Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  07 July, 2023

The Wagner Coup: Strategic Setback or Military Deception?

Image: Artsaba Family/

The Wagner coup equation doesn’t compute. It just doesn’t add up. Herbert Wulf gave us a concise summary of the surreal 24 hours that gripped the world. But there are missing pieces of the puzzle that we haven’t been given. And now we learn that the Wagner boss is back in St Petersburg, Russia.

In his classic The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

Chen Weihua is a contemporary China commentator based in Brussels as chief of the Europe Bureau of China Daily. In an article in that paper on 16 June, he made some claims that will startle most Western readers. Noting that just ten days after the Ukraine war began in February last year, the EU banned Russia Today and Sputnik News, he wrote that since then the 450mn people living in the EU have had the information they receive restricted to covering the war largely from Ukraine’s perspective. This is the side that the EU backs. And this had been done in the name of checking ‘disinformation’ and ‘information manipulation’ by Russia. Thus, while speculations on Russia’s casualty toll are rife, there is almost complete silence on Ukrainian casualties.

EU officials have also maintained similar total silence on the culprit responsible for the sabotage of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite its critical importance to the EU’s energy security. Chen Weihua writes that the nearly identical views of supposedly independent commentators at European think tank events and news channels

is a reflection of the extremely sad political correctness in the EU, or a manipulation of information and spreading of disinformation.

On the other hand, Chinese news media outlets have been doing a better job in presenting both sides of the story. This is largely due to the fact that China does not believe in taking sides and instead has maintained good relations with both Russia and Ukraine.

And he rightly points out that while ‘some EU officials see such balanced coverage as jeopardising their efforts to manipulate information or spread disinformation’, China’s views in fact are closer to many others from the Global South.

Now consider the dominant narrative in the legacy Western media, and by that I don’t mean just the US media. How could Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner paramilitary group of mercenaries, stage an armed mutiny that threatened to reach Moscow at lightning speed without meeting much resistance from the Russian military? How can President Vladimir Putin survive the crippling blow to his authority that rests on his ability to provide stability and guarantee security?

An analysis on 25 June by Anton Trolanovski in the New York Times, the one-time paper of record, argued: ‘Revolt Raises Searing Question: Could Putin Lose Power’? Writing in the Washington Post on 24 June, senior columnist David Ignatius concluded: ‘Putin looked into the abyss Saturday – and blinked’. The theme was reprised endlessly in the British and European print and electronic media outlets as well. For example, retired Colonel Richard Kemp wrote in the UK Telegraph (25 June) that the ‘abortive coup d’etat’ has exposed Putin’s ‘weakness’ and ‘vulnerability’.

Yet, all three elements of this narrative – the march on Moscow in a dramatic anti-Putin coup, the question mark over the Russian military’s ability and loyalty to the regime, and Putin’s major defeat – are suspect. Let’s work backwards from the known outcomes.

Tellingly, Putin never took a call from Prigozhin. He stared him down and won.

Brazilian geopolitical analyst Pepe Escobar, a familiar and respected columnist from the global South, points out that by the time the coup fizzled out, Putin had locked in the support of the military, the intelligence and security agencies, and the citizens. So much so that Escobar speculates that the ‘coup’ (his inverted commas and title caps) ‘could turn out to be the Greatest Russian Trolling of the West Ever’ and the ‘Mother of All Maskirovkas’ (military deception).

A force of just 25,000 mercenaries taking on the full might of the Russian army – seriously? Rebekah Koffler, a former US defence intelligence analyst, also writes in Newsweek (29 June) that the so-called coup was staged by Putin: a false flag operation to flush out Prigozhin and strengthen his own position. The West fell for it. Escobar concludes that Russia has emerged stronger and ‘Putin is stronger than ever’. We also know that he never forgets and never forgives, so Prigozhin would be well advised to stay away from windows in upper storeys and from men with umbrellas.

Escobar’s analysis is consistent with that of ‘a knowledgeable source in the American intelligence community’ speaking to Seymour Hersh. He too points out that the revolt fizzled out within a day, Prigozhin has fled into exile in Belarus, his forces have been mostly blended into the Russian army (or they can choose to join their former boss in exile in Belarus), there was no march on Moscow nor a threat to Putin’s life, and Putin in fact ‘is now in a much stronger position’. But the coup that died in a day was helpful in distracting attention from the failure of the much-heralded Ukraine summer counter-offensive to make serious headway against the fortified Russian defensive positions in eastern Ukraine.

Just to be clear, I am not endorsing the counter-narrative on the so-called coup. I merely wish to note that there is a counter-narrative and that it is plausible. Discerning the truth through the fog of war is well-nigh impossible for independent observers. All we can and should do is keep an open mind and read a range of analyses. In that sense and to that extent, Chen Weihua is right in criticising the narrow opinion corridor permitted in the West’s mainstream media.

This has one further consequence for Western allies in the Pacific. Ahead of Prime Minister (PM) Fumio Kishida’s attendance at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania next week, Japan has concluded a new partnership agreement with NATO and the latter will be opening an office in Tokyo. South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are also entering into the so-called ‘global partners’ group with individually crafted arrangements with NATO, or supplementary pacts like AUKUS that provide a hinge to NATO.

The assumptions behind the rush by the Asia-Pacific Four (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea) to be willing accomplices to the globalisation of NATO to protect US primacy and contain China, as Joseph Camilleri puts it, surely need to be debated and contested. Is this the best way to ensure the continued peace of the Indo-Pacific? To dissuade the US from going to war over Taiwan, and Australia from committing to that war effort in advance?

The sobering reality is that although the West hopes that the setbacks to Russia’s plans for a decisive victory over Ukraine will deter China from attacking Taiwan to capture it by force, Beijing may conclude to the contrary that it can learn from Russia’s tactical mistakes and benefit from the West’s military exhaustion in aiding Ukraine with massive military supplies. Western leaders are in denial that the more they arm Ukraine, the more they incentivise China to assist Russia in avoiding defeat to make sure the West continues to confront adversaries on two major fronts. As war aims continue to evolve for the direct conflict parties and their proxy allies, it would be more prudent to concentrate attention and diplomatic efforts on containing and ending the war in Europe rather than aiding and abetting its export to the Pacific.

Related articles:

Their business is military force. The Wagner Festival is cancelled (3-minute read)

Could the US and China become partners for peace in Ukraine? (3-minute read)

The Mystery of the Nord Stream pipeline explosions (15-minute read)


Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.