Rebellion rocks Russia; is it mutiny or ‘Maskirovka’?

The absurdity of just 25,000 fighters taking on the Russian military is stark

Firefighters work on extinguishing a fire after reports an explosion hit a fuel depot in Voronezh, Russia | AP Firefighters work on extinguishing a fire after reports an explosion hit a fuel depot in Voronezh, Russia | AP

The intervening night of Friday and Saturday in Russia proved to be unlike any other in recent times as the fog of war thickened to a dark black. With a ferocious information war already raging, there would be very less clarity about the events that were to follow as the battle-hardened fighters of the mercenary Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) took sudden forcible control of the Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russia city more than 1,100 km south from Moscow.

While reports came in of the Wagner fighters moving towards Moscow and having taken control of Voronezh, about 500 km south of Moscow, President Vladimir Putin took to national television in an address to the nation on Saturday morning where he described the Wagner action as a “betrayal” and “back-stabbing”.

Acknowledging that the situation in Rostov-on-Don is “difficult” and local civil and military administration “effectively blocked”, Putin said “necessary orders have been issued to the armed forces and other authorities.”

Surprisingly, the Russian President did not name Wagner chief Evgeny Prigozhin in his address. A trusted Putin-aide for long, Prigozhin’s earlier job was to taste the President’s food lest it may be poisoned.

The Russian government has already begun a criminal investigation into Prigozhin for calling for an armed rebellion.

On his part, the Wagner boss claimed: “We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it… because we don't want the country to continue to live any longer in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

Trouble had been brewing in recent months between the Russian defence ministry and Prigozhin with the latter targeting defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Army chief Valery Gerasimov for not supplying ammunition to his fighters to fight the Ukrainians.

In an unverified widely-circulating video purportedly shot in Rostov, an obdurate Prigozhin is heard saying in Russian: “We want (Gerasimov) and Shoigu. Until they are here, we will stay, block off Rostov and head to Moscow.” 

On Friday, just before launching his assault, Prigozhin accused the Russian military of strafing upon and killing many of his fighters in an air strike on the Wagner base.

While the Wagner Group is believed to be comparatively small with a strength of about 25,000 fighters, they are highly skilled in warfare and are known to have spearheaded Russia’s military action in taking over key territories in Donetsk, Luhansk and Bakhmut.

Having fought on Russia’s side in Mali, Syria and Libya, among other places, the Wagner mercenaries comprise a motley group of military veterans, fighters seeking money and jail convicts who are promised a free life in return for fighting for the Group.

While the military implications of Saturday’s development are unfolding, they are likely to be game-changing as Rostov-on-Don is the headquarters of the Southern Military District, one of the five military zones that the Russian military had been divided into as part of reforms.

Formed in 2010, the Southern Military District may be the smallest but it is easily the most restive. Besides being the military logistics, it is from Rostov-on-Don that the Ukraine operations were commandeered. And before that, this district led the anti-insurgency operations in Chechnya and Dagestan.

But Saturday’s developments are also very curious and certain facts do not seem to add up easily.

First, the ease with which the Wagner Group has taken control of Rostov and nearby cities is mystifying. The Russian Army did not seem to have made much of an effort to resist the Wagner fighters.

Second, the lightning movement towards Moscow. On Saturday itself, convoys of the Wagner Group covered about half of the distance to Moscow by taking control of Voronezh, a key city on the road to Moscow. Such convoys would ideally be easy targets for Russian fighter aircraft or even artillery.

Third, the audacity of the imagination of just 25,000 fighters to take on the might of the Russian army is confounding.

Fourth, the Wagner Group mainly comprises special commandos employed with small weapon systems. It has no air force assets and platforms which are indispensable.

Fifth, there is unprecedented state-owned media reportage of the happenings which is a never-before phenomenon in Russia. It begs the question if the Russian state has an ulterior motive in propagating the news.

These elements do raise the question if at all the entire operation is part of the ‘Maskirovka’ doctrine of the Russian military that uses deception as the main ploy to hide real intentions. At the core, it involves distracting the adversary, hiding one’s actions and then spreading disinformation to confuse the opponent.

‘Maskirovka’ took shape in 1380 when 50,000 Russian soldiers defeated 150,000 Mongolian warriors in the Battle of Kulikovo.

Saturday’s developments would embolden Ukraine to mobilize and consolidate its military forces at places and zones the Russians want them to.

Or could it be that the operation is aimed at the removal of the well-entrenched duo of Shoigu-Gerasimov due in The Kremlin?

At the very least, such an operation would also serve to unify Russians, who will be forced all the more to close ranks especially in the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine?

Last but not the least, it may also well be the most basic of human frailties—greed—for power and riches—that may have impelled the Prigozhin-led Wagner mercenaries to turn on to the Russians, where the possibility of a role of the US-led West cannot entirely be denied. 


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