Yevgeny Prigozhin's coup attempt in June left everyone in the world stunned - except Russian intelligence officials, some of whom tacitly supported the catering magnate's efforts. In this exclusive for The Insider, sources in the FSB, GRU and Ministry of Internal Affairs explain why Vladimir Putin's security apparatus failed to stop Wagner from seizing a key military base and charging all the way to the gates of Moscow.
The GRU: The Dog That Didn't Bark
The FSB: the Sword But Whose Shield?
Moscow Was Silent
A Plot Without a Plan
For Russian spies and soldiers, the biggest shock from last month’s abortive coup in Russia is that Yevegeny Prigozhin didn’t succeed in overthrowing a regime that they say curries little devotion. The Insider has spoken with several sources in Russia’s special services. Prigozhin, the rogue catering magnate turned mercenary financier, they insist, faced little resistance because he enjoys widespread support within the ranks of the very institutions meant to safeguard the state and Vladimir Putin.
To most outside observers, Prigozhin’s rebellion on June 23-24, which saw his Wagner forces come within 120 miles of Moscow, was a cause of astonishment and confusion. Astonishment because few saw it coming and even fewer could understand why it was mostly met by shrugs from the rank-and-file of the Russian army and the nation’s sprawling security apparatus. Confusion because Prigozhin, who came closest to challenging Putin’s 23-year reign, has not been shot or imprisoned – this at a time when merely posting truthful information about Russia’s faltering war in Ukraine can land an ordinary person fifteen years in jail.
In fact, Prigozhin has met at least once with Putin in St. Petersburg since his abortive coup. He still travels in and out of Russia on his private plane, suggesting his passport hasn’t even been confiscated. And now, after much speculation as to his whereabouts, he has turned up in a training camp in Belarus, just outside Minsk, evidently his new home in exile, along with some of his Wagner mercenaries.
The GRU: The Dog That Didn't Bark
One high-ranking source in the Main Directorate of the General Staff, the GRU, Russian military intelligence, previously warned The Insider that a coup attempt was possible in light of Russia’s flailing war in Ukraine; the only unexpected development was the timing and architect of this one.
“Everyone in the Ministry of Defense and in the government as a whole is already tired of this war and would like to stop it,” the source said. “You can feel the discontent , so I expected something similar could happen by autumn. The fact that Prigozhin turned out to be at the head of the rebellion is surprising, but he would never have done such a thing if he had not understood that there would be those in the GRU leadership who would support him.” This echoes statements anonymous Western intelligence officials have made in the past several weeks about the existence of a Russian fifth column.
During Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, the same GRU source told The Insider that he had no doubt it could end in Putin’s overthrow: “Ten thousand motivated people are stronger than a hundred thousand unmotivated people,” this officer said. “If you blow up the bridges on the Oka, then you can try to prevent the column from reaching Moscow. But otherwise there are no serious obstacles for the ‘musicians,’” this GRU officer added, referring to Wagner.
Nor has the meeting between Putin and Prigozhin, the man he had branded a “traitor,” made the Russian president any safer. “Now everyone is convinced of how easily and without a fight you can take power, so there may be many who want to,” the GRU officer said. “Everyone saw that, in fact, no one stood up for Putin. What until recently was considered by many to be absolutely impossible almost succeeded, and now many may want to repeat it again.”
There are generals in the Russian army, the source added, who gave a variety of excuses for not interfering in Prigozhin’s blitzkrieg, which began with the seizure of the Russian Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. Some said they were still hungover from partying the night before – not exactly a sterling pledge of fealty to the regime or much of a declaration that duty to the Motherland trumps all other considerations.
This appraisal was corroborated by a Ukrainian intelligence officer who said: “We monitor in real time what is happening in the Russian army, including through access to computers and communications of the Russian military command. It was clear that, firstly, in the army they were completely unprepared for this rebellion. Secondly, they were not at all going to do something about it.”
“We watched one general in one of the Russian regions who received a call on Saturday and demanded to urgently appear at the headquarters in connection with an attempted military coup,” the Ukrainian spy said, “but he did not go anywhere and continued to drink. And as we understand, such a reaction was typical.”
A senior European intelligence official said the chaotic first 24 hours of Prigozhin’s campaign were the most crucial: “The sense of tension and disorder at the top was real. Putin is no doubt somewhat weakened. Should Ukraine be dramatically successful in its counteroffensive, the likelihood of Act Two increases. It may have a different cast, but the scene has been set.”
The FSB: the Sword But Whose Shield?
An officer in the Federal Security Service, the FSB, elaborated on how even the Russian Spetsnaz, or Special Forces, didn’t show up to stop Prigozhin’s army. “None of us knew anything about what was happening and did not understand what it was. But for some reason, two days before the rebellion, the Alpha unit [an elite Spetsnaz unit of the FSB] was transferred to guard Lubyanka,” he said, referring to the FSB headquarters in Moscow.”
“Whether this is somehow related is not clear,” the source explained. “When it started, the Special Operations Forces were raised in Moscow, but without much success. The 45th Brigade of the Airborne Forces did not come out at all on the order to ‘meet Prigozhin,’ nor did a number of other units, including units of the National Guard.”
