RIGA, Latvia — Before Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin sent his private army marching on Moscow this weekend, he told Russians that for the country to stand a chance of winning its war in Ukraine, it must become a “North Korea-style” state with the death penalty in force.
By the end of his ill-fated “march of justice” on Sunday, Prigozhin, the 62-year-old chieftain known as “Putin’s chef” for the state catering contracts that made him rich, was alive, smiling as he left the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, and not in jail — a far better fate than many Russia watchers had predicted for him. Quite literally, he had lived to fight another day.
Beginning Friday night, in one of the most remarkable 24 hours in modern Russian history, Prigozhin effectively declared war on the Russian Defense Ministry, seized a strategic military headquarters near the border with Ukraine, sent a convoy of fighters rolling toward Moscow, and got labeled a traitor by President Vladimir Putin — whose own authoritarian aura seemed vastly diminished after Prigozhin’s antics.
And for the first time, Prigozhin, who previously had sworn undying loyalty to the Russian leader, openly disobeyed him. After long sparing Putin from his otherwise blistering criticism of how Russia had handled the war in Ukraine, Prigozhin declared that the president personally made a mistake by branding him and his Wagner fighters traitors, and letting the Federal Security Service, or FSB, open a criminal case.
“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president is deeply mistaken,” Prigozhin said in an audio message announcing the pullback.
“We are patriots of our motherland, we’ve been fighting and continue to fight, all Wagner fighters, and no one plans to go and confess at the request of the president, the FSB or anyone else, because we do not want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy,” he added.
On some levels, Prigozhin’s most brazen gambit clearly failed — his rebellion ended without the ouster of his archenemies, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the overall commander of the war in Ukraine, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, For months, Prigozhin had berated them as incompetent, corrupt and out-of-touch.
All that time, Putin allowed the feud between the two fiefs to fester without much intervention, something analysts correctly predicted to be a ticking bomb.
Andrei Soldatov, Russian security services expert and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said that Putin had clearly sided with Gerasimov and Shoigu against Prigozhin.
“I think they are really happy that they forced Putin to personally intervene in this situation — he is no longer an arbiter, he is on their side, and they can stay silent and show that they are the professionals here, doing war and holding up against the counteroffensive,” Soldatov said.
Intentionally or not, Prigozhin showed that Russia is not only at war with Ukraine but on many levels is also at war with itself. Thousands have left the country because they disagreed with the invasion or fled for fear of being conscripted to fight. Others are in jail, or living in exile, because they voiced opposition to the war, or to Putin. And still others, like Prigozhin, supported the war but not the military commanders who often seemed to botch things — a frustration that briefly raised the prospect of civil war in Russia.
Still, Prigozhin might have won some of his other battles. At the very least, he did not completely lose his private mercenary army, with the Kremlin saying the troops that took part in the rebellion would be pardoned. And despite his profanity, brutality and criminal background — he spent most of the 1980s in prison for robbery and other crimes — Prigozhin won some Russian hearts.
“They tried to disband Wagner,” Prigozhin said before announcing that he was turning around his fighters, who at that point were just over 100 miles from Moscow, to “avoid bloodshed.” That comment suggested his main motivation for the rebellion was to fight Shoigu’s demand, backed by Putin, that all private military formations (which are technically illegal in Russia) sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.
That would have given Shoigu full control of Wagner, and Prigozhin said he would not sign.
Under Prigozhin’s leadership, Wagner played a central role in the months-long siege of Bakhmut, and in late May he claimed credit for seizing the eastern Ukrainian city, which was Moscow’s only significant territorial gain on the battlefield this year. To win, he used thousand of convicts he had recruited from Russia’s prisons as cannon fodder.
After claiming control of Bakhmut, he promptly withdrew his forces and turned over the defense of the city to regular military units. As a result, the actions over the weekend, in which heavily armed Wagner fighters seized military installations, including an airfield, in Rostov-on-Don did not pull any troops away from duties on the front line.
But after the withdrawal from Bakhmut, Wagner’s role in Ukraine — and the degree of its usefulness to the Kremlin — became unclear. Russian outlets reported that there was talk of turning Wagner into a military police force in the occupied Ukrainian regions to terrorize deserters and residents, hardly an honorable job for what Prigozhin had touted as the most effective and determined assault force in the war.
“He raised the stakes very high, posing as the savior of Russia, but once the Ukrainian counteroffensive began, the army managed without him and Wagner was completely sidelined,” Soldatov said. “Simultaneously, the Defense Ministry said it’s time to sign the contract, and he felt that he is being cornered on this chess board.”
