June 24, 2023

Prigozhin's Uprising


Prigozhin's Uprising
Aerial view of Rostov-on-Don. Andrew Arestov

On June 23, one day after Russia’s annual commemoration of the WWII Nazi attack on the USSR, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the loose cannon who heads up the Wagner Group of mercenaries, set in motion what is alternatively being called an armed insurrection, a coup, and (by the Kremlin) treason. Prigozhin himself is calling it a “march of justice,” after his troops took control of Rostov-on-Don and the all-important Southern Military District headquartered there on the morning of June 24. Latest reports indicate that there has been military activity in locations in and around Voronezh.

“Just the day before yesterday,” said Maxim Kononenko, a Kremlin propagandist, “[Prigozhin] was a hero. Today he is a scoundrel and a traitor.”

What a difference a day makes.

It began when Prigozhin, on June 23, claimed that his units had been shelled by Russian armed forces. Feeling under attack and personally insulted, Prigozhin moved his troops to take over Rostov-on-Don, the city which houses the headquarters for Russia’s Southern Military District, that oversees all aspects of Russia’s War on Ukraine.

In Moscow and in Voronezh Oblast (which stands between Moscow and Rostov-on-Don) a regime of “counter-revolutionary operations” has been declared – essentially martial law that gives the FSB and MVD unlimited powers over citizens including reading their emails or entering their homes without a warrant.

Prigozhin claims to have 25,000 units under his command, and numerous demobilized Wagner veterans who are just waiting for an order to be called back into action and unite with the uprising. In the spring of this year, Wagner forces numbered about 50,000 units.

A video has shown a long line of Chechen forces heading north toward Rostov-on-Don. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has called Prigozhin’s action a “vile betrayal.”

President Vladimir Putin made a television statement in which he called Prigozhin’s act "treason" and "a betrayal," but did not call out Prigozhin by name.

Prigozhin immediately responded to Putin’s statement saying, “Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland, we fought and are fighting – all the fighters of PMC Wagner. And no one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB or anyone else. Because we do not want the country to continue living under conditions of corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has declared that Monday the 26th will a non-working day, in order to “minimize risk” given the declaration of a regime of counter-revolutionary operations. The city is inching toward lock-down and armored vehicles are occupying the city. Billboards in the capital that were plastered with signage glorifying the Wagner Group are being taken down.

According to Meduza, on the morning of July 24, two sources close to the Kremlin indicated that “the presidential administration of the Russian Federation feared that in a few hours Prigozhin's mercenaries may close on Moscow and that fighting will begin near the capital.”

Kremlin sources also reported that the conflict with Prigozhin traces to a few weeks back, when Prigozhin was told that, to continue fighting in Ukraine, Wagner would need to sign an agreement with the Ministry of Defense, which effectively would have subordinated Prigozhin and his privately owned mercenary force (a force that is, by the way, illegal under Russian law) to the defense officials he loathes.

One source close to the Presidential Administration, according to the Meduza report, admitted that the Kremlin underestimated their Prigozhin problem: “We discussed it at meetings, agreed that he is a daring adventurer and does not behave according to the rules. The risk of a military mutiny was considered to be zero – they considered that only a madman would do this. But Prigozhin has clearly had a breakdown.”

In total, that the Kremlin failed to manage the situation and head off a crisis reflects poorly on Putin and shows that, despite all the crackdowns on dissent and free speech, despite the militarization of society, deep contradictions and dark forces lie beneath the roots of Russian society.

(On a side note: On this day 211 years ago, in 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia.)

UPDATE (8:30 PM Moscow, 6/24): Late in the day on the 24th in Russia, Prigozhin announced that his troops, which had come within 200 km of Moscow, were turning around and returning to their bases, because things had reached a point that "there would be Russian blood spilled." A deal was apparently brokered by Belarusan President Alexander Lukashchenko. It is not clear if Wagner forces would retreat from Rostov-on-Don and return to the Ukrainian battlefields. Meanwhlie, Ukraine's deputy minister of defense reported that Ukrainian troops had made significant gains in their counterattack in the East and South.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE (10:45 PM Moscow, 6/24): From the Telegram channel of Farida Rustamova (@Faridaily): "The Kremlin on agreements with Prigozhin: the criminal case against the leader of the PMC "Wagner" will be terminated, he will go to Belarus. Those Wagnerites who did not participate in the rebellion will sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense."

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