All the King’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.
25th June, 2023
The last 24 hours in Russia have seen remarkable events with Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries capturing a major Russian city and advancing on Moscow. Even more remarkable was the rapid climbdown and apparent agreement with Putin that Prigozhin would go into exile in Belarus and that the Wagner forces would disperse without any sanctions or be integrated into the Russian army. It is all very confusing. The airwaves have been filled with pundits giving their views on what this will mean going forwards and the impact on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Regardless, I think it prove to be a significant turning point. Putin is not in full control and the Wagner group is no more in Ukraine and Russia.
I started thinking back to 1745. At the time, Britain and France were on opposite sides in a continental war over the Austrian succession. France consequently had an interest in destabilising Britain at home. Enter Charles Edward Stuart, known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who with Louis XV’s (minimal) support landed in Scotland and raised a Jacobite army – mostly from some of the highland clans.
Very quickly, he marched into Edinburgh to great acclaim while British government troops began to assemble nearby at Prestonpans to put an end to this insurrection – only to be soundly defeated and forced into a headlong retreat. Five weeks later, the Jacobites continued their march on London, meeting little resistance on the way but also receiving little encouragement from the civilian population in England.
When they reached Derby (roughly the same distance from London as Voronezh is from Moscow), Charles’s commanders ‘chickened out’ – to use a technical term – and advised that it would be prudent to retreat given the potential flanking movements of government troops (oh, for better intelligence – George II was at that very moment in London preparing to flee and, if they had continued, the Jacobites might well have overthrown the royal line born of the ‘Glorious Revolution’).
The Jacobite army marched back to Scotland, defeating government attempts on them along the way until they were brought to battle at Culloden moor near Inverness. They were soundly defeated and the highland clan system ruthlessly suppressed.
Charles escaped to the continent and lived out an increasingly dissolute life there shorn of power. Many of the highlanders who had fought against the government were subsequently integrated into the British army, becoming feared fighters in regiments like the Black Watch.
Which brings me back to Prigozhin. One of the notable things from the news clips that I have seen is the warm reception given to Prigozhin on the streets of Rostov. If evidence of his success in portraying himself as a champion of the Russian people is required (as opposed to Putin’s remote fear-based persona), this looks like it – notwithstanding the thug that he (and Putin) is. It was also notable that he demolished Putin’s rationale for going to war, saying that Russia had been lied to by Putin, and this message will also be percolating through Russia that, in the privacy of the homes of the common man, seems to be turning against the war. Echoes of 1917??
If Prigozhin had continued on beyond Voronezh to Moscow, rather than retreating, would he have precipitated the collapse of Putin and his cabal? as the ISW (see below) has noted, Putin has denuded home defence forces which left the road to Moscow open although I do wonder about what air power might have ben deployed. Mind you, ISW also noted that several airborne assets were in fact deployed without success – shades of Prestonpans.
There may be a second episode to come; after all it is early in the plot but history tells us that those who advance against the odds and then retreat usually do not come to a brilliant end. Quite the reverse. Watch history repeat itself here.
My expectation is that Prigozhin might survive, like Bonnie Prince Charlie, but most likely he will not. Putin will do his best to ‘defenestrate’ him because he is a continuing threat while Wagner exists in any form – and I cannot see these mercenaries totally disappearing. I would also expect to see a purge of the insider elite in Moscow as Putin tries to re-establish his authority and where that will lead, who knows. Putin has clearly been damaged by this episode and I would not be surprised to see him removed from power as a result in the fullness of time. After this episode all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Putin together again.
As for Ukraine, if NATO can finally provide the air support and long-range artillery they have been asking for and if Ukraine can make a significant breakthrough, this war could be brought to an end sooner than most expect.
A caveat and a wish. First, my crystal ball is a wee bit cloudy these days and second, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Russia with its wonderful culture and history could become a real western democracy and, who knows, even become a NATO member, too as China increasingly flexes its muscles. Wonderful yes, but I doubt it will happen in my lifetime, if ever. Corruption and greed is a difficult thing to turn around.
 Geolocated footage posted around 1030 Moscow time confirms that Wagner personnel crossed the administrative border of Voronezh Oblast at the Burgaevka checkpoint, where Russian personnel laid down their arms and surrendered to Wagner. Geolocated footage showed a Wagner contingent with two Pantsir-1 air defense systems moving through Buturlinovka, about 135km southeast of Voronezh City. Russian sources claimed that this Wagner convoy split off from the main convoy in order to seize an airbase near Buturlinovka, although ISW has not observed visual confirmation that any Wagner fighters did so. Russian sources posted footage reportedly of Russian Ka-52 helicopters striking claimed Wagner targets on the highway in Voronezh. Wagner forces may have shot down up to three Mi-8 MTPR electronic warfare helicopters, one Mi-8 helicopter, one Ka-52 helicopter, one Mi-35 helicopter, one Mi-28 helicopter, and one An-26/Il-28 transport aircraft, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 pilots and airmen – and one of the single deadliest days for the Russian air force of the war in Ukraine to date.
Wagner troops reached Lipetsk Oblast and continued north on the M4 highway towards Moscow. Russian forces began digging up sections of the M4 in Lipetsk Oblast in order to inhibit Wagner’s movement. By nearly 1800 Moscow time, available visual evidence placed Wagner forces in Krasnoe, northern Lipetsk Oblast, about 330km south of Moscow. Russian security forces reportedly began preparing defensive lines on the southern bank of the Oka River in Moscow Oblast, and unverified reports claim that locals spotted Wagner fighters in Kashira, 95km south of Moscow.
The Kremlin’s dedicated internal security organs failed to respond to an independent military force capturing the headquarters of the SMD and advancing on Moscow – and Wagner likely could have reached the outskirts of Moscow if Prigozhin chose to order them to do so.
Prigozhin’s rebellion has illustrated that Russian forces lack reserves in many rear areas and almost certainly will degrade the morale of Russian personnel in Ukraine.
ISW: Extract from Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 24, 2023