The war between Russia and Ukraine has dragged on for 16 months now; with no signs of abating. And recently, there has been a significant turn of events, with internal divisions rocking the Russian military in epic proportions. The media has recently been apoplectic with the news of the Wagner Group rebellion, as the leader of the Russian mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an armed mutiny against Russia’s Putin-led ruling establishment. He seized the Russian city of Roston-on-Dov.
Russian president Vladmir Putin said that the Wagner Group mutiny amounted to “treason” and vowed to rein in all those involved. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, a private military contractor, enlisted by Russia to help in the war against Ukraine, prepared for an attack on Moscow. They have since backed down following a ceasefire mediated by Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.
What is the Wagner Group? And who is Prigozhin?
The Wagner Group is a private military contractor usually enlisted by the Russian government in its foreign military adventures. Wagner’s troops are described as “mercenaries”, meaning that they only work for money. They do not engage for any particular cause or country. It is purely for money. Yevgeny Prigozhin is the head of the Wagner Group.
Al Jazeera thus describes him in this way: “Prigozhin grew up in St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown. He rose to prominence as a catering entrepreneur in the Kremlin, earning him the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’.
From then on, his business boomed. In 2014, Prigozhin diversified into the military sector and became the head of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force allegedly founded by Ukrainian-born Russian army officer Dmitry Utkin in 2013.”
Vox describes Prigozhin as one of Putin’s closest allies in his trusted circle, but that the former has never been one of Russia’s “classical elites”.
The Wagner Group fights on behalf of Russia. Al Jazeera goes on to say that Wagner has “led Moscow’s campaigns in Ukraine, and participated in conflicts in Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mozambique”.
Below is a brief breakdown of what unfolded in Russia from 23 June 2023, the purported reasons behind such a mutiny, and the significance thereof:
23 June, 2023 – Prigozhin Orders Wagner Troops To March Into Russia
The Wagner Group set to launch a military coup on 23 June, 2023,, in what the founder of the mercenary force Yevgeny Prigozhin termed a “march for justice”. On Friday, he ordered his troops to march towards Russia’s capital city Moscow, from where they were stationed in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s rebellion came against the backdrop of a long-standing feud with Russia’s military elite—whom he accuses of lying about the war in Ukraine for their selfish interests. His rebellion amounted to a demand for the removal of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
For some time, there have been simmering tensions between the Russian Ministry of Defence and Prigozhin; and this escalated over the weekend when the latter justified his Wagner’s rebellion on the basis that Russia’s forces launched attacks on his troops.
He further accused Russia’s Defence Ministry of gross incompetence and lack of professionalism, alleging that Russia was not supplying arms to Wagner Group’s forces who have fought the bloodiest of battles since Russia invaded Ukraine in what Putin termed “a special military operation”.
Russia’s Defence Ministry refuted these claims, saying that Prigozhin’s claims were tantamount to “informational provocation”.
Prigozhin also said that Russian Defence Minister had ordered that the bodies of 2,000 slain Wagner mercenaries be hidden, even though he did not provide incontestable proof to this effect.
Immediately after, Russia’s federal security service opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for calling for armed mutiny. It was also reported that Putin had been briefed on these developments and that “necessary measures were being taken”.
Wagner forces were “urged” to retreat by Russia’s Ukraine deputy commander General Sergei Surovikin—who said that the internal turmoil gave the enemy an upper hand, and, hence, they needed to return to their bases. Meanwhile security measures were tightened around government buildings, transport facilities, and other key locations in Moscow.
24 June, 2023—Wagner Forces Cross the Border Into Russia
Wagner’s forces crossed into the Russia, seemingly unopposed, in the early morning hours of Saturday, 24 June, 2023. This was announced by Prigozhin via his Telegram account. The shadowy mercenary group took the Russian southern city of Roston-on-Dov; a critical military outpost. And at that point it was apparent that it was an attempted coup that however exuded all the signs of an armed mutiny.
Rostov region governor attempted to pacify the residents early Saturday morning, saying “Law enforcement agencies are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of residents of the area. I ask everyone to stay calm and not to leave home unless necessary”.
Prigozhin later on made a statement from the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District which is in Rostov-on-Don, declaring, “We have arrived here, we want to receive the chief of the general staff and Shoigu. Unless they come, we’ll be here, we’ll blockade the city of Rostov and head for Moscow.”
In making such a defiant statement, Prigozhin was seen sitting between two senior generals, including army Lieutenant-General Vladimir Alekseyev, who had previously told Prigozhin and his Wagner forces to back down.
The Russian Defence Ministry issued a stinging statement in which they asserted that a “counter-terrorism” operation had been activated in Moscow and the surrounding regions, saying that Wagner mercenaries had been “deceived and dragged into a criminal adventure” by Prigozhin and that to assure their safety from criminal proceedings being opened against them, they needed to back down.
President Putin appeared on television saying that Wagner fighters were heroes who had “liberated” the Donbass region of Ukraine, but highlighted that for their actions in the march towards Moscow they were facing “treason”; and that Prigozhin’s revolt was a “stab in the back”.
Reuters then reported that about 5,000 Wagner troops were heading towards the outskirts of Moscow. Prigozhin appeared very determined and according to some Russian observers perplexed by his moves, he was a trusted ally “gone rogue”.
Prigozhin abruptly stopped his forces from further marching towards Moscow courtesy of a deal that was brokered by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. Lukashenko is Putin’s closest international ally, and is also Prigozhin’s friend. After Lukashenko made a peace deal with Prigozhin, Wagner forces pulled out of Roston-on-Don on Saturday night.
Details of the peace deal; and the implications of the ordeal
The details of the deal were scant. Not much was released to the public. What Lukashenko’s office only revealed was that the deal contains security guarantees for Wagner troops; and Prigozhin, the chief of Wagner, will live in exile in Belarus. Wagner forces who did not participate in the march towards Moscow will be offered Russian military contracts, according to Kremlin.
Prigozhin still maintains that this was not an armed rebellion, but, rather, a “march of justice”. On Monday Prigozhin said that, “We started our march because of an injustice. We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country.”
Although it is most likely that Putin will not be overly vindictive towards Prigozhin and his attempt at rebellion, what has been laid bare for the whole world to see are the apparent “cracks” in Putin’s hold over power. It has become clear that Putin might not be as strong as he projects to the world.
Sources: News Agencies