If this is the end of the coup attempt, talk about anti-climactic. Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed mercenary army, seemed poised to create a political crisis when his troops began to march north toward Moscow from southern Russia.
They had reportedly seized some cities in the Lipetsk province. Putin reportedly fled Moscow earlier this morning while security forces were on high alert. Most of Russia’s forces are bogged down in Ukraine, which made this situation more perilous for Putin and his allies.
Prigozhin has close ties to the Russian president, nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” due to his catering businesses’ relationship with the Kremlin. He also operates multiple technology companies which have been accused of peddling propaganda. He landed in treasonous waters when he accused the military leadership of being “evil,” accusing them of sparking a war in Ukraine based on lies.
He described his uprising as grounded in justice and righteousness and called for rebellion against the ruling order. Of course, an investigation into him was opened by Russian authorities shortly after his screed.
Wagner’s forces reportedly were around 124 miles (200 kilometers) from Moscow before being ordered to withdraw. This order was given probably due to the lack of manpower; this wasn’t an army marching on the city in the likes of Napoleon or Nazi Germany. It was perhaps no more than 5,000 men, which is inadequate to lay siege to a metropolis. Now, it appears to be over with, with Prigozhin agreeing to relocate to Belarus and face no charges over this incident (via Associated Press):
Prigozhin says it’s over:
“They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner. We came out on 23 June to the March of Justice. In a day, we walked to nearly 200km 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…
— Dmitri (@wartranslated) June 24, 2023
Anyone else think this is crazy weird? Coup is over? What now?
— The🐰FOO (@PolitiBunny) June 24, 2023
The rebellious Russian mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow before abruptly reversing course will move to neighboring Belarus and not face prosecution, the Kremlin said Saturday, as part of a deal to defuse a crisis that represented the most significant challenge to President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power.
The charges against Yevgeny Prigozhin for mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped and the troops who joined him also will not be prosecuted, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced, and fighters from his Wagner Group who did not take part in the uprising will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry.
Putin had vowed to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, whose forces seized a key military facility in southern Russia before advancing on the capital. In a televised speech to the nation, Putin called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. Red Square was shut down, and the mayor urged motorists to stay off some roads.
But after the deal was struck, Prigozhin announced that while his men were just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood.” His troops were ordered back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
Prigozhin has demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, long the target of his withering criticism for his conduct of the war in Ukraine. On Friday, he accused forces under Shoigu’s command of attacking Wagner camps and killing “a huge number of our comrades.” The Defense Ministry has denied this.
Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometers) south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
So, is that it? Does this mean the coup attempt is over? It would appear so, and while there are no reports regarding Prigozhin getting his grievances addressed, I’m sure he’s happy he’ll be able to live in exile. However, Belarus is essentially Russia, and it wouldn’t be shocking if something happened to this guy later.
There will be speculation about whether this was a legitimate attempt or staged. Who knows? Both sides have incentives to lie; even the Ukrainians have a vested interest in ginning up the propaganda on this story for obvious reasons.