The recent row between the mercenary group Wagner and Kremlin marks a significant moment in Russia’s 16-month full-scale war in Ukraine and potentially poses a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s control over the country, according to a BBC analysis.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, has been accused by the Russian leader of treason, inciting an armed rebellion, and betraying the nation.
Prigozhin, a prominent figure in Russia, insists that his objective is not a military coup but rather a pursuit of justice. For months, he has played a crucial role in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine by recruiting numerous individuals, particularly from Russian prisons, into his Wagner mercenary group. However, his relationship with the military leaders overseeing the war deteriorated, leading to a full-fledged revolt.
Wagner forces have crossed from the occupied eastern part of Ukraine into Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia, and claim to have gained control over military installations in the area. President Putin acknowledges the challenging situation but has pledged to do whatever is necessary to protect Russia.
So, is this considered a coup?
Prigozhin dismisses any allegations of a military coup as absurd. However, what initially began as a heated dispute over the military’s failure to adequately equip and supply his mercenaries has now escalated into a direct challenge against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov — the two key figures responsible for prosecuting the war.
Currently, it cannot be classified as a coup since there hasn’t been an attempt to forcefully take control of the government. Prigozhin’s self-proclaimed “private military company” does not represent the official Russian military, despite his claims of widespread support.
However, it does pose a challenge to the authority of Russia’s top leadership, as it seeks to undermine and replace them. Although Prigozhin was initially allowed by Russia’s leader to develop his rival force, it is evident that the leader no longer has control over him.
The Kremlin is treating this situation with great seriousness. The entire Moscow region has been placed on high alert, operating under a strict “counter-terrorist operation regime,” and significant events have been cancelled as a precautionary measure. Similar measures have also been implemented in the Voronezh region near the northeastern border of Ukraine.
Prigozhin asserts, “There are 25,000 of us. Everyone who wants can join us.” While this number is not enough to pose a direct threat to the president, it does challenge the military leadership.
By moving his forces across the border into Rostov, Prigozhin seems to have surrounded the military headquarters responsible for managing the war effort. He claims that both the defence minister and the chief of staff have fled.
Prigozhin denies betraying Russia and openly criticizes the president, stating that he is “deeply wrong.”
What are Prigozhin’s motives?
His call for a “march for justice” lacks clarity, but his conflict with the military leadership has escalated rapidly, indicating his intent to remove them forcefully.
A video has surfaced showing Prigozhin demanding that a deputy defence minister and a general come to Rostov to negotiate with him. He states that until these two high-ranking military figures engage in dialogue, his mercenaries will blockade the city and proceed towards Moscow.
There have been reports of a military helicopter being shot down, as well as a Wagner convoy heading north on the M4 motorway in the Voronezh region, north of Rostov.
Prigozhin’s dispute is not with Russian soldiers in Ukraine but with the military leaders whom he considers incompetent. Although several generals have urged him to calm down, it appears to be too late.
Who or rather what is Prigozhin to Putin?
Prigozhin has long been a close ally of President Putin and has thrived under his leadership, first as a wealthy businessman and later as the leader of a mercenary group.
Who are Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries? Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters have suffered heavy casualties in their prolonged and unsuccessful campaign to seize Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin blamed the military’s top brass for inadequate supplies, and he publicly exposed the failures and internal divisions of the Russian military in Ukraine through graphic videos and profanity-laden social media rants.
While Prigozhin never directly criticized the president, his sarcastic references to a “happy grandfather” were widely interpreted as indirect criticism. In a recent statement, he questioned how Russia could achieve victory if it turned out that “this grandfather is a complete arsehole.”