An army of mercenaries that President Vladimir Putin sponsored, empowered and heavily armed to do his bidding abroad – most recently in Ukraine – conducted a stunning about-face and marched on Moscow on Saturday, forcing the greatest challenge ever to the Russian leader’s foreign ambitions and perhaps even his own rule at home.
Confusing reports of the Wagner Group’s sudden mobilization away from its fighting positions in Ukraine late Friday quickly gave way to confirmation on Saturday that tens of thousand of its forces along with fighting vehicles and heavy weaponry had marched on the southern Russian metropolis of Rostov-on-Don, seizing the headquarters building of the Russian command overseeing the war in Ukraine. Its leader, catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, once called “Putin’s chef,” began issuing statements castigating Russia’s military leadership and called on elements of its armed forces to join his cause as they moved toward the capital city.
The development, which was halted as mysteriously as it began, caused a panic in Russia and wrought attention globally as many believed the tenure of Russia’s strongman leader – the longest since Joseph Stalin – might be coming to the same kind of violent end that met the czars, on whom Putin has modeled much of his autocratic rule.
The advancing and growing column of troops – documented in widely shared social media posts – forced Putin to issue a hasty and rare public appeal urging peace, castigating the leaders’ “exorbitant ambitions” and appealing to the those “who were dragged into a criminal adventure by deceit or threats, pushed onto the path of a serious crime – an armed rebellion.”
He called on the troops “not to make a fatal and tragic, unique mistake,” according to a translation, “to make the only right choice: stop participating in criminal acts.”
Putin warned that authorities would react harshly – even as several regular army units, including divisions, corps and elements of Russian special forces and border police appeared to join up with the advancing mercenaries.
Analysts quickly noted the dramatic reversal in Putin’s position from even a year ago.
“The angry Putin who took to the airwaves to respond to the crisis casts a starkly different image to the carefully staged speeches we’ve been seeing since he launched Russia’s invasion,” Alissa de Carbonnel, deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program, said in an emailed statement. “It may prove the biggest threat he’s faced in his over two-decades in power.”
“It’s a betrayal from someone who owes him their career: his war dog turned on him. By challenging Putin personally, Prigozhin has done the unthinkable and shown a weakness – exploding the illusion that division within the ranks is tolerated and even encouraged by Putin to keep his people on edge,” she said.
Cartoons on Ukraine and Russia
Several Ukrainian officials also shared online information from open-source air-traffic trackers suggesting Putin’s private plane made a hasty move from Moscow to St. Petersburg early Saturday. Other reports suggested some of his top lieutenants made similar accommodations, though the Kremlin denied Putin had fled the capital.
Then as quickly as it materialized, the threat dissipated. On Saturday afternoon, Prigozhin issued a statement saying his mercenary front of private military contractors, or PMC, had achieved their ambitions of seizing the Kremlin’s attention and were returning to the front lines, likely in Ukraine.
“They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner,” Prigozhin began, according to a translation. “We came out on 23 June to the March of Justice. In a day, we walked nearly 200 km away from Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of blood of our fighters. Now, the moment has come when blood may spill. That’s why, understanding the responsibility for spilling Russian blood on one of the sides, we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan.”
Reports emerged that Prigozhin had received some sort of deal from the Kremlin on Saturday in exchange for disbanding his impromptu invading force, apparently negotiated by Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, one of Putin’s few remaining allies. Some insiders speculated that the top elements of Russia’s Ministry of Defense with whom he has publicly feuded – Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov – would be removed from their positions, despite Putin’s historic aversion to reshuffling his inner circles, particularly due to external pressure.
The shocking incident leaves more questions than answers, including what prompted the exodus of forces away from the front lines, the extent to which they were following a prepared plan and – most consequentially for the world’s largest nuclear power – what it means for the future of Putin’s rule.
“Just several hours ago, Putin told his entire nation that Prigozhin was a traitor. Can he just turn around now and declare bygones?” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and frequent commentator on its war in Ukraine, observed in a post on Twitter. “I’m not sure this is as easy as some are suggesting.”
Prigozhin had been publicly lambasting Gerasimov and Shoigu – and occasionally Putin himself – for not doing more to empower Wagner in Ukraine. New evidence emerged in recent days that he had fallen out of favor with Putin and that the Kremlin was beginning to target him – accusations bolstered by rumors in May that Prigozhin was planning a coup attempt. He offered a tepid denial at the time saying he didn’t have a large enough fighting force to do so.
Late this week, Prigozhin claimed that his forces in rear battlefield positions had come under artillery shelling and attacks from warplanes from other Russian fighting forces – a move that, he suggested and analysts also believed, could have been a Kremlin-ordered assassination attempt on the ambitious mercenary chief.
Russia had also signaled that Prigozhin would come under criminal investigation – charges that Russian sources on Telegram noted had been dropped as of Saturday.
If Prigozhin’s march on Moscow were an attempt to seize attention from the Kremlin for its immediate demands, then perhaps the apparent acquiescence was enough to cause Prigozhin to turn around. His whereabouts in the coming weeks will tell more of the story – whether he receives increased supplies and sees the appointments of friendlier chiefs to run Russia’s military; whether he eventually receives his wish to refit Wagner to its original form and redeploy to Africa or other developing countries to plunder its natural resources for Russia’s benefit; or if he is assassinated.
Anton Gerashchenko, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, summed up what he observed late Saturday from the stunning chain of events.
“So, the main ‘hero’ of the day is Lukashenko, the savior of Russia. No one saw or heard anything from Shoigu and Gerasimov today. Putin looked cowardly and pathetic,” he wrote in a post on Twitter. “I can’t wait to hear the propagandists tomorrow. How will they explain all this?”