Russia: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the bombastic commander of the private mercenary company Wagner, and the military leadership in Moscow have been engaged in a simmering battle that has now erupted into an open revolt, throwing Russia back into unrest and raising the very real possibility of civil war.
On Friday, Prigozhin launched a fresh rant against the Russian armed forces before leading his soldiers into Rostov-on-Don.
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, referred to Wagner’s acts as “treason” and threatened to hold those responsible for the “armed uprising” accountable.
What you should know is as follows.
What did Prigozhin do?
The unexpected turn of events started on Friday, when Prigozhin publicly charged the Russian army with striking a Wagner camp and killing a “huge amount” of his soldiers. He implied that his soldiers would “destroy” any opposition, including barricades and aircraft, in his threat to retaliate violently.
“There are 25,000 of us, and we are going to find out why there is such chaos in the country,” he declared.
Later, Prigozhin backtracked on his warning, claiming that his attack on the Russian military’s leadership was a “march of justice” rather than a coup, but by that point, he had apparently crossed a line with the Kremlin.
When Prigozhin stated that his soldiers had reached the Rostov area of Russia and taken control of important military installations inside its metropolis, the crisis only grew worse. One million people reside in Rostov-on-Don, which serves as the military command centre for southern Russia.
In a video he made, Prigozhin threatened to blockade Rostov-on-Don unless the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the senior general Valery Gerasimov came to meet him.
Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom Prigozhin accuses of being responsible for Moscow’s stumbling invasion of Ukraine, have been the targets of his months-long tirades.
How did Russia respond?
A few hours later, Putin delivered a speech to the country that revealed the severity of the problem he is currently facing.
According to Putin, anyone who knowingly continues down a path of treason by planning an armed uprising while you were planning terrorist strikes will face punishment.
“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood as a nation,” the Russian President declared. “It is a blow to Russia for our people and our actions to protect our homeland.” A serious reaction will be given to such a threat.
However, in response, Prigozhin claimed on Telegram that the president is “deeply mistaken.” He referred to his fighters as “patriots of our Motherland” and made the following promise: “No one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB, or anyone else.” That represented a more direct threat to Putin than Prigozhin had previously used.
Prior to now, the Russian Defence Ministry had called the notion that Wagner’s forces had been attacked “informational propaganda.”
In this still from a video that was released on June 24, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner private mercenary group, is heard speaking inside the military command centre of the Russian southern army in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, which, in his words, has been taken over by Wagner PMC.
Yevgeny Prigozhin: Who is He?
Additionally, the Russian government’s internal security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), filed a criminal complaint against Prighozhin, charging him with inciting “an armed rebellion.”
An FSB statement urging Wagner fighters to detain their leader said that Prigozhin’s “statements and actions are in fact calls for the beginning of an armed civil conflict on the territory of the Russian Federation and are a stab in the back of Russian servicemen fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces.”
According to Russian state media, TASS, Russian officials appeared to take no chances as security measures in Moscow were stepped up.
Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, announced on Telegram on Saturday that “anti-terrorist” security measures were being implemented in the city’s centre due to “incoming information.”
In the early hours of Saturday, military trucks were observed cruising the major avenues of the Russian capital, according to social media reports.
Prigozhin: Who is he?
Putin has been Prigozhin’s friend since the 1990s. He obtained large catering contracts with the Kremlin, which led to his rise to billionaire status and earned him the title “Putin’s chef”.
Following the 2014 Russian-backed separatist activities in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, he underwent a savage warlord metamorphosis.
Wagner was established by Prigozhin to be a covert mercenary group that fought in eastern Ukraine and, increasingly, for causes favoured by Russia all over the world.
In the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, Ukraine, and Syria, CNN has traced Wagner mercenaries. They have a reputation for being exceptionally brutal and have been connected to numerous violations of human rights over time.
Following Moscow’s complete invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin’s political profile in Russia skyrocketed.
The only Russian troops who appeared to be making real headway on the battlefield were the Wagner fighters, while many regular Russian troops experienced defeats.
As new recruits are sent into battle with little formal training, a process described by retired United States Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling as “like feeding meat to a meat grinder,” the Wagner group, known for its disregard for the lives of its own soldiers, is thought to have caused a high number of casualties.
Prigozhin has frequently fought with Russia’s military leadership on social media, portraying himself as capable and ruthless in contrast to the military establishment.
During the bleak and protracted battle for Bakhmut, when he frequently charged the military command with failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition, his conflicts with Russia’s top brass burst into the open.
In one particularly gruesome video from the beginning of May, Prigozhin pointed a gun directly at Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian armed forces.
As he gestures towards the bodies behind him and remarks, “The blood is still fresh,” They are perishing, so you can sit like fat cats in your opulent offices because they came here as volunteers.
Infighting and competition among elites are actually encouraged to achieve results under Putin’s rule, so long as the “vertical of power” remains obedient to and responds to the head of state.
But in recent weeks, Prigozhin’s increasingly outlandish outbursts have raised concerns that even he may be going too far.
What happens now?
When Ukraine hopes to advance during its own summer offensive, Putin’s national address sets up a frontal confrontation at the centre of Russia’s establishment.
Putin compared the situation he is in to the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks deposed Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in the midst of World War One, sparking a civil war that finally led to the establishment of the Soviet Union.
When Russia entered World War I in 1917 but had victory robbed from it, this was the same kind of setback, according to Putin.
The disintegration of the army, the fall of the state, the loss of enormous swaths of territory, and ultimately catastrophe and civil war were the results of intrigues, quarrels, and politics conducted behind the backs of the army and the people. Brothers slaughtered brothers, while Russians killed Russians.
Former career CIA officer and current CNN contributor Steve Hall claimed that Prigozhin had put himself in a very perilous situation and was fully aware of what he was up against.
When you think about it, it’s kind of intriguing that Prigozhin “knows exactly what his risk is,” because that suggests that he must have estimated that he can carry this off. A man like Prigozhin is aware of the dangers and is aware that things could turn out very terribly for him if things don’t go smoothly.
Meanwhile, Kyiv has reacted with joy and great schadenfreude to the obvious discord inside Russia’s armed forces.
According to senior analyst Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Ukraine will be eager to take advantage of the unrest, particularly if Moscow is compelled to withdraw soldiers from the front lines.
He told CNN that it was important for them to understand how the Russian forces were positioned along their defensive lines.
Potentially, you will see the Ukrainians opening up new opportunities, identifying gaps in the Russian lines that they can push through and exploit,” says Wagner. “If Russian forces at those locations are being withdrawn to fight Wagner—to defeat what is unquestionably an insurrection at the moment but could become a civil war down the road.”
He continued, “If gaps open up, they need to be prepared to exploit those openings.