Dead man walking

No matter how high the premiums, no insurance company would agree to sell a life policy to Yevgeny Prigozhin. The risk would be unacceptable.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Now those Wagnerian Valkyries stopped their march within swearing distance of Moscow, Prigozhin’s life isn’t worth that proverbial brass farthing. The same goes for all his officers and men.

The whole scenario seems to vindicate Hegel’s saying, later repeated by Marx, that “history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce”. In that spirit, Wagner’s exploits quickly turned from opera to operetta.

Start with Prigozhin’s putative reason for turning around: I have moved within 100 km of Moscow, he said, without spilling any Russian blood. If I go any farther, that precious blood will be spilled, and that’s unacceptable.

First, Wagnerians shot down eight Russian aircraft, killing at least 15 flyers, possibly more. By Russian standards that may not count as spilled blood – I believe they start counting only at five digits, possibly not even then. Still, the claim of “no Russian blood” was farcical — especially coming from a man who had had his own stragglers publicly killed with a sledgehammer.

Most military experts agree that Prigozhin could have taken Moscow had he not stopped. The capital was denuded: the battle-worthy units in its garrison had been shipped to the Ukrainian front.

What was left was the so-called National Guard and security forces, armed only to disperse peaceful demonstrations. They still greatly outnumbered Wagner’s vanguard of some 5,000 advancing on Moscow, but one Wagner cutthroat is worth 10 such truncheon-wielders.

I was especially moved watching videos of the defensive measures taken by Putin’s men as the Wagner column advanced on the main highway linking Russia’s south with Moscow. Putin’s men brought in excavators, tore up the tarmac in several places and dug trenches across the roadway.

That wouldn’t have slowed down Prigozhin’s armour for no longer than an hour or two, but I confidently predict it’ll take the Russians many years to repair the highway. When it comes to such infrastructure projects, they move even more slowly than their British counterparts, which is saying a lot.

For all that, Prigozhin’s only hope was that the Russian army would switch sides and, buoyed by enthusiastic popular support, install Prigozhin in the Kremlin. Yet no such mass desertions took place, and the popular support was rather low-key. To be fair, one didn’t see any crowds waving Putin’s portraits either.

Even assuming that Prigozhin could have ridden his white steed into the Kremlin, he wouldn’t have lasted there. “Losing Moscow doesn’t mean losing Russia,” as Field Marshal Kutuzov said in 1812. He then let Napoleon take the ancient capital, whatever was left of it after Kutuzov and Governor General Rostopchin had burned Moscow to cinders (along with some 26,000 Russian wounded no one had bothered to evacuate).

I’m not suggesting Putin would have done a Rostopchin, but Prigozhin had no military, political or administrative resources to turn his putsch into a successful revolution. That meant the mutiny, if that’s what it was, was doomed. And so now is Prigozhin, along with his whole Wagner group. (I’ll mention another possibility later.)

The conclusion to the march was farcical. Putin, who just a few hours earlier had been describing Prigozhin’s foray as treason, promised to dismiss all charges and allow the Wagner men to return to their “positions of prior deployment”. The deal was mediated by Lukashenko, who generously offered Prigozhin asylum.

First, who on earth is Lukashenko? He is the figurehead leader of a country occupied by Russian troops. Thus he has no more say in such matters than, say, Pierre Laval had in the politics of Nazi-occupied France.

And, considering that Belarus is indeed controlled by Putin’s army and FSB, how safe do you suppose Prigozhin feels there? One word from the Kremlin, and there comes a cup of polonium tea or a spray of novichok aftershave.

Those who may think that Putin will abide by his promise of safe passage misread Russia and her politics woefully. Russia has no state and hence no politics in any accepted sense of the word. The country is run by a gangster family, along the lines explored in The Godfather.

Remember the attempt to assassinate Vito Corleone? The Godfather then went on to prove the old adage that if you merely wound the king, beware. If you don’t kill him, he’ll kill you. As Vito was recovering from his wounds, his enemies, the whole Tattaglia family, were wiped out, along with Corleone’s turncoats.

A mafia boss can neither forgive nor forget. If he does, he shows weakness, loses face. And losing face will inexorably lead to losing his life – such is the law of the criminal underworld.

