Uneasy Calm Returns to Russia in Wake of Armed Revolt by Wagner Group

AP Photo
A view of the Moscow Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 3, 2023.

DNIPRO, Ukraine – A measure of calm returned to Russia on Sunday along with an air of uncertainty after President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine boomeranged back home with armed mutiny and a brief threat of civil war.

An emergency “anti-terrorist” decree remained in force in Moscow, but the Kremlin’s truce with mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin also appeared to hold after his Wagner Group forces withdrew from a regional military headquarters in southern Russia. The mercenaries seized key installations in Rostov-on-Don and other cities before embarking on a lightning blitz toward Moscow on Saturday.

The rebellious column reached just shy of the capital after a deal was worked out through an unlikely intermediary: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose country has become all but a client state of Russia. Earlier this month, Moscow said it stationed tactical nuclear weapons on its soil.

Verified video on social media showed Prigozhin and his fighters departing the Southern Military District Headquarters in Rostov-on-Don late Saturday with little resistance. Crowds gathered around the base cheered and took selfies with Prigozhin, who was riding in a vehicle. Their withdrawal from Voronezh – about 300 miles south of Moscow – was confirmed Sunday by regional officials who posted on Telegram.

The popular support for the mutineers and their leader was a jarring note, likely to have caused discomfort in the Kremlin. Prigozhin has cast his extraordinary expedition as an effort to right the course of the war in Ukraine and force change through a showdown directed only at Russia’s military leadership, not Putin himself. The two men were once close allies, and analysts have said that Prigozhin’s blunt and often profane criticism of Russia’s regular forces was allowed by Putin as a means of airing frustration over the war’s trajectory.

But the rebellion also posed the greatest threat to Putin since he assumed power in Russia more than two decades ago. The Russian leader himself was invisible on Sunday, as were Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Both men were key targets of Prigozhin, whose stated aim was to oust them from office and “punish” them.

In his prerecorded remarks, Putin said he was prioritizing the war on Ukraine: “Well, of course, I give this priority attention. The day begins with this and ends with this,” he said. He said he was constantly in touch with the heads of military production plants on how to increase the supply of weapons and ammunition.

In an emergency address to the nation Saturday, Putin called the rebellion a “stab in the back” and “a betrayal” that threatened to reverse Russia’s hard-fought gains in Ukraine, and he promised severe punishment for those who led it – only to cut a deal with Prigozhin less than 24 hours later.

World leaders struggled to assess the meaning and potential impact of Prigozhin’s rebellion on the course of the war, and how – if at all – Ukraine’s military had attempted to take advantage of Saturday’s chaotic episode within Russia’s borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking in Russian during his nightly address, said, “The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and probably hiding somewhere, not showing himself. I am sure that he is no longer in Moscow.”

Rumors also circulated in Russia that Putin had taken a private jet and fled Moscow, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin remained in the Kremlin during the crisis. Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, Hanna Maliar, in a regular update on the progress of the fighting, said the nation’s forces had made advances in multiple directions on battle lines in eastern and southern Ukraine.

President Biden consulted with top national security aides and his counterparts in Britain, France and Germany as the crisis unfolded, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken huddled with diplomats from the Group of Seven. A message was conveyed to Russia reminding the country of its obligation to protect the U.S. Embassy and its staff.

Blinken said Sunday morning that the brief rebellion by mercenary Wagner forces showed “cracks in the facade” of Putin’s authoritarian leadership.

The United States will watch internal divisions between Putin and other Russians closely to determine how much control he retains domestically and over the war in Ukraine, Blinken said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” President Biden has not tried to contact Putin since Saturday’s unrest, Blinken said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister met with the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing on Sunday. Russia’s Andrey Rudenko and China’s Qin Gang exchanged views on “international and regional issues of common concern,” according to a brief readout by Beijing, which didn’t provide specifics.

Inside Russia, Prigozhin’s mutiny rattled the most ardent supporters of the war and appeared to cheer those whose dissent has been brutally stifled. Most Russian military bloggers took the official line, condemning Prigozhin as he announced a “march for justice” and seized control of the key base in southern Russia on Saturday – and they showed dismay at the level of support the rebels had.

But as the crisis unfolded, many also called for the removal of Shoigu, highlighting credibility problems even among the war’s most ardent supporters. Others bemoaned the deal Putin reached that allowed the mutineers to escape punishment.

One influential blogger, Mikhail Zvinchuk, said there were “undoubtedly” questions about Russia’s military leadership because the war had “gone the wrong way.” He said decisions must be made to address this, but he also criticized the deal with Prigozhin. “The question hangs in the air: Who will answer for the deaths of Russian servicemen during the ‘march for justice,’ and how?”

Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the pro-Moscow Vostok Battalion in eastern Ukraine, wrote on Sunday that he would “never understand those who shouted glory to the Wagnerites, rejoicing that someone challenged the authorities. Our country will never be the same again. The column of Wagnerites did not move along the asphalt – it moved through the hearts of people, cutting society in half.”

Igor Girkin, a former Russian commander in Ukraine who has been convicted of murder in a court in The Hague over the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine in 2014, condemned both sides. A longtime fierce Shoigu critic, he has also been at loggerheads with Prigozhin.

“Of course, I understand – that I am a toxic product of past eras,” he wrote on Telegram on Sunday, expressing nostalgia for a time when “there was no such vile farce.”

Back then, he said, “scum, bandits and traitors were not amnestied, but hanged, and indeed, there were wild times.”

Until the war in Ukraine, Prigozhin denied any connection to the organization. In recent months, he exuberantly embraced the role of its swaggering, tough-talking commander in videos and harangues posted on social media.

The Wagner Group is a state-backed paramilitary and private commercial enterprise whose hired guns have profited through security contracts and extortion of oil, diamond and gold-mining industries in countries such as Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic.

The notoriously brutal mercenary gang also has worked as a proxy in promoting the Kremlin’s political goals, and its role expanded with Russia’s efforts to keep Ukraine under its thumb, as Wagner mercenaries lent training and support to Russian separatists in Donbas following Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

The fierce – and mutual – animus between Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership had been building for months before spilling into public view. In February, Prigozhin took to social media in an extraordinarily personal and rebellious diatribe against Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Prigozhin, who had sent human waves of convicts at the Ukrainian lines to eke out a victory in the war’s longest battle at Bakhmut, blamed the military leadership for the appalling slaughter, ammunition shortages and hollowing out of the military through their corruption and greed.

The breaking point appears to have come June 10 when Russia’s military leadership moved to, in effect, strip Prigozhin of his mercenary force, U.S. intelligence officials said. Though not mentioning Wagner Group by name, the Russian Defense Ministry issued an order saying all volunteer detachments would have to sign contracts with the government – a decree Prigozhin publicly denounced.

U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence and military officials read those signs as evidence Prigozhin might move against the Russian military, perhaps even triggering civil war.