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Prigozhin and the Wagner Rebellion

Updated: May 23

Nasia Anson

From Putin’s Chef to National Traitor…to Putin’s Ally Once Again?

The events regarding an explosive split – and an unexpected ending – within the Kremlin’s top circle has taken the UK’s media storm for the last 24-hours. Centred at the heart of the fiasco stands Yevgeny Prigozhin – often known as ‘Putin’s Chef’ due to the previous close relationship the two men shared – who had posted several outbursts aimed at the Russian military leadership via Telegram leading up to the mayhem.

And whilst factions and rivalries have been a consistent factor within the Kremlin, never before has Putin faced a very real, physical and imminent threat to his leadership from within.

The whole debacle that played out live in front of a global audience has left quite a few of us, at the very least, confused. Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? Who are the Wagner Group? And what the hell just happened?

Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch as well as the founder and leader of the 2014-established Wagner Group – a private (and shifty) paramilitary company made up of mercenaries. Not just accompanying regular Russian troops in the current Ukrainian invasion, the unit has historically played part in several other conflicts, rising to prominence in the 2014 Donbas War and speculated to have been used in others civil wars in Syria, Mali and Libya.

According to British intelligence in December 2022, there are 50,000 Wagner members active in Ukraine – hundreds of which have gained experience in previous militaristic conflicts, like those highlighted above. As such, the group has taken on some of the severest fighting inside Ukraine, including the notorious battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Nevertheless, over the past few months, Prigozhin had been increasingly critical of how the war had been fought, going to the extent of accusing Russian troops of launching a rocket attack that had killed members of his private militia, known as the Wagner Group. In particular, Prigozhin pointed to Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, for both the attack – which Shoigu has denied – and for starting the Ukrainian war only to selfishly ‘become a Marshal’ and in the process, ‘deceive the public, deceive the president’; Prigozhin also blamed Russian oligarchs, despite being one himself, who he called a ‘clan which…rules Russia today’.

Thus, the former Russian hotdog seller went rogue for 24-hours; beginning on the 23rd of June, he posted several videos online, justifying his revolt against the motherland as a ‘march of justice’ to ‘stop the evil brought by the military leadership of the country’; stating that anyone who tries to ‘resist’ will be considered a ‘danger’, he boldly vowed to ‘destroy them immediately’.

In the early morning of Saturday, the Wagner Group crossed over from Ukraine into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

In response, Putin called the invasion an ‘internal betrayal’ to Russia, its citizens and also to the Wagner members who had ‘fought and gave their lives for…unity of the Russian world’. Those who have ‘deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal…will suffer inevitable punishment’, he threatened. Likewise, Shoigu called Prigozhin’s Telegram rants ‘informational provocation’. Offended, Prigozhin – for the first time since his mutiny – directly retorted to Putin, claiming he is ‘deeply wrong’ and that he and his Wagner troops are ‘patriots of our Motherland’.

As this war of words continued, it was accompanied with physical actions from both sides.

Prigozhin claimed the country had shown support by his taking over Rostov-on-Don without ‘firing a single shot’. Similarly, unconfirmed photos had shown 180 soldiers at the Bugaevka border crossing, located in the Voronezh region, standing aside without weapons and allowing the Wagner Group to cross over without any interference.

However, Intel Slava Z – one pro-Russia channel on Telegram – echoed Putin in that ‘no matter what personal desperation drove the rebels to this radical step… A stab in the back remains a stab in the back…’. Moreover, two people were seen detained by Wagner mercenaries, occurring near the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Evidence like this sees Prigozhin’s claim fall short.

Nonetheless, according to British military intelligence, the Wagner Group successfully captured the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. This was essential as the command centre is known to coordinate the entire military operation in Ukraine. Probably in an effort to protect the recent occupation, photos of alleged mines and a sideways Wagner truck blocking off the Taganrog exit of the city emerged. In accompaniment, several military vehicles and soldiers on duty – progressively looking like a military coup.

