June, 25

Serhiy Harmash: Prigozhin did not want to stop the war but conduct it according to his own script

07/05/2023 08:43:00 pm
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The leader of the Wagner PMC, Evgeny Prigozhin, whose actions putin called a "betrayal of russia" and a "stab in the back", didn't make it to moscow, stopping just 200 km away. The russian mutiny ended as abruptly and unexpectedly as it began.

As a result of the "march of justice", Prigozhin was sent to Belarus, and the Wagner PMC was effectively disbanded, depriving the mercenaries of heavy equipment and forcing them to sign contracts with the russian Ministry of Defense. An additional "bonus" was several downed russian military helicopters and aircraft.

In an interview with OstroV, journalist and analyst Serhiy Harmash talked about the reasons and consequences of Prigozhin's uprising and whether the Wagner mutiny brought the war in Ukraine closer to its end.

- I'd like to start the conversation with Prigozhin's statement that preceded his mutiny claiming that Ukraine hadn't been bombing Donbas for 8 years. What did he mean by that?

- I believe it was an ancillary statement. The main message of his speech was that russia is currently losing the war, in his opinion, and Shoigu and Gerasimov are to blame for deceiving putin. To support the thesis that putin was misled and not responsible for russia's defeat, the idea was presented that Donbas hadn't been shelled for these 8 years, but rather there were only artillery duels. In other words, putin was deceived, and russia was dragged into the war. Shoigu lied, as he wanted to become a marshal. Therefore, this statement doesn't carry an independent meaning, but serves as support for the argument that the Ministry of Defense is to blame, and putin is blameless.

- Considering that putin and propagandists often justify the war by claiming that "Ukraine bombed Donbas", this statement, in my opinion, sounds quite provocative, if not sensational.

- Prigozhin showed himself to be a provocative person in his own right, and after this statement, his actions became even more sensational.

- Can Ukraine somehow use this "admission"?

- For propaganda purposes, yes. Definitely during our work with the population after the de-occupation. But from a legal point of view, I highly doubt it. Experts around the world already know who "bombed" whom.

- How did the residents of the occupied part of Donbas react to this statement?

- First and foremost, they were concerned about the instability that could arise from Prigozhin's rebellion. Since this statement and the mutiny happened on the same day, the topic of "bombing" was overshadowed by the potential consequences of Wagner's actions. People in the occupied territories yearn for stability above all else. They have lived for 8 years in a quasi-entity where they were told simultaneously about russia and the Minsk agreements, which provided for their return to Ukraine. Recently, they had the illusion that some certainty had appeared, and suddenly, bam, it turns out that russia is also not stable.

Therefore, the least of their concerns was what happened eight years ago; they were all worried about what would happen.

- In your opinion, did the residents of Donbas actually understand that Ukraine hadn't been bombing them for 8 years?

- I believe that the residents of Donbas sincerely thought that Ukraine had been bombing them for eight years because they had nothing to compare it to. Prigozhin is right: there were indeed shelling incidents. They fired at us, and we fired back. However, the fact that they were shooting at us was not felt or taken into account by the people. But what came back to them in response provided grounds for propaganda claiming that they were being "bombed". When full-scale war broke out, they had the opportunity to compare and understand what it meant to be "bombed". But now, of course, no one will say, "Turns out Ukraine wasn't bombing us, but defending itself". Psychologically, it's easier for them to think that they were indeed bombed, that they are victims. Otherwise, they would bear the burden of responsibility for what is happening, for the hundreds of thousands of deaths. Officially, it's all done for them, for their "protection". And that's tough. Therefore, the entire population won't suddenly have a change of heart because of Prigozhin's words. But questions will certainly arise among the reasonable part of the population.

- Prigozhin constantly criticizes russia's military leadership, but not putin. Can the kremlin leader end the so-called "special military operation" by blaming the Ministry of Defense for everything?

- He doesn't want to and cannot do that. Moreover, Prigozhin didn't have such a goal in mind when making these statements. And these statements cannot be viewed separately from what followed. It was all part of one scenario. This statement, like the entire mutiny, was not aimed at stopping the war but at conducting it according to their own script - the way Prigozhin and those behind him deemed right.

- Let's talk about the "Prigozhin rebellion" itself. In your opinion, was it a spontaneous decision?

