the Convoy Theory
What happened in Russia on 24 JUN 2023? Look at the facts, not Vladimir Putin's lies.
Last Saturday, something happened in Russia involving the Wagner Group.
There are lots of hefty words being thrown out to describe it in the media: mutiny, revolt, rebellion, attempted coup d'état.
Our take is that of the events being less-substantial: it was a routine military convoy, with a bit of “mutiny” drama staged for the Russian press, which the Western press thoroughly misinterpreted and over-hyped.
Nothing about the "official" and public story about the Day of Wagner makes sense. My initial summary of the official story:
After weeks of verbal escalations, Prigozhin declares open revolt around 24 JUN 0100 (all times Moscow time). At 5AM, the troops enter into Rostov-on-Don, and "take control" of the city (or one military facility) without resistance.
The troops then start a 650 mile journey from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow. The goal? Presumably, a decapitation strike against Putin. Except, rumor has it that Putin wisely flew to "an undisclosed location".
The Russian military set up blockades on the highway at the Oka river (about 70 miles south of downtown Moscow), and basically dared Prigozhin to do his worst.
In response, Prigozhin ... surrendered completely before midnight, accepting exile in Belarus. The various Wagner troops are presumably going to follow the pre-announced plan of being rolled into the regular Russian army on July 1.
Why would Prigozhin engage in a military effort akin to treason, only to suddenly stop?
How could Lukashenko, on the spur of the moment, negotiate an agreement between two men feuding for weeks, just in time for the convoy to stop at the exit1 to Belarus? And, that agreement conveniently has Wagner troops relocate to Belarus?
Why would the Russian military in Rostov-on-Don have stood down completely, unless they were instructed to do so?
Most critically: if Prigozhin was really attempting to use military force against Putin, how is he still alive?
The answer: it was a drama for the Russian media. There was no real conflict; or, rather, whatever real conflict existed was resolved before 24 JUN 2023, with this being its scripted resolution.
The Real Conflict
For weeks, the media2 has been talking about tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian military.
MOSCOW, June 11 (Reuters) - Russia's most powerful mercenary said on Sunday that his Wagner fighters would not sign any contract with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, publicly refusing an attempt by the defence ministry to bring his fighting force under its sway.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, has repeatedly attacked President Vladimir Putin's top military brass for what he casts as treachery for failing to fight the war in Ukraine properly. (ref. Reuters)
Since then, Prigozhin has been making statements of increasing hostility. So a declaration of open revolt came as no surprise.
But, with the benefit of 72 hours of hindsight, it is clear the resolution to the power struggle was “Prigozhin moves to Belarus”. There is no reason to believe this was a spur-of-the-moment resolution. I think he knew he was heading to Belarus when he sent 10000 troops3 there.
All coups start as Schrodinger4 coups. Will there be an attempted coup d'état, or not?
At a certain point, the uncertainty changes. There is a coup attempt in progress: will it be successful?
The facts are certain on one point: the events of 24 JUN 2023 never reached the point of changing from the first type of uncertainty to the second type.
As far as the first type of uncertainty: staging a fake coup has a risk of inciting an actual coup. But when the events are scripted ahead of time, and the military convoy has no chance of achieving any military goals, is it really an attempted coup?
The Precautionary Principle
There are certain matters where the media is inherently conservative in its coverage.
Take the recent incident involving a submersible exploring the Titanic. The US military and independent experts were all nearly certain the sub imploded even before the story reached the news media. But, until there was photographic evidence of the debris, the media almost unanimously stuck to the story that the vessel “could be stuck or trapped” and running a timer on “how long the oxygen would last”.
This is because of the precautionary principle: don’t say that a person is dead until you see the body5.
When Prigozhin has been saying for weeks that he might turn on Putin, and then he says he is turning on Putin, and then he sends 10000 Wagner troops onto the streets of Rostov-on-Don, the media must assume it is a possible coup or civil war until it is proven otherwise.
Now, after such an anti-climactic resolution, we are starting to prove otherwise.
But What About?
I raised this theory on the latest ACX open thread, where it did not get a warm reception.
But, an appeal to “a majority of the comments disagree” is always6 a logical error. In this case, several of the loudest arguments are blatantly inaccurate.
There is one point that I must emphasize first: many of the news reports about Russia are, ultimately, sourced to the Russian equivalent of 4chan. It is a drop dead certainty that some of the incidents described on 24 JUN 2023 did not happen as they were presented.
the Appeal to US Intelligence
If this was fake, why didn’t Biden, the CIA, or anyone else say so?
