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Making Sense of a Confusing 24 Hours in Russia

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Communications Officer

Transport of Russian Military Equipment - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If waking up to news of the Wagner Group crossing from Ukraine into Russia to participate in a supposed rebellion hadn't left you bewildered, going to bed on that same day to the announcement that the mercenaries would stand down and return to their field positions in Ukraine certainly would have. Despite Vladimir Putin initially calling the rebellion "a knife in the back," he has seemingly backed down on his stance after agreeing to a deal, facilitated with the help of long-time Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, that absolved the Wagner mercenaries of criminal charges and left the group's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, without consequences, apart from relocating to Belarus temporarily.

Yevgeny Prigozhin is a multifaceted figure. In his youth, he served nine years in jail for robbery before venturing into the food industry, selling hot dogs alongside his family in St Petersburg. Eventually, he established successful businesses ranging from grocery stores and high-profile restaurants to casinos and catering. Prigozhin developed a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s, and it's worth noting that his catering company, Concord, secured a lucrative contract to supply meals for the Kremlin. However, Prigozhin is not your typical businessman. In 2022, despite denying any involvement with the Wagner Group for years, he publicly declared himself as the founder of Wagner, a private military organisation involved in several notable conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. Since then, Prigozhin has been actively involved in communicating for the group through social media channels and has often been seen on the front lines during Russia's unlawful offensive in Bakhmut. Throughout the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Prigozhin has been a vocal supporter of the "special military operation" and a close ally of the President, despite an ongoing feud with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Armed Forces Chief Valery Gerasimov. These ministers have faced accusations of poor tactical decisions and inadequate provisions for troops, frequently criticised on social media by the Wagner Group and others within Russia.

More recently, tensions between Prigozhin and the defence staff reached a climax after Prigozhin accused Russian soldiers of launching a deadly missile attack on Wagner Group fighters. U.S. intelligence reportedly monitored the situation for several days as weapons were relocated from critical Wagner positions, speculating that some sort of revolt may be imminent. Then last week, Prigozhin called for a "march for justice." This attempted rebellion involved Wagner mercenaries crossing the border from Ukraine into Russia on Saturday morning and seizing Rostov-on-Don, a significant military city in the south of the country. Subsequently, military columns embarked on a 600-mile journey from Rostov to Moscow with the alleged intention of overthrowing the Russian defence ministers.

While the situation remained relatively unstable for several hours, and analysts considered the possibility of a civil war within Russia's borders, it was eventually announced that the mercenaries would stand down, return to their field positions, and avoid facing charges. Their leader, Prigozhin, would immediately depart for Belarus, and no further legal action would be pursued. The turn of events was peculiar, made even more bewildering by Prigozhin's silence as he was last seen leaving Rostov-on-Don in a car, his current whereabouts unknown. The question now being asked by the world is: where does this leave Vladimir Putin? The answer is still unclear. In the morning, Putin branded the group as terrorists and promised retribution, but by evening, the rhetoric had shifted to no further action.

The Russian political order appears weak when an ally can direct mercenaries to march into Russia, threaten to topple its military regime, and capture key cities without encountering any resistance, only to be instructed to leave without punishment through a deal brokered by Minsk rather than Moscow. Prigozhin has never criticised the President directly, but with mutiny on such a scale, it is hard not to see it as criticism. Wagner openly walking into a military headquarters in a large city in Russia makes Putin look like he has lost control, even if the situation escalated within a few hours, and this weaker political order is not something that the Russian President will look upon lightly. While theories flood the internet, some alleging this was a Putin-orchestrated event, other more outlandish ones suggesting the Wagner mutiny was an American funded operation, one thing is clear. The emperor has no clothes. Even without knowing the exact causes, or rationale behind this weekend’s events, international observers can recognise the precarious position that Putin is in. His fallibility has been put on display for the world to see. On the other hand, Lukashenko has emerged as a leader in his own right, rather than Putin’s puppet.

For now, Putin can be relieved that the immediate fire has been contained, and Prigozhin will be out of the way in Belarus. But what happens next is unclear. Will the absorption of Wagner into the military, and Prigozhin’s exile, result in a more united-front in Ukraine? Or will Putin’s support and control across the country splinter, in the face of this weekend’s events? International observer wait eagerly to see how the Russian President reacts, and to judge what impact these events will have on the battlefield in Ukraine.


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