- Now I am convinced that it wasn't an impulsive move; everything was carefully planned. We first saw a statement that was essentially structured as an interview, but we couldn't find the actual interview anywhere. In other words, this fragment was intentionally prepared, so it didn't randomly appear on the internet on that particular day. Then we saw Prigozhin's statement about their rear camps being bombed and allegedly suffering huge losses. However, we have not been told the number of casualties, and we haven't seen any evidence of this. A dubious video was released, which, as Bellingcat later revealed, turned out to be a fake.

Then the movement towards Rostov began, and the most interesting part is that simultaneously, a portion of the Wagnerites headed to moscow. We understand that organizing the movement of such columns at once is impossible. It involves logistics, route planning, supplying these columns with armored vehicles and fuel, and assembling the personnel for the campaign. And if people have also been worn down by shelling... It's impossible to organize the movement of such a massive amount of military equipment and personnel in a single minute.

Therefore, undoubtedly, it wasn't a spontaneous decision. Most likely, it was prepared in advance.

- Why did this mutiny start precisely now?

- It was timed to coincide with the fact that, as Prigozhin himself claims, the Wagner PMC was supposed to be disbanded by July 1. He wanted to prevent it because the disbandment of the PMC after July 1 would mean that Prigozhin is nobody, he has no one behind him, and he no longer holds any significance politically or militarily. That's why he resorted to this provocation.

- What other objectives did Prigozhin pursue?

- Firstly, it's not accurate to say that only Prigozhin had certain objectives because it's very strange to ride 800 kilometers without encountering any resistance on the ground. This indicates that someone, if not by their actions, then by their inaction, was still supporting the Wagnerites along the way.

Furthermore, putin felt quite uncertain. Whether due to not knowing who was behind it or, on the contrary, understanding the serious processes that were set in motion. His television address was nervous. He could have taken the position of a just ruler and punished someone from the Ministry of Defense or at least promised to do so, thus defusing the situation and even gaining electoral benefits from it. But he immediately assumed the position of a menacing ruler. Although, as later revealed by Lukashenko's words, he was ready for negotiations and even desired them. This indicates emotional instability. It would have been less politically costly to act as a just ruler than to accuse of betrayal, threaten with consequences, and then release the traitor, forgiving the killing of his own soldiers...

Putin truly turned out to be a weak president. And Prigozhin, as well as those who supported him, saw this even before the rebellion and took it into account when planning their action.

- In your opinion, could this have been a deliberately staged performance?

- If by "performance" you mean a collusion between putin and Prigozhin, then no, it was 100% not a performance. Putin suffered too great reputation and political losses; he would never have gone along with it. However, it was certainly a staged display of righteous anger on the part of Prigozhin and his supporters.

- Did Prigozhin want to overthrow putin?

- Prigozhin definitely did not want to overthrow putin because, firstly, putin is still popular among the people, and his overthrow could cause not just elite squabbles but a "deep turmoil". And this is not in the interests of Prigozhin and those behind him. Secondly, it would provoke serious West’s resistance of the new russian government because they fear, as the Chancellor of Austria said on the same day, that nuclear weapons could fall into "wrong hands".

The West was afraid that nuclear weapons would end up in the hands of people who are unstable or could use them irrationally, and Prigozhin portrayed himself exactly as such. And putin, by the way, deliberately allowed Prigozhin to portray himself as unstable to show the world what "bad" alternative there could be to the "good" him.

To sum up: "the czar is good". They didn't want to overthrow putin. They wanted to keep him as the symbol, the showcase of russian power. However, at the same time, those planning the uprising wanted to wield that power.

- Why didn't Prigozhin achieve anything?

- We don't know. I don't know what might have happened internally. Perhaps Prigozhin simply overestimated his own abilities. Or maybe he relied on someone's support, but in the end, there was no such support. Maybe someone got scared or betrayed him. Betrayal is a usual thing in russian politics. And if, for example, you look at how the rise of Zolotov (National Guard of russia) coincided with Prigozhin's fall, you can make assumptions.

But the fact remains - the goal was not achieved. There was an attempt at an uprising, not against putin, but against his team in the power bloc, with the aim of conducting a war according to their own scenario and establishing a monopoly of influence over it.

- Has the uprising been completely suppressed or put on hold?

- At present, the attempt at an uprising has been put on hold. I don't think it has been completely suppressed. There is still a chance. Especially since putin is pretending that there was no mutiny at all, just Prigozhin's disturbance. This deprives him of the ability to act swiftly, and therefore gives the rebels time to cover their tracks and preserve their resources.

