Wagner marches on Moscow – what next?

In a dramatic 24 hours, Prigozhin has led Wagner to first of all take control of Rostov (the nerve centre of the Russian military command for Ukrainian operations), then taken his militia north to march on Moscow, where they have already reached Voronezh (halfway.) Putin has replied in a bellicose fashion, suggesting this will escalate further, which can only bode well for the Ukrainian nation.

In terms of what has triggered this, empirical history can be instructive.

Indeed, in “Rise and Fall of the great Empires,” Andrew Taylor profiled why collapse can happen, where sometimes it does so with surprising speed. One of the most significant factors he talks about is when the empire consumes more than it generates, at which point it can only sustain itself by conquering new lands and acquiring its resources.

However, if the cost of acquiring the new land and keeping the peace becomes higher than the benefit of the resources extracted, the empire risks implosion. With that, just this week, Prigozhin confirmed Russia started the war for no reason other than to acquire Ukrainian resources for the benefit of the Russian oligarchs. And it is also important to note that within Russia, criticism of the war is rooted not in the morality of the invasion but in its ineffectiveness. The imperial mindset is embedded in the echelons of power.

Otherwise, we are in unchartered territory. Up to now, Prigozhin had avoided openly criticizing Putin, but it seems now, nothing is off the table.

Already it is being reported that, amongst others, Medvedev and his family have fled Moscow, where this is reportedly the busiest day of the year for private aircraft in the city, with Turkey and UAE seeming to be the primary end destinations. Even Putin reportedly has left the capital. In the meantime, trenches are being dug in the Moscow region, and barricades and other defensive structures are being prepared. The key point to watch is whether the Wagner offensive can get past the Oka river.

By the same token, one would expect that, whereas in Southern Russia, the Army has been waving Wagner past, as they get closer to Moscow, the military will start to push back. Up to now, it is only attack helicopters that have been engaging, where reportedly Wagner has succeeded in destroying one already.

Factor Wagner has committed a sizeable contingent, reportedly 25,000 troops, including AAMs and Heavy Arms where they are battle-hardened troops, many of which have done multiple tours, not just in Ukraine, but in other theatres also, whereas the vast majority of Russian troops will be ill-trained, low paid reservists. Can troops currently in the east or in other areas be redeployed in time? doubtful, meaning the Russian Army could well be caught out.

With that in mind, Russian Senior Military officials have been making pleas to Wagner, to not act disloyally, but then consider the typical profile of a Wagnerite Commander as a trained official with extensive military experience, who was dismissed for one reason or another. They are more likely to be loyal to Prigozhin than anyone else. The same with convict troops, which Russian officials were happy to use as cannon fodder. In contrast, Prigozhin has raged against the senseless loss of life of his soldiers, and the lack of support they have been given, meaning they are also likely to be loyal to him first, seeing him as their true protector.

So assuming he is able to reach Moscow (which seems possible), what happens then? Well, to quote Mao DeZong “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and whoever has the dominant military force will have the power to dictate what happens next in Russia.

So looking at scenarios, what could happen next?
  1. A grand bargain between Putin and Prigozhin, where he is made Chief of the Armed Forces and has everyone else reporting to him. Honestly, this is possibly the one outcome for Ukraine that is worse than what has been happening. Please note, Prigozhin in having control of Rostov, is still authorizing Russian attack operations onto Ukraine, with the proviso that Wagner personnel are involved in a leadership function on every contingent, across land and air. Prigozhin sees himself as the saviour of the nation and this could give him the legitimacy he craves where given his hands-on understanding of the war, he would be a far tougher adversary for the Ukrainian military than Gerasimov. Hence this showdown now, in many ways could be perceived as a showdown between Gerasimov and Prigozhin on who gets to lead the Russian Army. Putin is notorious for stepping back and letting his court fight between them for the top jobs. Now the fight could be happening on the Moscow city borders with tanks and troops…
  2. Putin refuses to negotiate, Prigozhin fails to win quickly, and the Russian Military slowly grounds Wagner down as battalions arrive from different parts of the country and encircle them. Putin is weakened, both in terms of his political position, but realistically given his control through the security forces, probably not fatally. However, the disruption caused to the Ukrainian front by no longer having access to Wagner forces, along with the lack of cohesiveness, means that morale on the front lines hit all-time lows. Ukraine capitalizes by pushing hard. The internal strife in Russia also acts to bolster international support for Ukraine, as it becomes clear that this war for the Ukrainians is really very winnable, but the time is now. Suddenly F-16s become available potentially. etc.
  3. Putin refuses to negotiate, Prigozhin fails to win quickly, but Wagner slowly grounds down the Russian army. Along the way the Russian state is forced to recall troops from Ukraine out of necessity, at that point, the country is in civil war and all bets are off. this is the most chaotic scenario and is the one that nuclear strategists will be most concerned about. For starters, Prigozhin has an extensive reach within the country and his voice is heard. He is currently positioning himself as a patriot, who is fighting in defence of the country and the people, that they are being lied to, that the deaths are far higher than what people are being told, and that the deaths of their sons are solely to line the pockets of the oligarchs in Moscow, to enrich themselves on Ukrainian resources. Across the federation people hear his voice and turn away from Putin and his cronies. This has the potential to lead to a breakup of the Russian federation, which could mean that suddenly lots of unstable governments form, who have all control of their own nuclear arsenals.
  4. Putin refuses to negotiate; Prigozhin seizes Moscow quickly and starts to take the levers of power in Moscow and appoints himself as the new leader of the country. In this scenario, a bloodless coup, one would expect Prigozhin to recall troops from Ukraine in order to consolidate his power in the country, also to legitimise his new government with the west. A strongman in Russia who plays ball with the west is arguably preferable to Putins regime.

Which of these scenarios is most likely is anyone’s guess. But given only one of the four is arguably worse for Ukraine, overall, the Ukrainian people should see current events as playing in their favour, for now. The next 48 hours will be important in determining what happens next.



About the author: James Chaplin
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