“Bakhmut is over, but what’s next,” Soldatov added. “Prigozhin needed to stay in the headlines, but it was not clear how.”
Moving to bolster his public image, Prigozhin embarked on what appeared to be a campaign tour, giving speeches and holding news conferences across Russia, in which he amplified his criticism of the military leaders.
Analysts said that Putin had little choice but to tolerate it, given Prigozhin’s professions of loyalty and support for the war. Muzzling him would have risked lending credence to Putin’s liberal critics, including the jailed political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who have long said Putin will not tolerate truthful dissent.
For nearly nine years, Prigozhin had denied any links to Wagner and sued journalists over investigations that proved the connection. But he stepped into the public light last year as his fighters in Ukraine began scoring gains in the early months of the war while the regular army suffered defeats due to strategic miscalculations.
The Kremlin, which also kept up a charade for years claiming that Wagner was completely independent from the Russian state, relied on the mercenaries in the war’s heaviest battles, with Putin eventually publicly thanking the group for its achievements.
But at some point last fall, as the regular army experienced embarrassing routs in Kherson and Kharkiv following surprise Ukrainian offensives, Prigozhin unleashed a smear campaign against the top brass.
His constant rants criticizing the country’s rich and powerful for their supposedly lackluster commitment to the war and calling out major flaws in the war strategy angered many in the Kremlin, and his influence began to wane. At the same time, Prigozhin’s antics boosted his visibility among regular Russians and earned him some respect among rank-and-file soldiers who regarded him as an unlikely truth-teller.
At one point, Prigozhin warned that the war against Ukraine had backfired and risked setting off a revolution in Russia.
On Saturday, Wagner captured key military installations in Rostov-on-Don, surprisingly with no resistance from law enforcement or the military. Even more stunning was the public reaction to masked and heavily armed fighters who came to challenge the army and Putin: some anxiety but no signs of panic, and in some cases there were cheers and applause.
“I don’t fully understand what’s happening, maybe it’s all some ploy, but the Defense Ministry is trying to present Prigozhin as someone who is against regular Russian people, and I know it’s not the case,” Yekaterina, a Rostov resident whose husband has been conscripted to fight in Ukraine, told The Washington Post on the condition that her last name be withheld so she could speak freely.
“Of course Prigozhin is not convenient for them, he speaks the truth about the military’s rotten structure and they’d need to get rid of him, but I heard that Wagner fights well,” Yekaterina added.
Some Rostov residents interviewed by The Post said that they did not care about Wagner’s presence in the city and that they have grown accustomed to strange things happening amid a chaotic “special military operation” declared by the Kremlin. Some said they had stopped watching news altogether.
In one video clip emerging on social media, an elderly man began shouting at Wagner for disrupting public order as other bystanders tried to calm him down. A 60-year-old resident of the neighboring Krasnodar region, which has long housed Wagner’s sprawling training base and a private chapel, said that he believed the group was fighting “for justice.”
“Wagner guys don’t touch peaceful people,” the man said. “Prigozhin came onto them because the Russian soldiers aren’t given enough stuff, because the conditions are bad and everyone is being sent to the slaughterhouse, and Prigozhin will set this straight.”
What’s next for the caterer-turned-warlord is uncertain. Prigozhin remains under sanction by the Treasury Department for his role as the owner of internet troll farms, which meddled in U.S. elections. Wagner still has operations overseas, particularly in Africa, where it is often paid to impose security for authoritarian rulers. Prigozhin has not yet been seen in Belarus, where he is supposed to go after the deal brokered on Saturday by the country’s strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, to spare him arrest and prosecution.
But in Russia, he has clearly won some acclaim. Soon after the news of his bizarre deal with Putin broke, Prigozhin got a celebrity send-off as he left Rostov-on-Don in a black SUV. A group of bystanders clapped and cheered for him, with one man running up to the car to shake the warlord’s hand.
When the local police showed up in the city center after Wagner’s departure, a group of people blocked several cars, booing and shouting: “Shame!”
“The crowd began fussing — those who did not have time to take a photo or say something made their way to the fighters,” according to an on-the-ground report in the local Rostov-on-Don online newspaper 161.Ru. “The people started to applaud. Morning anxiety and fear turn into a celebration with masses of tipsy people waiting for fireworks,” the report added. “Thank you, Wagner!’ One man shouted.”