- Why did Prigozhin's former "friends" (Aksenov and russian governors, war correspondents) turn away from him?

- We need to look at when they supported him and when they turned away.

He used the tactic of "the good czar and the bad vassals" for a very long time, and putin was okay with it. It was even beneficial for him to have Prigozhin monopolizing the Ministry of Defense, as it allowed him to shift the responsibility for failures on the front lines from the kremlin to Shoigu and Gerasimov. I have already mentioned the showcase of an alternative to the putin regime in the form of an unstable criminal with a sledgehammer who could get hold of nuclear weapons. That's why putin supported this game for a long time, and in the end, it worked against him.

When Prigozhin started his uprising, everyone remained silent for a long time because they thought it was happening with the "highest consent".

And only after putin made a televised address and called Prigozhin a traitor, mass statements of loyalty to putin started appearing. The officials and all public figures had no choice: either they support the legitimate authority or they side with the rebels. Everyone decided that the president is a stronger figure today than Prigozhin. Moreover, Wagner PMC did not even declare ambitions for power; they only spoke about settling scores with Shoigu. And why would anyone want to get involved in someone else's fight if the power, which no one is challenging, has already determined who the winner is?

- Do you believe that Prigozhin's actions are the first stage of dismantling the putin system? Or are these overly optimistic assessments?

- This mutiny has revealed the weakness of putin's vertical power structure. Whether it becomes the first stage of dismantling will depend on how he reacts to this situation.

The russian dictator currently has no interest in replacing Shoigu, removing certain generals, or the leadership of the FSB, who allowed all of this to happen. Putin now needs to present everything that has happened as a disturbance committed by Prigozhin (excessive personal ambitions, grudges over his daughter not being granted a land plot, etc.). Allegedly, this insignificant person, driven by mercenary motives, "seduced the innocent" and raised his hand against what is considered "sacred". It is advantageous for putin to portray the situation in this light; otherwise, he would be admitting to the world that his power is weak.

Now he faces an important task: to gradually, slowly, but draw conclusions, eliminate weak links, liquidate Prigozhin, disband the Wagner Private Military Company, and take measures to ensure that the vertical can adequately respond to such situations. And if he tightens the grip, we will not see the dismantling of the system but rather its preservation for some time.

Therefore, it is premature to talk about dismantling the putin power system. But it has shown its vulnerabilities, and some of them are fundamental. And that means that dismantling is only a matter of time. Yesterday's taboo - the collapse of russia - after June 23rd, cannot be ignored by the West as a possible scenario.

- Who became the main beneficiary of Prigozhin's mutiny?

- It is difficult to say who became the main beneficiary because we cannot accurately determine who helped Prigozhin move through russia without resistance.

Putin gained certain advantage here, because this situation will force him to mobilize himself and his vertical.

This situation also showed the West the threat of nuclear weapons falling into "wrong hands". And this may lead Western countries to not take such a radical approach towards the putin regime as they do now, but rather attempt to negotiate and even push Ukraine towards talks with russia.

But there are downsides as well. The most important thing is that the whole world now sees that "the king is naked". This is a serious setback and a huge blow to putin and his self-esteem.

For Prigozhin, there are more downsides here because he has already lost control over his Wagner Private Military Company, which will simply cease to exist on russian territory from July 1st. The most unruly ones will be shot or subdued.

But Prigozhin still has the opportunity to fly to Africa, where he has business interests and friendly relations with several presidents. There, he can accumulate resources and return to russia if necessary.

For Ukraine, I see only benefits from this situation. We have seen that russia is a giant with clay feet. Russian soldiers have realized that while they are dying in Ukraine, they have no stable rear support.

Moreover, putin did not come to the defense of ordinary soldiers, as demanded by Prigozhin. He did not even reprimand the leadership of the Ministry of Defense but took the position of his generals. This will have an impact on the morale and psychological state of the personnel. It stimulates the question: What are we doing here?

Therefore, the main beneficiary of Prigozhin's failed uprising, strange as it may sound, is Ukraine.

- Did Prigozhin's mutiny somehow bring the war closer to an end?

- If it weakened russia, then it brought the end of the war closer. I believe that at this moment, russia has become weaker than it was before the uprising. But it all depends on what conclusions putin draws from this incident and, most importantly, whether he can implement them.

- Some experts (including foreign ones) now talk about the possibility of the Wagner PMC launching an offensive on Kyiv from Belarus. Do you believe in such a possibility?

