to sending F-16s was a signal to Putin to cut his losses: with F-16s Ukraine will not only have control of its own airspace but can threaten any Russian surface vessel in the Black Sea. The whole point of annexing Crimea was to ensure maritime dominance in that region, which becomes impossible with a Ukraine armed, trained and funded by the West.

In response to this, and to Ukraine’s initial successes in its counter-offensive, Putin has sent three clear signals.

  • Russia blew up the Nova Kakhovka dam on 6 June, rendering parts of Kherson it controls, and in the long term Crimea itself, agriculturally devastated.
  • On 22 June, according to President Zelensky, it mined the Zaporizhizhia nuclear power plant for destruction, in order to claim it as a Ukrainian terror attack.
  • Then, last week, a flurry of Russian experts wrote articles speculating on the conditions for pre-emptive nuclear use.

Sergei Karaganov, a Kremlin-aligned foreign policy expert, urged Putin to threaten and prepare for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Ukraine:

“If we correctly build a strategy of intimidation and deterrence and even use of nuclear weapons, the risk of a ‘retaliatory’ nuclear or any other strike on our territory can be reduced to an absolute minimum.”

This was followed on Friday with the arrest of five people accused of transporting radioactive materials “with intent to stage incidents that would discredit Russia”

Strategic background

So as chaotic events unfold in Rostov, and probably other cities, we need to read the strategic background.

Prigozhin’s rant against the Russian Ministry of Defence didn’t just accuse them of failing to win the war. He accused them of starting the war on false premises, to benefit the “oligarchy” — code-word for Russian rentier capitalists who are not up for the full ethnonationalist project.

Many experts believe, despite Prigozhin’s jibes at Putin, he is ultimately allied with Putin against the general staff. For his revolt to succeed he doesn’t have to take Moscow: he has to show the generals have lost control of their troops, triggering a Presidential coup against the military.

Since there are multiple factions within the security elite of Russia, the outcome of that coup is hard to predict. But the likely outcome would be a stronger regime, with Putin now under the control of populist, ethno-nationalist hardliners, and with a valid excuse to cut its losses in Ukraine.

So just as in professional wrestling, we are seeing multiple levels of real, fake and choreography — “kayfabe” in the parlance.

The Russian news is really telling people to arrest Prigozhin. There is real fighting and there will be real blood. But the aim is regime strengthening, not regime change. Like everything Prigozhin does, the coup is designed for maximum communicative power. But there are high risks, as rival factions and regional governors spring to life this Saturday morning, considering where their interests lie.

As always, the Russian people will be spectators — they are right now standing bemused in their summer shorts and sandals as Prigozhin’s troops seal off Rostov. Putin may fall, or become a prisoner in the Kremlin. But only if the Russian people begin to act in their own interests can this nightmare end.