From a convicted criminal to a food caterer to a war lord with his own private army: Yevgeny Prigozhin
(F.A.) There are several versions of what is supposed to have happened when a part of Prigozhin’s Wagner private army marched towards Moscow. We will probably have to settle for the official version from Moscow, which is plausible but does not answer all questions satisfactorily. Due to his contacts with intelligence services, U.S. investigative journalist Seymour Hersh assesses the revolt of Wagner’s chief Prigozhin quite differently than the mainstream media.
For Hersh’s version, one must first believe that the conflict between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was/is actually real and not disinformation. There were also rumors spread by Kiev that Prigozhin had sold information to the Ukrainian regime. Given these and other pieces of the mosaic, some have already theorized that this was a Russian intelligence operation from A to Z – possibly Kiev and Washington thought Prigozhin was working for them and commissioned the operation. In any case, they knew about it from the beginning of the preparatory work, without warning Moscow about a potentially extremely dangerous geopolitical situation: Imagine a scenario with a fickle Russian dictator Prigozhin with his finger on the red button of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. We will probably never know which “conspiracy theory” is correct.
After all, most versions have in common that Putin is not weakened and Kyiv (and behind it, NATO) could not take advantage of the situation.
Jacques Baud is a former Swiss Colonel of the General Staff who trained in U.S. and British intelligence and served as political director for U.N. peacekeeping operations and for NATO after the U.S.-inspired coup in Ukraine. According to Baud, Prigozhin’s contract expired in June. He refused to sign a new contract (with integration of his private army into the regular army). Seymour Hersh’s information seems to be correct, because Putin’s interest was always to “protect” the 4 oblasts and neutralize the ultranazionalist paramilitaries. He has never spoken of conquering Ukraine; his goal, according to Hersh, was achieved long ago. He has also often expressed a willingness to negotiate, but the West wants to fight to the last Ukrainian.
Below we publish an abridged version of Seymour Hersh’s article on his Substack website.
The Internal Russian Uprising, which Did Not Take Place, Strengthened Putin’s Position. This is What Informants from Intelligence Agencies Say
The ongoing catastrophe in Ukraine fell out of the headlines for a few days because they were dominated by the “revolt” of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary group Wagner. Prigozhin was allegedly threatening Putin’s power.
A headline in The New York Times read, “Revolt Raises Burning Question: Could Putin Lose Power?”. And “Washington Post” columnist David Ignatius opined, “Putin looked into the abyss Saturday – and blinked.”
[F.A. In Brussels, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock opined, “We see massive cracks in Russian propaganda.” The presenter of the German state television ARD/WDR added: “Putin’s weakness could well be an opportunity for Ukraine.” The Neue Zürcher Zeitung, an opinion leader in German-speaking Europe made the wild claim: “The rebellion exposes Putin’s weakness – that will accelerate Russia’s decline on the international stage.”]
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who weeks ago proudly announced he would not seek a ceasefire in Ukraine, appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation with his own version of reality: “Sixteen months ago, Russian forces thought they were wiping Ukraine off the map as an independent country […] Now they’ve had to defend Russia’s capital, Moscow, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making […] This is a direct challenge to Putin’s authority […] This is showing real cracks.”
Interviewer Margaret Brennan let Blinken talk without direct counter-questions. Blinken knew this – why else would he have appeared on the program. He continued, “To the extent that this [Progozhin’s revolt] is a real distraction for Putin and the Russian generals, who have to be busy with the counteroffensive in Ukraine, I think it opens up even more opportunities for the Ukrainians to succeed on the ground.”
The Wagner Putsch Was a Quickly Extinguished Flash in the Pan
Did Blinken speak for Joe Biden at this point? Does the president, who is in charge, think so too?
Today we know that the uprising of the chronically unstable Prigozhin came to nothing within a day. He fled to Belarus, where he did not face prosecution. His mercenary army was integrated into the Russian army. There was neither a [serious] march on Moscow nor any significant threat to Putin’s rule.
[No information was ever given about how many jeeps or tanks could drive up to 200 kilometers from Moscow, although this had to be evident from satellite images].
Washington columnists and national security correspondents apparently rely too heavily on official background conversations with White House and State Department officials. Given the published results of such background conversations, these officials seem unable to recognize the reality of the past few weeks or the disaster of the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive.
In what follows, I would like to take a look at what actually happened, as told to me by a knowledgeable source in U.S. intelligence circles.
Putin Emerges Stronger from this Conflict
Crucially, Putin is now in a much stronger position. As early as January 2023, a showdown was foreseeable between the generals, backed by Putin, and Prigozhin, backed by extremists. It is the old conflict between “special” war fighters, the Special Forces (SF), and a large, slow, cumbersome and unimaginative regular army.