- I don't believe in it. Any aggression from the territory of Belarus, regardless of whether Prigozhin carries it out or someone else, would be an act of aggression by Belarus. Lukashenko is not interested in a war with Ukraine. Furthermore, after everything that has happened, neither putin nor Lukashenko will allow Prigozhin to form any real combat units because they would be a danger to their own rear. The Wagner PMC might remain, but in the form of some security organization without aircraft, tanks, and everything else. It's unlikely that they would go to war with Ukraine, especially against a prepared defensive line. Therefore, I don't seriously consider this scenario.

- There is always room for someone new, and after Prigozhin's failed uprising, Igor Girkin-Strelkov has re-emerged, calling on putin to step down. Is he trying to fill Prigozhin's niche in this way?

- Strelkov cannot fill Prigozhin's niche because he lacks both military and financial resources. He is just a talking head, and he speaks only because he is allowed to do so.

Girkin does not pose a serious threat to the regime; rather, he channels the dissatisfaction of the radical nationalist part of society towards the same targets as putin and the Ministry of Defense.

Unlike Prigozhin, he does not have the ability to say that the tsar is good and the vassals are bad, so he "fights" against everyone. And as long as he only talks, it doesn't really bother anyone. But if there is an attempt to take real action, he will be quickly silenced.

- So, it's currently beneficial to the kremlin?

- Yes. If no one speaks up about the boiling issues, the lid may eventually blow off. Therefore, yes, it is necessary to release the steam, even if it stinks, just to prevent an explosion.

- In recent days, there has been increased discussion about possible negotiations between russia and Ukraine. Many experts associate this with the upcoming NATO summit in July. Do you see any prerequisites for the start of a negotiation process?

- I think negotiations are possible if both sides want it. In this case, I believe putin wants negotiations, but on his own terms. And he sees a window of opportunity for negotiations on his own terms somewhere in the autumn when, in his opinion, the Ukrainian counteroffensive will run out of steam.

When that happens, he will send a signal to the West that it's time to sit down at the negotiating table. Otherwise, there will be a protracted conflict that will exhaust the resources of the West. But putin will propose resolving the issue on terms favorable to russia, taking into account the "established territorial reality".

In turn, the West also expects such a window of opportunity in the autumn. Macron has spoken about this. However, his window looks slightly different. He hopes that as a result of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, the West will be able to persuade putin to come to the negotiating table and resolve the end of this war on more or less compromising conditions (but more favorable to Ukraine).

Kyiv has repeatedly stated that negotiations are impossible until the entire territory is liberated from russian forces. And publicly changing this position will be very difficult for Zelensky. Therefore, I am more inclined to consider the possibility of the war transitioning into a trench warfare state, and only after some time, such a situation may legitimize, in the public opinion of Ukraine, some negotiations on a compromise basis. But that's a negative scenario for us.

How everything will unfold will depend on how effective the Ukrainian offensive is.

- What will happen if the Ukrainian counteroffensive proves to be ineffective?

- At least some of our partners in the West will try to push for negotiations. But it's not guaranteed that they will succeed because there are powerful players (the US and the UK) who will not agree to negotiations that could lead to freezing the conflict.

Furthermore, the West is not just giving us aircraft that will be ready for combat missions in six months. Abrams tanks are also promised only in autumn. Presumably, if there were no calculations for military actions after these deadlines, they wouldn't be provided to us because they are offensive weapons.

Although overall, the unified resource support from the West may decrease, which will automatically lead to a reduction in our military activity.

To summarize: there are prerequisites for the West to start pressuring Kyiv in order to force us into negotiations. But whether they will be implemented and whether Kyiv will succumb to this pressure remains a question that will depend on the success of our counteroffensive.

- Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, stated that "there is already a real group of future russian negotiators with Ukraine, but it remains in the shadows, although the involvement of Lukashenko in this process is not excluded". What does this statement indicate?

- Honestly, I think it's a small information-psychological operation to create confusion in russian society. However, this operation may be based on real assumptions that if there were forces in russia that made Prigozhin's march to moscow possible without resistance, then there are people there with whom dialogue can be conducted without putin and who are capable of implementing decisions reached through this dialogue.

Therefore, it is quite possible that such a group theoretically exists. But I don't think it has been formalized yet, and Mr. Danilov knows specific names. Otherwise, he wouldn't make assumptions about Lukashenko's involvement; he would state it. Or he would remain silent to avoid exposing this group prematurely.

By Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV