In numerous international confrontations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader/owner of the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group, none are more surreal than this weekend’s rebellion. After publicly feuding with Moscow over lack of ammunition on the Ukrainian front for months, Prigozhin declared Moscow had won the “special military operation” and Putin should end the war. As Prigozhin’s political isolation escalated, events grew explosively bizarre over the weekend.
On Saturday, after a fit of rage for the shelling of his mercenaries by “Russian forces,” Prigozhin declared he was ready to “go all the way” in an unprecedented mutiny against Russian leadership. He then began to move the Wagner Group on an audacious 300-mile advance toward Moscow, fulling intending to close with and attack his country’s military. During the day-long armed rebellion – peppered with numerous selfie moments – he and his forces abruptly halted the Moscow “March of Justice”, ordering Wagner PMC fighters to return to their previous locations. This U-turn remains one of the most puzzling events of the weekend.
During a televised address, Putin proclaimed the treasonous rebellion to be “a criminal adventure,” “a grievous crime,” “blackmail,” and “terrorism.” Just a few hours later in another strange twist, Prigozhin halted his road march after an agreement to have all criminal charges against him, and the Wagner PMC dropped. Prigozhin would be exiled to Belarus and his forces would join the Russian army. Confused by the Kremlin’s apparent lack of punishment for the declared “grievous crime,” events continued to unfold before a bewildered West.
Apparently, desperate to avoid an invasion of Moscow and further Russian bloodshed by their own countrymen, the Kremlin initiated a “quick-fix deal” with Prigozhin. Simultaneously, the West began hearing bizarre reports of Russian forces suffering tremendous losses by Wagner Group engagements along the 300-mile movement to contact. The media claims that Wagner mercenary fighters downed six strike helicopters and a sophisticated Il-22 military plane during the rolling firefight to Moscow.
Business as usual in the Kremlin?
Rebellion leader Prigozhin, agreeing to cross the border into Belarus – is still not in prison. He has not posted on social media, nor is his current location known. However, he still very popular with his 50,000 soldiers – on his payroll. Therefore, the large mercenary army is believed to still posses a significant threat to the Kremlin and Putin.
As the world watches closely, some outlets are saying Prigozhin has required Putin to replace his top two military commanders, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Army Staff General Valery Gerasmivov. If Putin does not, some think he may face new insurrections. Regardless, analyst state Prigozhin has made Putin appear weaker than at any moment during his 20-year tenure as Russian president. It is suggested that Putin is possibly on his way out, a double-edged sword as his replacement may be Prigozhin – or worse.
Others say that Prigozhin – long-time Putin ally turned mutineer – has just played his last card, with the open rebellion against Russia. Additionally, the Russian defense ministry published a decree in early June, requiring all PMCs to join the regular army next week – 1st of July. This could be the nail in the coffin for Wagner’s independent operation, and perhaps part of his motive for the “March of Justice.”
In a final bizarre twist, Russia – always looking for a scape goat – opened an investigation to determine if the United States was behind the whole event.
Ukrainians followed this weekend’s developments in Russia closely. As folks were glued to their TVs, social media commentary began to reveal Ukrainian thought on the situation. Many expressed surprise and disbelief. Garnering much commentary and laughter, one post said, “We were expecting civil war, but it looks like they couldn’t deliver.”
Others suggested that Putin could not make a public statement declaring the mutineers were criminals and later in the day drop all charges. Many in Kyiv just scratched their heads, pondering what to make of the bizarre weekend.
Perhaps, in the end, it was just too much vodka.