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Crisis could turn to coup as mutineers head to Moscow

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All Russia’s leaders have feared a military coup but a successful one has proved elusive. Yevgeny Prigozhin needs to succeed in winning over elements of the regular army to threaten President Putin’s grip on power, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

To start an armed revolt is to risk everything. When Yevgeny Prigozhin turned his troops away from the front line in Ukraine to seize the Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu, he crossed the Rubicon, as Julius Caesar literally did when he turned his and his army’s attention from Gaul to Rome.

Seizing Rostov, Russia’s main military command centre of the war in Ukraine, could only ever be the start and Prigozhin knew it. So, he and his Wagner Group Private army are heading north, towards Moscow. But what is his plan?

If it was that a grateful Vladimir Putin would dismiss the ministers and generals Prigozhin despises, that has been swiftly exposed as wrong and naive. Putin has warned of civil war, as he relies on the Russian army to confront and defeat his former confidante. However, Prigozhin was surely not that naive.

More plausibly, he believes that he can win over more support. Demoralised soldiers conscripted into the regular army might waver in their loyalty to Putin but are unlikely to provide the calibre of fighters that Prigozhin needs. Indeed, there must be doubts about Wagner’s own recruits from Russia’s prisons.

Prigozhin’s closest links with Russia’s regular army are with its military intelligence arm, the GRU, which controls the elite special forces. They must be his best hope, perhaps his only hope. It’s also a long shot unless he has already received promises of support and they are now kept.

For well over a century, Russia has often been seen as a country that’s a candidate for a military coup d’etat. The Tsars long feared a coup and Nicholas II did abdicate on his generals’ advice but they were responding to setbacks on the battlefield and desertion in the ranks, rather than mobilising militarily against their commander in chief.

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The Bolsheviks seized power when the army was in no state to step into the political vacuum and its remnants were ultimately defeated in a bloody civil war. Stalin feared his generals so much that he nearly destroyed both army and country before creating a system of Communist Party control at all levels of the military to safeguard against a coup.

The army proved loyal enough to the party to support the attempted coup against Gorbachev and its failure destroyed the Soviet Union. If there is to be an historical parallel this time, perhaps the generals Putin needs to confront Prigozhin will also want the President to step aside, in an echo of the last Tsar’s fate.

It didn’t work out well in the end for Nicholas II or for Julius Caesar for that matter. Both were assassinated in episodes that resonate through history. Vladimir Putin is said to fear dying in the same way as a more recently assassinated head of state, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddfi, who was shot dead in a ditch.

It’s a prospect Putin is determined to avoid. Unless more forces rally behind Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group commander is the more likely candidate to share Gaddafi’s fate.

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