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Washington Wednesday: The coup that wasn’t


WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: The coup that wasn’t

The Wagner Group’s march on Moscow exposes cracks in Putin’s regime

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaking during a ceremony presenting the general's epaulettes in Minsk, Belarus, June 27 Belarusian Presidential Press Office via The Associated Press

NICK EICHER, HOST: Well, next up on Washington Wednesday: The coup that wasn’t.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a mercenary force called the Wagner Group has been leading the charge including in the city of Bakhmut, where it says some 20,000 of its fighters were killed.

PRIGOZHIN: [Speaking Russian] No more useless death.

But in recent months, the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been criticizing Russia’s military leadership for mishandling the war on the ground.

REICHARD: He says without ammunition, his men will suffer useless and unjustified losses. But then over the weekend, Prigozhin shifted from talk to action.

AUDIO: An unprecedented armed rebellion…

AUDIO: The leader of the Russian Wagner group calling for an armed mutiny…

AUDIO: His forces have left Ukraine and are headed into Russia.

EICHER: After occupying a military outpost in south-east Russia, the Wagner Group got on the highway headed to Moscow. Prigozhin said it wasn’t a coup but, in his words, “an act of justice.”

But then about 125 miles from Russia’s capital, Prigozhin called off the march and turned his convoy around in the face of Russian defenses, saying he didn’t want to shed Russian blood.

It soon came out that the president of nearby Belarus brokered a ceasefire between Prigozhin and the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As part of the deal, the Wagner Group leader will relocate to Belarus.

REICHARD: Whatever Prigozhin’s intent in ordering the march on Moscow, the result now is that Russia’s military has apparently lost one of its key leaders at a critical juncture.

What does this mean for Putin and the future of the conflict in Ukraine?

EICHER: Here now to help explain what is and is NOT going on in Russia is Will Inboden. He’s a former member of the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration, and is now executive director and chair of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s also a contributor to World Opinions.

REICHARD: Good morning, Will.

INBODEN: Good morning, Mary great to be with you.

REICHARD: Will, I’ve heard a variety of terms used to describe what happened. Insurrection, revolt, rebellion. Will, what’s the best way to describe this?

INBODEN: Yeah, to that we could add mutiny, putsch, but it, you know, no one quite knows. This was neither fish nor fowl in some ways. It had the initial appearances of a potential coup or coup attempt of a, you know, formal change of government. But then, of course, Prigozhin backed off, Lukashenko in Belarus cut the deal. And Putin announced, you know that he is still in charge. So it was a very strange episode, and we're still trying to understand all the ramifications.

REICHARD: Has Putin ever seen this kind of challenge to his authority?

INBODEN: Not this particular kind. You know, he's been, you know, the President / dictator of Russia for some 23 years now, back in I want to say 2011, there were some pretty widespread peaceful protests by citizens against Putin's rule in his stealing of an election. But never this particular sort where a private militia mercenary group, that had been funded by the Kremlin, somehow then turns against him and poses armed armed resistance. That is very unusual, certainly something that Putin had never seen before.

REICHARD: And what’s at stake for Prigozhin?

INBODEN: So, well, quite a bit. Well, we'll start with his very life is probably at stake. You know, certainly visible active opponents of Putin rarely, rarely survived. They don't have a very good track record of that we can look at, you know, Putin ordering the poisoning of the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London back in 2006, or later, the attempted poisoning of another defector Sergei Skripal as well. So Prigozhin you know, we certainly should not count on his personal safety, even if we see that he's just arrived there in Belarus, of course, a close ally and partner of Russia. So his personal safety is at stake. If he does survive, if Putin doesn't try to engineer some sort of assassination or execution of him, Prigozhin's influence is probably much diminished. It's not clear how much more control he will have over the Wagner Group, where their loyalties will lie, or what his future will be. However, I should also say we don't want to count Prigozhin out either. He does seem to have, you know, some amount of popular support among the Russian people and certainly some segments of the Wagner militias. And so he is, you know, one could also envision a possible scenario in which Prigozhin emerges. As Putin's most forceful critic and opponent and potential rival for the throne.

REICHARD: I think it was Mark Twain who’s credited with saying. “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Based on your reading of Russian history, any events of this past weekend rhyme with anything in Russia’s past that could clue us in on what might happen next?

INBODEN: Yeah, there's two momentous episodes of the Russian past that I think bear mentioning. And the key connection here is, when Russia finds itself in an unpopular losing foreign war, sometimes that leads to regime change in the Kremlin. The first example, of course, would be 1917, when under Tsar Nicholas II, Russia was losing badly in World War One, you know, their forces being defeated by the Germans on the Eastern Front. And that led very directly to the Bolshevik Revolution, the toppling of the Tsar and the creation of the Soviet Union. Then, you know, fast forward several decades, Russia invades Afghanistan in 1979, ends up being a very bloody losing 10 year occupation, and they withdraw in defeat and disgrace in 1989. And that also led very directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and of Soviet communism. And so, Putin is very mindful of that history. I think that's one reason why he was very panicked by this uprising, you know, mutiny, coup, whatever, we decide to call it by Prigozhin and the Wagner Group because it's tied very directly to their disaffection for Russia's thus far very costly losing effort in Ukraine.

REICHARD: The Russia story actually overshadowed two other big foreign policy stories last week. First, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China to try to restore Washington D.C.’s relationship with Beijing…but failed to get some key things done. In particular, Blinken was unable to establish a direct channel between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Will, why is that significant?

INBODEN: Yeah, this was this was notable that the the Biden administration has been trying for months to reopen dialogue diplomacy with the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and Beijing had thus far been giving the Biden administration the cold shoulder. I had had some concerns, of course, and wrote about this, that the Biden administration was perhaps appearing a little too desperate to Beijing for this diplomacy, almost in a posture more of a supplicant than than a superpower. And, of course, one of the asks that the Biden administration had of of the CCP was to open direct dialogue between the American military and the Chinese military, the People's Liberation Army, that that would be a good step. I think just because as you know, our Navy and their Navy are having some close encounters in the western Pacific, you want to have some of those channels to deconflict or at least deescalate a potential crisis. So the fact that Xi Jingping would not even agree to that was was was notable, I think a real disappointment for Secretary breakups trip.

REICHARD: Well then stateside, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited President Biden at the White House, and Biden reported that their talks were productive…especially looking at countering Chinese influence in the region. Why hasn’t India been a closer ally in the past, and what potential might there be in the future if India comes into the sphere of allies that nations like Japan and Australia are part of?

INBODEN: Yeah, and I will say I'm certainly very bullish and supportive of the United States building closer ties with with India, right. We are the world's oldest democracy; India is the world's largest democracy, population-wise. We have shared interest in countering the rise of a belligerent China. The reason why it hasn't happened sooner is India ever since their independence has a long tradition of what is called being not aligned, that they would not want to formulate ally with any other country that they very much wanted to preserve their independence and freedom of action. And that may have made some sense for them during the Cold War. But they're now realizing that as we're in this new cold war with China, and China, of course, being a historic rival and threat for India, that India would benefit from closer friendships with countries like Japan or the United States. But again, those old habits die hard and so that's been one of the things slowing India from making a deeper partnership with with the United States.

REICHARD: Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.

You can read his WORLD Opinions article online at wng.org/opinions. Thanks for joining us today, Will.

INBODEN: Thank you very much, Mary.

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