The FSB source believes that Prigozhin could have pressed on to Moscow if he so chose. “He had the most successful situation. There was no resistance. Why he stopped no one knows for sure.”
Moreover, people close to the oligarch remained defiant even when the whole plan fell apart – or was called off. When the FSB raided the offices of Concord, Prigozhin’s parent company in St. Petersburg, his son Pavel was present. “He personally told FSB operatives, ‘I will remember you.’ He threatened them,” the FSB source told The Insider. “Then the company accountants were arrested. All were eventually released.”
Moscow Was Silent
Another officer in the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs from Rostov-on-Don described the frantic behind-the-scenes scrambling the night of the coup. “The Fortress plan was announced,” the source said, referring to Russia’s emergency measures to countermand Prigozhin and protect Moscow, “but no one began to execute it. Everyone was scared.”
At around 6 p.m. on June 23, the source recounted, traffic police started chattering about the advance of military columns from the Bakhmut region toward Rostov-on-Don. “One of our operatives phoned his colleagues from Voronzeh and said the Wagnerites, when crossing from Ukrainian territory, fired at the frontier post in the Voronezh region and killed several border guards.” (The Insider can confirm that Wagner indeed shelled the frontier post with mortars, but the border guards, who are under the command of the FSB, were not killed, only beaten.)
The Ministry of Internal Affairs source also cited another rumor: that Wagner had defected to the Ukrainians and would seize Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh on behalf of Kyiv. “Everyone who was in the district police department was seriously frightened and began to call their homes so that they would not leave the house and packed their suitcases, just in case.”
The duty officer in the department called Rostov command , but no one picked up at first. When someone finally did early in the morning, he told the duty officer that Moscow was silent and there were no instructions.
“I phoned the men from the Seventh [Proletarsky District] and Eighth [Sovetsky District] departments. Nobody knew anything and there was no one in charge.”
At around 11 p.m. orders to declare the “Fortress” operational plan came down from Command . “The duty officer began calling employees, but many simply did not pick up the phone or were already drunk. It was Saturday night and many police officers were taking time off outside the city. Our boss was with a friend in a restaurant celebrating; the friend’s granddaughter had just been born.”
The Internal Affairs officer pressed the duty officer for a vehicle and crew to reconnoiter the situation in the city, but the duty officer sharply stated. “No one will go anywhere.”
In the early morning hours, employees began to gather. They received service weapons. They said that all the key points in the city were already controlled by the Wagnerites who took control of the Southern Military District HQ and would shoot the military. During the shift change, the new duty officer told the Internal Affairs source that he did not want to be a hero, and if Prigozhin demanded to open the gun room, he would give him everything: “They will drive the tank and that’s it! Who will feed my children?” the duty officer shouted.
A Plot Without a Plan
Although sources in the GRU believed the Wagnerites were more motivated and capable of taking Moscow, communication among the Wagnerites tells a different story. Mainly, the putschists were at odds with their boss and of no mind to see bloodshed on the streets of their capital city.
As early as last winter, Wagnerites who spoke to The Insider were still completely loyal to Prigozhin and admired his public denunciations of the Russian Ministry of Defense and General Staff owing its poor conduct of the war and alleged failure to adequately equip Wagner in the battleground Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. However, after these criticisms graded into an open confrontation with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, they were uncertain of the future.
“Pavel,” a Wagnerite, told The Insider in February: “Fuck knows what’s going on with them. Shoigu, of course, as a leader is an absolute zero. I don’t know how everything will end between them, but most likely Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] will win. He has such powerful resources that it will be very difficult to resist him.”
The start of the June uprising took even high-ranking and well-informed members of Wagner by surprise.
“We are all on alert, no one knows where,” Pavel said. “I myself am not going anywhere until there is a written piece of paper. And if we go, it is not a fact that we will get there. Nobody is going to fight anyone. If Yevgeny Viktorovich decided to become king, then so be it, but maybe it's just some kind of plan, in general, all this is more like some kind of circus.”
Such big top aspects of one of Russia’s most formidable fighting groups are now even worse, as many Wagernites find themselves in makeshift tent encampments outside of their native Russia. Some operatives agreed to relocate along with their boss to Belarus; but many others refused and opted to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense. Pavel was one. “All [private military companies] are now through the Ministry of Defense, we were framed for this shit,” he said. “Now I'm in Zaporozhye,” a region in southern Ukraine where Ukraine is currently pressing its counteroffensive.
To those who have reached Belarus, Prigozhin offers only cryptic hints about “the biggest work in the world, which will be carried out very soon.” Where this monumental undertaking is to occur he doesn’t say. Not that that stops those most loyal to the man they call batya, or “Dad.” “If Yevgeny Viktorovich says it, so be it,” is still a refrain of the Wagner loyalists.
And while batya has evaded the expected consequences for his act of treason, he’s by no means in the clear yet, according to one GRU officer.
“During the rebellion, it was difficult for Putin to kill Prigozhin simply because he didn’t have enough political capital to easily deal with a man who had gained a certain level of popularity due to his rhetoric as a ‘truth-seeker.’ But after some time has passed, Putin may well punish Prigozhin in order to send a signal to the rest. So if I were him, I would not go out onto the balcony in the near future.”
AUTHORS: Christo Grozev, Roman Dobrokhotov, Michael Weiss, Sergey Kanev