After occupying Rostov-on-Don, the mercenaries swiftly moved to the city of Voronezh, which had been reported to have also successfully taken control of all military facilities there too. Several videos circulated on social media showing a Russian army helicopter dropping a bomb on an oil depot. Additionally, other Russian military helicopters opened fire on a Wagner convey that had been travelling along the M4 highway outside the city. The convey allegedly included a flatbed truck carrying at least one tank and several troop carriers.

Tensions already high, a video of a grey pickup truck with the number plate AXMAT raised suspicions that the first groups of Chechen special forces were deployed in an effort to suppress the rebellion.

Residents living in Lipetsk had been warned to stay indoors, out of concerns of being next on the pathway to Moscow for the Wagner troops. A few hours later, it was reported that they had entered the region, just over 200 miles from the capital, and were continuing their travel up the M4 highway.

Sergey Sobyanin, the Mayor of Moscow, put out a warning to the city’s citizens that they could not go to work on Monday – an attempt, clearly, to prevent civilian casualties from potential violence. With these announcements alongside reports that the Russian army had positioned roadblocks and artilleries at the entry to Moscow from the M-4, to be used against the oncoming Wagner military conveys, it seemed that it was just hours before Moscow would descend into bloodshed and carnage.

So, after all this, you may be wondering what happened next? Did Prigozhin go head-to-head with Putin? The answer – quite the opposite.

In a stark turn of events, around 6:30pm UK time, the Belarusian president office announced that Prigozhin had accepted a deal, involving Prigozhin moving to Belarus and the assured safety of the Wagner mercenaries; it was reported that not long after, the unit turned around to return back to their bases. Prigozhin has claimed in an audio recording that he gave the order to call off the march to ‘avoid bloodshed’. Videos and photos have come out of Prigozhin and his Wagner troops being cheered on by Russians as they depart from Rostov-on-Don – an interesting end to the day, considering they had invaded just 12 hours earlier with quite a different attitude.

But perhaps most strange is that despite his public act of defiance that has left Putin globally humiliated and has questioned the hegemony of the Kremlin, all criminal charges have been dropped against Prigozhin.

Presently, the whole Wagner ordeal has left behind more questions than answers. Like how did this affect the Ukrainian invasion?

Undeniably, Prigozhin’s offensive weakened the Ukrainian war effort. Pulling thousands of experienced fighters from Ukrainian soil physically undermined the soldiers left – especially pulling them to fight their homeland. In support of this, the Ukrainian military has alleged that it had made significant gains near Bakhmut city – rather ironic considering the Wagner Group had been instrumental in capturing the city.

Or maybe one is more sceptical of the sudden turn around. Could it have been a strategic –

and perverse – ploy on Russia’s behalf for unification? Or did Prigozhin simply get cold feet?

It seems more likely the latter – not only has the fiasco seen Russian bloggers divided on which side to support, it has also brought into question Putin’s authority; Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke out on Twitter, calling Russia’s weakness ‘obvious’ and that the ‘longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later’. Likewise, Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has suggested the ordeal has proven how ‘fragile’ Putin’s regime is and the possibility that this might be the beginning of ‘some turmoil and instability’ for Russia. If the aim was to unify and strengthen Russia, then it has seemed, for now, to not have worked.

A more under-the-radar question contains the almost-random involvement of Belarus. Why did President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, broker the deal, instead of communication occurring inside Russia? Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, reported that Lukashenko had offered to mediate between the former friends because he had known Prigozhin personally for two decades. With close relations between Belarus and Russia, this explanation does not seem farfetched – although equalising a favour to Putin may have been on the cards too, since Putin had offered financial and military support to Lukashenko back in 2020 when he faced public protests towards his election as President.

Where Prigozhin stands personally with Putin remains to be seen, although it would not be unreasonable to assume the ‘Putin’s Chef’ no longer stands in the high regards he once did with the former KGB agent.

Whilst I have attempted to clear some things up, as I see it, it’s going to take a lot more time to truly disentangle and comprehend the events of the Wagner Rebellion in its entirety.

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