As the mercenary commander whose soldiers of fortune had fought alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine led his menacing march toward Moscow, President Vladimir Putin accused the mutineers of “treason.”
“We’re rooting for you!” exclaimed a woman in Rostov-on-Don, home to Russia’s southern command, taken Saturday by Prigozhin’s fighters unopposed. The 62-year-old warlord, who heads Russia’s murky Wagner Group, rolled down the window of his black SUV to receive well-wishers and submit to selfies.
“Good health!” said one man, verified videos show. “We support you!” said another.
In contrast, the top Russian officials Prigozhin publicly sought to oust — Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, among them — were nowhere to be seen on Sunday.
Even the whereabouts of Putin, whose accusations of treason have typically signaled for their unlucky targets prison time or worse, became a subject of speculation on Sunday. Some Russians (and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) wondered aloud whether he’d fled the capital — prompting the Kremlin to take the unusual step of insisting he hadn’t.
Within Russia, hard-line military bloggers, meanwhile, lampooned the harried “defense” of Moscow. And in Western capitals, intelligence analysts pondered whether Putin had declined to arrest Prigozhin because he feared his officers might refuse his order.
The dizzying events left Russians grappling with a new reality on Sunday, one where the powerful authorities who helm the authoritarian state — and run its war in Ukraine — displayed not the omnipotence they have carefully cultivated, but vulnerability. Not inevitability, but insecurity.
Not strength, but weakness.
“Right now, there is a very stormy discussion going on about what this was and what the consequences should be,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant with Kremlin connections. “What’s for sure is that everyone agrees that this should never have happened, and that this means something has to change. …
“Everyone is more or less in agreement that we should not have any more private armies almost out of control.”
After the drama Saturday, a measure of calm returned to Russia on Sunday — but an air of uncertainty lingered. The Kremlin’s truce with Prigozhin appeared to hold, but an emergency “anti-terrorist” decree for Moscow remained in force.
Prigozhin’s fighters, who had marched into key installations seemingly unimpeded before launching their lightning strike toward Moscow, withdrew from Rostov-on-Don as required under the Kremlin deal. But adoring onlookers cheered them on. Their withdrawal from another city, Voronezh, about 300 miles south of Moscow, was confirmed by regional officials posting on Telegram.
The deal was worked out through an unlikely intermediary: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose country has become all but a client state of Russia. Putin said this month he had sent tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which is wedged between Russia and Ukraine.
The fact that Moscow relied on Lukashenko, seen by some as a pale puppet of Putin, to defuse the crisis raised eyebrows and questions about long-standing assumptions on the extent of Putin’s authority.
Among senior Russian officials, there was no sign of obvious disloyalty to Putin. But throughout the 24-hour rebellion, observers noted, the response from some ranged from general calls for Russian unity to silence, as they appeared to wait to see which side would win.
“He had to get help from Lukashenko!” exclaimed Liana Fix, a Europe fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I mean, how embarrassing is that? And the statements of support for Putin [by his own officials] have not been passionate. Many have kept silent or issued pro forma support.
“It’s a moment to ask: How could Putin let this happen?”
“What was lacking was a sense of universal embrace of Putin,” said Maria Snegovaya, a Russia analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now they’re saying he was great and strong. But during that period, I don’t think we saw an immediate rallying around Putin.”
U.S. spy agencies picked up on intelligence in mid-June that Prigozhin, who claims to have 25,000 fighters under his command, had been planning an insurrection. He had waged a brutal war of words with Russian defense officials over what he said was their mishandling of the Ukraine war, failure to support his mercenaries and corruption. Yet his reversal still appeared to catch the Russians off-guard.
Prigozhin, long close to Putin, became wealthy off government concessions. It was his relationship with the president, and the care he took not to criticize him directly, that enabled him to attack other senior officials.
Within Russia, the event raised questions about a hallmark of Putin’s presidential rule: His practice of handing out spheres of influence to close allies and then allowing them to operate as they like.
“The fact that he gave a private army to Prigozhin is also part of this strategy,” said Markov, the political consultant. “Perhaps this strategy should be rejected.”
Another vulnerability, Markov said, was the failure of Putin’s security services to adequately inform the president about Prigozhin’s intentions.
“They failed either because they worked badly,” he said, “or because maybe they were not allowed to insert their agents” into the Wagner Group.
One possible outcome, Markov said, is a “shake-up” in Russia’s defense ministry and security services. Putin could yet fire Shoigu — not because Prigozhin demanded it, he said, but because during the mutiny, more troops supported the mercenary leader than the defense minister.
After the deal was announced, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that nothing had changed to shake Putin’s confidence in Shoigu.
Inside Russia, Prigozhin’s mutiny rattled the Ukraine war’s most ardent supporters while appearing to cheer those whose dissent has been brutally stifled. Many Russian military bloggers took the official line, condemning Prigozhin as he announced his march. They showed dismay at the level of support the rebels enjoyed.
But many also called for Shoigu’s removal. Some were frustrated that the deal to defuse the conflict allows the mutineers to escape punishment.
One influential blogger, Mikhail Zvinchuk, wrote that there were “undoubtedly” questions about Russia’s military leadership because the war had “gone the wrong way.” But he also criticized the deal. “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 Vostok Battalion, a group of pro-Moscow fighters in eastern Ukraine, wrote 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 The Hague over the downing of the Malaysia Airlines commercial flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, condemned both sides. Long a fierce critic of Shoigu, 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. He expressed 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.”
One military blogger with 385,000 followers on Telegram ridiculed the Russian “defense” of Moscow. Under a photo of security forces piling up a few sandbags at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Moscow, he wrote: “Sandbags? Seriously? Guys, well, if you are preparing to take the fight, then you should not be lazy and dig trenches. Any heavy machine gun will unwind these bags in a matter of seconds, not to mention something heavier.”
In the West, leaders and analysts watched the crisis with a mixture of schadenfreude and amazement. Some called for a recalibration of Western thinking on Putin’s authority.
“The big unanswered question is: Would Putin have been able to order a lethal airstrike” against Prigozhin, said Bob Seely, a member of the British Parliament who serves on its foreign affairs committee, which has been investigating the Wagner Group for two years. “Could Putin have actually killed Prigozhin en route, or was it so bad for Putin that he couldn’t?”
Wagner has 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. 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 the Russian 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 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, U.S. intelligence officials have said, when Russia’s military leadership moved to effectively strip Prigozhin of his mercenary force. Though not mentioning Wagner by name, the defense ministry issued an order saying all volunteer detachments would have to sign contracts with the government. Prigozhin publicly denounced the decree.
U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence and military officials saw in those developments the possibility that Prigozhin would move against the Russian military, perhaps even triggering civil war.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the brief rebellion showed “cracks in the facade” of Putin’s authoritarian leadership.
“It’s too soon to tell exactly where this is going to go,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I suspect that this is a moving picture, and we haven’t seen the last act yet.”
Greg Miller contributed to this report.