The back story to the Russian 'coup'

25 June 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin's military mutiny in Rostov-on-Don on June 24, 2023. A tank with flowers in the muzzle. / Wikimedia Commons

In Frank Herbert's "Dune" series of novels, Salusa Secundus was the ancestral homeworld of House Corrino, the ruling family of the Padishah Empire.

Then came the Butlerian Jihad, a great war fought against thinking machines. "AI" in modern terminology  Salusa Secundus was eventually conquered by the Army of the Jihad and fell under the control of the new Imperium, ruled by the Padishah Emperors. It was turned into a harsh and brutal prison planet — a place of exile for political dissidents and enemies of the Empire.

The prisoners on Salusa Secundus had the option of being subjected to a brutal training regime. Most prisoners perished in the process, but still opted to enter the training programme.

What was involved? Here’s an overview:

Intensive Combat Training: The prisoners underwent rigorous combat training that included various martial arts techniques, hand-to-hand combat, weapons proficiency, and tactical warfare. They were trained to be formidable fighters in both individual and group combat scenarios.

Harsh Physical Conditioning: They endured gruelling physical exercises, including endurance training, strength building, and agility drills. The training aimed to push their bodies to the limits, making them physically superior.

Psychological Indoctrination: The prisoners underwent intense mental conditioning to ensure unwavering loyalty to the Emperor and absolute obedience to their superiors. This involved mind-control techniques and indoctrination to eliminate any sense of individuality or rebellion.

Survival Training: Prisoners were subjected to extreme conditions, including deserts, mountains, and jungles, and taught how to endure and overcome these challenges. The training instilled in them a sense of adaptability and resourcefulness.

Brutal Testing and Elimination: Throughout the training process, the prisoners were subjected to intense tests, competitions, and elimination rounds to weed out the weak and select only the most exceptional candidates. These tests often involved life-or-death situations and served to further enhance their combat skills, resilience, and mental fortitude.

Why would anyone subject themselves to such a process? Well, because successful completion of the training was the only way off of the planet. Those who completed training were drafted into the Sardaukar, an elite imperial army renowned as one of the most formidable fighting forces in the universe, and answerable only to the Padishah Emperor himself.

The Sardaukar forces were intentionally kept small to maintain their elite status and ensure their loyalty to the Emperor. This exclusivity added to their aura of invincibility, as only the “best of the best of the best” (to quote Men in Black) were chosen to join their ranks.

The Sardaukar were experts in covert operations, espionage, and deception; trained to infiltrate enemy ranks, gather intelligence, and carry out precise strikes against high-value targets. Their legendary combat prowess and ruthless reputation created a psychological advantage over their adversaries, often causing opponents to surrender without a fight.

Crucially, Sardaukar existed outside of the command structures of the regular military forces of the Empire.

If you’ve gotten this far in my narrative, you now have a clear understanding of where the private military company known as the Wagner Group fits into Russia’s political landscape.

As far as I can tell, Wagner first appeared on the scene in 2014 when it participated in the annexation of Crimea by Russia; this after the US-backed Maidan Revolution toppled the elected government of Ukraine presidentViktor Yanukovych. Reports at the time (such as this one in the New York Times ) only made reference to “masked gunmen”.

The first recorded case I came across of the group being named was two years later in 2016 when Sky News reported the existence of Russian mercenaries in Syria.

After Syria, PMC Wagner further expanded its reach by engaging in operations in Africa. It is reported to have deployed personnel to countries like Sudan, Libya, and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Nevertheless, Wagner has remained low key until the battle of Bakhmut which saw up to 400 Ukrainian soldiers per day being killed by Wagner forces. Crucially, a significant number of the Wagner forces were made up of prison recruits who were promised freedom in exchange for their service on the battlefield.

This brings us to the events of yesterday, 24 June 2023, when PMC Wagner occupied the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don with its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announcing he would be marching on Moscow.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin addressed the nation, calling Wagner's actions "treason" and promising to take "harsh steps" to suppress the rebellion.

Mainstream media had a meltdown, but I was sceptical. “PsyOps on steroids”, I tweeted at 08h31.

Why? Consider that Prigozhin has a track record of disinformation. He claimed to be running out of ammunition in Bakhmut, lulling the attacking Ukrainian forces into a false sense of security, and inflicted brutal losses upon the attackers.

A pro-Russia Telegram group summarised Prigozhin’s record this way:

>”We are short of ammunition” -> Neither the Ukrainians nor satellites are detecting this

>”The MoD is going to prevent us from taking Bakhmut” -> They take Bakhmut

>”MoD is going to abandon Bakhmut” -> Bakhmut is Russian

>”The flanks are going to fall” -> Dozens of Azov tanks destroyed

>”Berkhivka has fallen” -> Berkhivka has not fallen

>”We are not going to work for the MoD anymore” -> “We are back on 5 August!”

>”MoD has bombed us” -> They present a rather fake video

>”Civil War NOW” -> You are here

Wagner announced that they were marching upon Moscow. I was once again sceptical because the basics did not add up:

  • Rostov-on-Don to Moscow is a distance of 1 100 km. A car could do the trip in 12-14 hours, a convoy of military vehicles would take a lot longer.
  • The convoy consisted of at best 8 000 combatants; Russia has an army of 1,3 million.
  • I watched a video of the convoy on the highway between Rostov-on-Don and Moscow. None of the vehicles appeared to have anti-aircraft capabilities. I estimate that had Putin ordered an airstrike, the entire convoy would have been wiped out in minutes. No such action was forthcoming.

Hours later, it ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko spoke to Prigozhin “at Putin's request” and brokered an agreement in which Wagner fighters agreed to halt their advance and return to their base in exchange for a guarantee of their safety.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that the charges against Prigozhin would be dropped and that Prigozhin would be sent to Belarus. Wagner fighters would not face prosecution, those who did not participate in the rebellion would have the option to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, and the Wagner organization as a whole would return to its previous wartime deployment locations.

Putin's office reportedly expressed gratitude to Lukashenko for his efforts in ending the rebellion.

So here’s my take on what went down. Don’t ask me for sources, these are my conclusions:

  • Wagner was the brainchild of Putin, first proposed by him as Prime Minister in 2012.
  • Since then, Wagner has been Putin’s Sardaukar, allowing him to operate behind the scenes in many territories with plausible deniability.
  • Unlike the fictional Padishah Emperor of the Dune universe, Putin is constrained by the constitution of the Russian Federation which specifically outlaws private armies on Russian soil.
  • The formal Russian military establishment has always been wary of the operations of PMC Wagner and has in recent weeks attempted to curtail Wagner’s activities by requiring them to fall under Ministry of Defence command structures.
  • Putin, with his firm platform of adherence to the Russian constitution, was unable to thwart the attempt of the generals to rein in Wagner.
  • Two weeks ago. Putin and Lukashenko met in Sochi, purportedly to discuss the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarus territory. It’s my belief the groundwork for the Wagner “rebellion” was finalised there.
  • The agreement brokered by Lukashenko allows Wagner to relocate to Belarus, and as such would no longer be subject to control by Russia’s MoD. This, however, does not prevent Putin continuing to fund Wagner under cover of aid to Belarus. I’ve no doubt Prigozhin reports to Putin.
  • Most crucially, the Lukashenko agreement now positions Wagner on Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus, opening up the possibility of a second front against Ukraine. Lukashenko, in turn, has plausible deniability in such an event that the vastly superior Wagner forces invaded Ukraine without his permission.
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