Along with Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh is the investigative reporter of our time. When he was writing for The New Yorker, Hersh was iconoclastic and outspoken; he took chances and he dug deep into the Pentagon bureaucracy for revelatory scoops. His reporting has consistently been named as some of the best during the Iraq War. Hersh first gained recognition in 1969 for exposing the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War, for which he received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. During the 1970s, Hersh covered the Watergate scandal for The New York Times and revealed the clandestine bombing of Cambodia. In 2004, he reported on the U.S. military’s mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. He has also won two National Magazine Awards and five George Polk Awards. In 2004, he received the George Orwell Award.Hersh has accused the Obama administration of lying about the events surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden and disputed the claim that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians in the Syrian Civil War. Thanks to his sources within the CIA, he reconstructed the terrorist attack on the Nordstream pipelines in 2023.
The army always wins because they have the necessary means to make victory, offensive or defensive, possible. Most importantly, they control the logistics.
The SFs see themselves as the main offensive force. As long as the overall strategy is offensive, the big army tolerates the SFs’ hubris and public thigh-slapping because they are willing to take a high risk and pay a high price.
“Wagner members were the spearhead of the original Russian Ukraine offensive. They were the ‘little green men’. When the offensive expanded into an all-out assault by the regular army, the latter supported the Wagner members. A successful offensive requires a large expenditure of men and equipment.”
Change of Strategy from the Offensive to the Defensive
But in the meantime, the big army and Putin slowly changed their strategy from offensive conquest to defense of what they already had. Successful defense requires a frugal use of resources. For the Wagner units, that meant reluctantly taking a back seat in the rebalancing period that followed. Prigozhin, no shy creature, wanted to respond by strengthening his forces and stabilizing his sector.
Prigozhin refused to switch to defense and continued the offensive against the city of Bakhmut. There lay the crux of the matter. Rather than create a public crisis and court-martial Prigozhin, Moscow simply withheld resources and let Prigozhin deplete his manpower and firepower reserves. Prigozhin protested publicly, but he was doomed to surrender.
The media did not report that Wagner was withdrawn from the Bachmut front three months ago and taken to an abandoned barracks north of Rostov-on-Don [in southern Russia] for demobilization. Most of the heavy equipment was redeployed. The force was reduced to about 8000 men. Of these, 2000 then went to Rostov [and briefly seized the city], accompanied by the local police.
Putin fully backed the army, which allowed Prigozhin to make a fool of himself and is now fading into obscurity. And all this without breaking a military sweat or putting Putin in a political standoff with the fundamentalists who are ardent admirers of Prigozhin. That seems pretty smart.
Information Discrepancy between Intelligence Professionals and the White House – and the Press, which sees itself as a Government Organ
There is an enormous discrepancy between the assessment of the situation by U.S. intelligence professionals and what the White House and the Washington press have been feeding the public by uncritically reproducing the statements of Blinken and his cohorts of hawks.
The current statistics on combat operations that have come to my attention suggest that the Biden administration’s foreign policy in Ukraine may be at risk. They raise questions about the involvement of the NATO alliance, which provided Ukrainian forces with training and weapons for the current counteroffensive. I learned that in the first two weeks of the counteroffensive, the Ukrainian military captured only 44 square miles of territory previously held by the Russian army, much of it in open terrain. By contrast, Russia controls 40,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory. I am told that Ukrainian forces have not been able to make any significant way through Russian defenses in the last ten days. They have recaptured only two more square miles of Russian-occupied territory. At this rate, an informed official said jokingly, it would take Zelensky’s military 117 years to rid the country of Russian occupation.
Is there a Wake-up — in the White House and in the Press?
In recent days, the Washington media seem to be slowly grasping the magnitude of the disaster. But there are no public signs that President Biden and his senior White House advisers and State Department staff are realizing the situation.
Putin now has almost complete control over the four Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk, Kherson, Lubansk and Zaporizhzhya, which he publicly annexed on September 30, 2022, seven months after the war began. The next step, assuming no battlefield miracle, is in Putin’s hands. He could simply stand still and wait to see if the military reality is accepted by the White House and if a cease-fire is sought and formal talks on ending the war are initiated.
Presidential elections are due in Ukraine next April. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may hold off and wait for them – if they take place at all. Zelensky stated that there will be no elections as long as the country is under martial law.
Biden’s political problems heading into next year’s presidential election are acute and obvious. On June 20, The Washington Post published an article based on a Gallup poll under the headline “Biden Shouldn’t Be as Unpopular as Trump – But He Is.” The article on the poll said Biden has “near-universal support within his own party, virtually none from the opposition party and terrible numbers among independent voters.” Like previous Democratic presidents, Biden is struggling to “appeal to younger and less engaged voters.” However, the poll apparently had not asked questions about the administration’s foreign policy.
Democrats will Lose their Classic Following if they don’t Stop Funding this War
The looming disaster in Ukraine and its political fallout should be a wake-up call to those Democratic members of Congress who support the President but disagree with pouring billions and billions of good money into Ukraine in hopes of a miracle.
The Democrats’ support for the war is another example of the party’s increasing disengagement with the working class. It is the children of the working class who fought in the wars of the recent past and may fight in any future war. This constituency has turned away in increasing numbers as the Democrats move closer to the intellectual and wealthy classes.
It would probably be wise of Joe Biden to speak candidly about the war and its various problems for the United States. He should explain why the estimated more than $150 billion his administration has spent on Ukraine so far would not have been better spent elsewhere.