Sure enough, yesterday Putin finally graced the TV audience with his appearance. Talking to the officers of his enforcement forces, he said that, despite reports to the contrary, the criminal case against the mutiny leaders hadn’t been dropped. The rank and file, he added, can either sign contracts with the Russian army or – listen carefully – join Prigozhin in Belarus.

In any case, the Wagner group seems to have been disbanded. All its officers are under a mafia death sentence and, logically, so is Prigozhin, even though Putin didn’t mention him by name. If any of them or their men choose to join Prigozhin in Belarus, that only means they’ll be killed there rather than elsewhere.

Those deciding to enlist in the Russian army will also be killed, in the Ukraine. There is no doubt they’ll be used as readily dispensable cannon fodder sent on suicide missions.

Such is the scenario lying on the surface. Yet there exists another one, more macabre if less likely.

At first, when Prigozhin’s exile to Belarus was announced, everyone was led to believe he’d be there by himself, a general without an army and therefore not a general any longer. Yet yesterday, Putin gave Wagner fighters the option of joining their caporegime.

Now, assuming that Lukashenko still retains a modicum of power in his land, he must be quaking in his boots at the prospect of several thousand armed bandits inundating his country. The most immediate prospect is that they’ll do to Belorussian towns what they’ve already done to Ukrainian ones, going on a blood-soaked rampage of murder, torture, rape and looting.

Then, of course, the same men who almost took Moscow within a couple of days could probably take Minsk within a couple of hours. Prigozhin has so far failed to oust Putin, but he could easily oust Lukashenko.

The latter understands this perfectly well, which is why he would never have accepted such an arrangement unless pressured by Putin. But why would Putin want to see a Wagner contingent in Belarus? After all, he is already in de facto control of that country.

So here’s some nourishing food for conspiracist thought: Prigozhin’s mutiny occurred within days of the announcement that Russian nuclear weapons had been deployed in Belarus.

Some analysts mulled over the possibility that Putin was going to deliver a nuclear strike on, say, Poland from Belarussian territory and then disclaim any responsibility. It’s all Lukashenko’s fault, he could have said. So, Mr Nato, if you want to retaliate, hit Minsk, not Moscow.

That would have been a transparent lie, but the West would have been predisposed to accept it for fear of an all-out nuclear holocaust. Still, some forces within Nato could have refused to be so credulous. That would have created unpredictable consequences for Putin, and he might not have liked his odds.

But the West could digest the same claim more easily if the nuclear strike were delivered not by a technically sovereign Belorussian state, but by a terrorist gang seizing control of those weapons. Enter Prigozhin and his merry men.

As I mentioned earlier, this scenario is unlikely. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible – nothing is, with gangsters operating outside any moral constraints.

Come what may, Prigozhin would be well-advised not to make far-reaching plans for the future. He won’t survive any scenario, including the unlikely sinister one I’ve outlined.

Whether he is held responsible for a mutiny against Putin or a nuclear strike against the West, “Putin’s chef” won’t be allowed to live. His goose is cooked.

7 thoughts on “Dead man walking”

  1. So at what point do the super rich and powerful in Russia say “enough”? If their accounts are frozen, yachts confiscated, and activities curtailed will not they attempt to end Putin’s wreckless leadership?

    1. That confiscation campaign launched by the West forced those Russian moneybags to reinvest their capital or what’s left of it in Russia.

  2. There could also be the third scenario of Prigozhin recruiting some strong Belorussian lads eager to earn a pretty penny in cash, to swell Wagner’s ranks, and launching a raid on Kiev which is within 150 miles of Wagner’s current deployment site in Belarus. If his cutthroats could take Moscow, as you conjecture, why not try their luck with Kiev?

  3. Wagner troops are rather smart and savvy professionals having their own IRS capacity and Panzir air defense hardware. They were not that stupid to use only one highway in their potential assault on Moscow. They were going to split their force into 4-5 mobile groups that would enter Moscow from 5 different directions, semi-circling it.

  4. “Governor General Rostopchin had burned Moscow to cinders (along with some 26,000 Russian wounded no one had bothered to evacuate).”

    You learn something new every day.

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