Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed attempt to move on Moscow to address his Wagner Group’s grievances leaves a stability vacuum and many questions. On June 24, the Wagner Group, a private military company, occupied the Russian army headquarters of Rostov-on-Don and full-steamed up the highway toward the Kremlin. Putin called the paramilitary’s operation treasonous. And then, as quickly as it began, the would-be coup was over. What happened?
The on-the-record story is Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko brokered negotiations between Putin and Prigozhin to prevent a bloodbath for the Wagner Group and the Russian military in defensive positions around the Russian capital. In other words, common sense prevailed. The more probable story is more like an organized crime tale.
Putin an Organized Crime Boss?
“Russian intelligence services threatened to harm the families of Wagner leaders before Yevgeny Prigozhin called off his advance on Moscow, according to UK security sources,” London’s Telegraph reported.
Prigozhin’s intention was to make a case for removing Sergei Shoigu, Russian minister of defense, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, for incompetence and his belief that Russian regular forces had attacked the Wagner Group with missiles. As Prigozhin explained in an 11-minute audio statement quoted by Euronews:
“We started our march because of an injustice … On the way, we did not kill a single soldier on the ground … We entered and completely took control of the city of Rostov. The civilians were glad to see us. We showed a master class on how February 24, 2022, should have looked like. We did not have the goal of overthrowing the existing regime and the legally elected government, which was said many times. We turned around to not shed Russian soldiers’ blood.”
However, The Wall Street Journal reported: “Wagner’s forces shot down six Russian helicopters and an IL-22 airborne command-center plane [June 24], killing 13 airmen, according to Russian military analysts — deaths that will not be easily forgotten.” A critical part of the negotiated stand-down was that Prigozhin and his paramilitary group would receive pardons for their actions, and the Russian Federal Security Service would drop all charges. Press reports confirm that is the case.
The fate of the Wagner Group as a military organization also has been resolved, the BBC explained: “Russia’s defense ministry says preparations are underway for Wagner to hand over its military hardware. This follows Vladimir Putin’s confirmation that members of Wagner mercenary force who he said were mostly true patriots, who had been misled into a criminal adventure, could choose to join the regular military or return to their families or go to Belarus.” It’s unclear where Prigozhin is currently, but most believe he is in exile in Belarus.
Putin to Absorb the Wagner Group?
Assimilating the Wagner paramilitary into the regular Russian forces will be a challenge. The mercenary enterprise is a global organization with units spread from Syria “across Africa in places like Libya and Sudan,” Liberty Nation reported. Additionally, the private military company establishes and sustains Russian equities “engaging in unconventional warfare and enlarging Russia’s areas of influence.” The Kremlin has elected to let irregular militias take care of such operations rather than utilizing regular Russian military presence.
It is not lost on the Russian people that Putin’s authority and power have been challenged. Prigozhin’s ability to lead a military convoy nearly to the suburbs of Moscow unchecked raises questions about Putin’s grip on his military and his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. “There’s a lot of internal instability in Russia. Putin is in trouble because Russians see that the war is a disaster,” Marc Thiessen, speechwriter for President George W. Bush, told Fox News. Many commentators believe Putin’s position has been severely damaged, and perhaps fatally.
Three takeaways from the Wagner Group’s operations: The Russian military may not be as united as Kremlin leaders believed; Putin is not as revered a leader as he projects; and the future of his government is not assured. In this non-coup coup, neither Prigozhin nor Putin came out on top — this time.
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