Attempted coup looked much different from inside Russia

By: Rachel Marsden

MOSCOW — Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russian private military contractor, Wagner Group, otherwise known as “Putin’s chef” for his entrepreneurial catering background, went way off-menu last weekend when he tried to cook up a coup, calling on his heavily armed fighters to take a break from fighting in Ukraine and head to Moscow to serve the country’s own military brass some humble pie. The reaction was very different here in Russia compared to outside the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation, announcing new anti-terrorism measures in the Moscow region and in a city on Wagner’s parade route — the kind of ultra-strict protocol involving national security mobilization, checkpoints, ID verification, searches, and communication interception that hadn’t been put into place since 1991 when Communist Party hardliners attempted to oust then-Soviet leader Mikhaïl Gorbachev in the final days before the bloc’s collapse. But in the streets, locals and tourists were out enjoying the weather on what otherwise seemed like a typical Saturday afternoon. One was left with the impression that if Wagner’s tanks had rolled into town, the same babushkas who walk into banks and immediately start yelling at the nearest teller for lack of customer service would have just demanded that the Wagner guys get off their daily walking route.

Meanwhile, media outlets across the western world seemed to have one thing in mind. “Is this the end of Vladimir Putin?” many of them asked. Exiled Russian opposition figures even called on Russians to support the Wagner chief — because, apparently, someone whom they previously loathed was now A-OK because it looked like he was on the verge of doing their dirty work. Chronic regime-change cheerleader, US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), tweeted: “As internal strife and chaos occurs inside of Russia may the outcome eventually be: The Russian people freed from corrupt, autocratic war criminal dictators like Putin.” Graham seems unaware that anyone who could possibly replace Putin wouldn’t be the kind of pro-Western lapdog that Washington imagines, but rather someone even more hard line than Putin. Think less Disney’s Goofy or Pluto and more Stephen King’s Cujo. One gets the sense here that Russians want Putin to go more shock and awe on Western interests in Ukraine in order to wrap things up. “Our hope is freedom for the long-suffering people of Russia,” Graham added, trotting out the well-worn cliché.

From afar, Putin may have seemed to be the target of the coup. But up close, it didn’t appear to be the case. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin repeatedly called for Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, to provide his men with more ammunition.

So it wasn’t exactly a shock when Prigozhin decided that it was time for a heavily-armed road trip to Moscow targeting the defense brass over the way the conflict was being managed. But obviously mere frustrations with management don’t fly as an excuse for a coup. So, Putin threatened the rebellion with charges as Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg was raided.

The general sense here is that political infighting is for President Vladimir Putin to handle while Russians continue to go about their daily lives. They don’t spend their time pretending to pull the escalator up by the rail. Putin attributed the mutiny to its participants being deceived. He didn’t say by whom, but did evoke a Western information and military machine against which he considered Russia to be fighting. Putin also spoke of internal divisions that plagued Russian fighters during World War I against Germany, drawing an implicit parallel between the modern-day traitors and the Bolsheviks who were more interested in winning domestic power than winning the war.

It’s hard to think of a bigger insult for the Wagner fighters who did the heavy lifting recently in the months-long battle of Bakhmut that saw thousands of Wagner fighters killed in action. The resolution to all the drama came the very same day, just as Wagner fighters were expected to roll up to Moscow.

Under the deal, brokered between Putin and the Belorussian president, Prigozhin would have charges dropped with his exile to neighboring Belarus.

Conveniently, unless Prigozhin retires or goes back to making soup instead of being neck-deep in it, this could perhaps result in pro-Russian fighters building up on another front of the Ukraine conflict — something whose overt execution would have sparked Western hysterics. Putin also recently announced the transfer of Russian tactical nukes to Belarus in July.

Meanwhile, Moscow won’t pursue Wagner fighters who took part in the rebellion, citing their prior sacrifices. Those who weren’t involved will be invited to sign contracts with the Russian armed forces — which Prigozhin had explicitly refused to allow when Shoigu demanded it earlier this month.

Intriguingly, despite all the drama, things seem to have nonetheless worked out in the end for everyone involved — except perhaps those who leveraged it to indulge their regime-change fantasies. They were hoping to be served Putin on a platter, but “Chef” Prigozhin whipped them up little more than a collapsed soufflé.