Biden himself answered this on Monday. The US position is that this was an internal affair of the Russian Federation, and the US government would not be meddling in internal Russian affairs.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said during an event at the White House on Monday. “We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications for Russia and Ukraine. But it’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going.” (ref. The Manchester Guardian)
the Appeal to Law
If this was fake, then why are there criminal charges against Prigozhin?
Because criminal charges against top political actors in Russia exist exactly when Putin wants them to exist. And, the fact that the “coup/mutiny” was contrived does not imply that the underlying power-struggle was fake.
the Appeal against Conspiracy
You’re just promoting a conspiracy theory!
In modern English, the term “conspiracy theory” has two meanings. It can mean either “a theory that has been proven false” or “a theory that involves a conspiracy”.
It is a grave logical error to conflate those meanings and conclude “any theory that involves a conspiracy is provably false”.
In this case: we know there is a conspiracy. It is called “the government of Russia”. They are conspiring to win a war against Ukraine.
the Appeal to Putin’s Honesty
If this was fake, then why would Putin have called Prigozhin a traitor?
Because Putin is lying as part of a drama he scripted.
the Appeal to Roads
If this was fake, then why would Putin block the roads?
First, even as part of a scripted drama, they would have to put some effort into it looking real.
The Russians have a saying: doveryai, no proveryai. “Trust, but verify”. Sending troops to block one bridge is a very minor cost that would completely neutralize any path for Prigozhin’s forces to quickly reach Moscow. No matter how scripted this was, Putin would have been paranoid enough to ensure Prigozhin did not have the opportunity to go off-script.
As far as photos of backhoes tearing up Russian roads - those were either photo ops, misguided local officials, or pure fake news.
the Appeal to Blood
If this was fake, then what about the crashed aircraft and the dozen dead Russian airmen?
To start with, we must question “did that actually happen”. Pics (+lat/lon) or it didn’t happen.
We do have that for one alleged incident, courtesy of “OSINTtechnical” on Twitter. I am familiar with that account, and it is more reliable than 4chan, but still subject to all the inaccuracies of rapid coverage.
This story has two problems. First: the official story says that Wagner shot down aircraft that were attacking them. But would an “airborne command post” have offensive capabilities?
Second: check a map.
The provided lat/lon (which the BBC is reporting as near Kantemirovka) is the red marker. It is much closer to the (pre-conflict) Ukraine border than the M4. The convoy had absolutely nothing to do with an airplane crash at that location.
Was it other Wagner troops? Ukrainian troops? Pilot error? Was OSINTtechnical wrong about the location? I don’t know. But, what we have is clearly not evidence that people died because of the Wagner convoy.
the Appeal to Mystery
It doesn’t have to make sense. As Churchill said, Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
This is just sticking one’s head in the sand. It is also somewhat self-contradictory: we can’t know what happened, yet we know the other story *is* what happened.
the Appeal to the Other Shoe
There was a back-room coup effort beyond what the media could see and report on. Prigozhin is going to accidentally fall out of a window real soon now.
Unlike the other appeals, I can’t dismiss this one. It is certainly possible. Various “the KGB told both Putin and Prigozhin to shut up and comply” theories are similarly possible.
Ultimately, whether this was a mutiny or a rebellion or an attempted coup or a nothingburger may be more a question of linguistics and aesthetics than facts. But one thing appears certain: the Wagner division moving up the M4 was not a military threat. It was just a convoy.
According to the New York Times (ref), the convoy stopped near Yelets. When I checked driving directions from Rostov-on-Don to Minsk, Google Maps says to exit the M4 and head west at Yelets.
When the headline is “the media is wrong”, one must consider the possibility that the back-story has also been fictional. Unless you are considering “maybe there is no such place as Russia” in your theories, it is safe to assume that the broad outlines of what has happened on the ground are true. But it is never safe to assume that Putin or Prigozhin’s statements to the press about their own motivations are true.
The initial reports said there were 25000 troops in the convoy. Later reports gave numbers closer to 8000. For the purposes of this article, 10000 is “close enough” to accurate.
I am overdue to write an article on the Uncertainty Principle. But, I can assume the readership is familiar with the metaphor of Schrodinger’s cat, which is supposedly in a superposition of “alive” and “dead” until it is observed. Here, there is a superposition of “coup” and “not a coup” until it is observed.
Incidentally, the same words apply in a different way to soap operas: don’t say that a person is dead until you see the body.
An example, for color, on “an appeal to the majority of the comments is always bad logic”. Recently, I posted on social media about egg prices decreasing in the United States. I got two comments. One was “as a small-scale egg producer, I think this is bad”. The other was “as a pacifist-militant vegan, I think this is bad”. Reaching a conclusion that “most Americans want higher egg prices” would be egregiously bad.