Over 2071 years ago, on January 10th, 49 BC a Roman proconsul and commanding general of ten legions (some 45 000 soldiers) crossed the River Rubicon coming from Gaul and started his March on Rome. This historical moment is known as the beginning of the Roman Civil War.
By Lieutenant colonel Agilolf Kesselring, Military historian, PhD (Helmut Schmidt University), Associate Professor History of European Warfare (FIN) and Historian Staff officer (res) (GE)
The commanding general, Caius Iulius Caesar, ended not only the era of the Roman Republic, he became the role model for generations of different “emperors” from Nero over Napoleon to Mussolini and Hitler and maybe Putin. Years later, after Caesar had been murdered, republicans like Marcus Tullius Cicero felt that Caesar’s former cavalry officer Marcus Antonius would form a new threat: “Hannibal ante portas” – “Hannibal at the gates”, Cicero is said to have exclaimed. The perceived threat of Antonius becoming the new Caesar was compared to the most traumatic threat in Roman history: Rome’s archenemy Hannibal’s march on Rome after the Battle of Cannae.
Prigozhin did not threaten a republic
On Kupala Night from June 23rd to 24th, 2023, the night before the Slavic midsummer holiday, a Russian mercenary chief and commander of PMC Wagner (some 25 000 soldiers) crossed the river Don coming from Ukraine and started his march on Moscow. Like Caesar, who marched on Rome with only five cohorts (about 5000 men) Yevgeny Prigozhin marched on Moscow reportedly with the same troop strength. But Prigozhin is not Caesar: Prigozhin did not threaten a republic. The Private Military Enterpriser tried to convince the Russian autocratic president Putin to fire his minister of defense Sergei Shoigu, who had tried to bring PMC Wagner under is control since June 10th. Again, Prigozhin is not the leader of the Ukraine operations like Caesar was for Gaul. He is rather a kind of non-historic Antonius, who marched against Rome in order to convince the senate to fire proconsul Caesar, who before had tried to establish control over him.
On June 24th, at about 8.30 p.m. Moscow time, Prigozhin’s “March on Moscow” was reported to have ended some 200 kilometers from Moscow. Prigozhin’s troops did not enter Moscow – of course not. Fighting through a metropolitan area of 21.5 million residents with only one strong brigade of 5000 troops is impossible by any military logic. Urban terrain favors the defender. Not to talk about logistical problems with 1000 kilometers of unsecured support routes. Anyway, Prigozhin’s troops performed an impressing fast motor march of some 800 kilometer from Rostov. This was only possible by using the motor way and by piggyback-mounting tanks on tank transporters. This means that Prigozhin did not perform any tactical march, but sent his armored columns to a 1000 km race.
Caesar Putin did not show any strong leadership
We don’t know what Prigozhin expected to happen. If the Russian National Guard would have defended the city, in military terms, the moment of time would have been on its side. This is of course only true in strictly operational terms. The psychological factor of how an emerging civil war could potentially have triggered a revolution against the Putin regime would have had to be taken into account. “Would have had” – so far it did not happen. Was Putin worried about a revolution to come? Is this why he made concessions to a man, whom he had called a traitor only a few hours before? We don’t know it. We don’t even know, if Putin was still in Moscow. Caesar Putin did not show any strong leadership. There was no Brutus, no senators available to murder him and he did not physically face anybody.
Was It A Maskirovka?
Was Prigozhin’s spontaneous – like he claimed – or was it well prepared in advance? The speed in proceeding clearly indicates towards the latter. What did give Prigozhin the sureness to dare sending his finest troops in a peace-like manner towards Moscow? Did he have so many helpers within the ranks of the regular Russian Army that he knew he would not be attacked? Or was it all part of a Russian theater, like among others former Finnish ambassador to Russia Hannu Himanen suggested? If it was a maskirovka – a Russian military deception, whose maskirovka would it have been? Was it Putin’s, the FSB’s or the Army’s aim to get rid of Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov? PMC Wagner is the FSB’s creation. Kupala night is strongly linked to Slavic religious ideas of ritual purification. Is Prigozhin’s March on Moscow part of an inner cleansing in order to “purify” the Russian forces, inspired by Stalin’s purge of the Red Army Officer Corps in 1937/1938, which was aimed to strengthen party’s control over the army?
The answers depend so far mainly on the background of the analysts. If they are from small countries, neighbored to Russia they tend to see Putin still as a strong leader, who knows how to play behind the scenes: “The Russians should never be underestimated” is their historical lesson learned. Obviously, this is also a popular viewpoint in German media. In Europe, from historical Gaul eastwards, the decline of the Roman Empire is feared deeper than a brutal war criminal Caesar. But far behind the transatlantic ocean, some more analysts dare to speak it out: The emperor has no clothes.
Putin’s Götterdämmerung has finally started
It is as little possible to imagine “Putin’s cook” and PMC Wagner without Putin, as it is impossible to imagine Heinrich Himmler and his SS without Hitler. Former KGB officer Putin’s power has always been based on the support of the security services and first of all on the FSB. In terms of troop loyalty, Ramzan Kadyrov is a more insecure choice than Prigozhin. In 1922 Mussolini’s March on Rome succeeded due to a weak and partly sympathizing Italian king. Over 50 000 fascists were standing ready for the uprising at Rome’s gate. If Prigozhin could get through with his demand with only a tenth of Mussolini’s troops, in 2023 “the king” in Moscow must be even weaker. With Prigozhin having made the start, the next Hannibal will soon appear at the gates. This is the big picture. Whatever Prigozhin received in turn for withdrawing his troops: When the Auxilia start to turn against Rome its decline is near. Or to put it with Richard Wagner: Putin’s Götterdämmerung has finally started. We should be prepared to face it.