What just happened?

For most of last Saturday, Russia was in a state of acute crisis. Yevgeny Prigozhin had pulled his ‘Wagner’ army of mercenary soldiers out of Ukraine and sent some of them racing up the highway towards Moscow instead. Their task was to force Russia’s military leadership to quit for corruption and

Machines were digging tank traps across the main roads leading into Moscow. President Vladimir Putin declared on national television that “all those who consciously chose the path of betrayal “¦will suffer an inevitable punishment.” Yet ten hours later Putin accepted a deal that involved no punishment whatever.

He agreed that Prigozhin would order all the Wagner troops to return to their bases and then go into exile himself in Belarus. Both he and his 25,000-odd Wagner soldiers would get an amnesty.

The only explanation Prigozhin offered for his about-turn was that he didn’t want to shed “Russian blood”. That seems unlikely, given that he has already said (a) that 20,000 Wagner fighters were killed in the battle of Bakhmut, and (b) that he knows the invasion of Ukraine was justified on entirely false

So the prospect of a few more Russian deaths to rid the country of the two men he blames for both provoking and bungling the war in Ukraine, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Defence Staff Valery Gerasimov, is probably not why he changed his mind at the last moment. Maybe there was
some other calculation in play, but what was it?

Hundreds of analysts in a dozen countries are working on that mystery right now, because Russia is still an important place, and Putin’s power has clearly been damaged by this bizarre incident.

At the very least, the lack of popular resistance to Prigozhin’s attempted coup (if that’s what it was) is deeply worrying for Putin. The populations of the Russian cities that the Wagner troops occupied, Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, were generally welcoming to them, and even applauded and cheered as they pulled out again on Sunday.

I realise that I’m asking questions here and not providing answers, but there’s clearly a lot more going on within the Russian elite than is visible to outsiders. Loyalties and expectations are shifting, and even the ‘window of opportunity’ that the Ukrainian leaders have been hoping for may open some time soon.

In the meantime, consider this. Yevgeny Prigozhin put a spray of angry messages up on ‘Telegram’ during the crisis, and one in particular will circulate and resonate among the younger Russians whose lives the war in Ukraine is blighting.

Prigozhin’s people have been fighting in the Donbas since 2014, and he knows where the bodies are buried.

“We were hitting [the Ukrainians], and they were hitting us. That’s how it went on for those eight long years, from 2014 to 2022 Sometimes the number of skirmishes would increase,
sometimes decrease.”

“On 24 February [2022, the day of the invasion], there was nothing extraordinary happening in Ukraine. Now the Ministry of Defence is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president and tell a story that there was some crazy aggression by Ukraine; that Ukraine, together with the whole NATO bloc,
was planning to attack us.”

“The war wasn’t for ‘demilitarising’ or ‘de-nazifying’ Ukraine. It was needed so that Shoigu could [get a promotion].” One should add that it was also driven by Putin’s legacy project (reuniting at least the Slavic bits of the old Soviet Union), but you wouldn’t expect Yevgeny Prigozhin to get into that.