After Russia’s most serious political crisis in decades, uncertainty swirled Monday about the fate of the former Putin ally who led a brief armed rebellion, his Wagner mercenary group, and the two military chiefs with whom he has clashed over the conduct of the war in Ukraine.
Also unclear were the impact on the 16-month-old invasion — and the future of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faced the most serious challenge to his authority in more than 20 years of rule.
A feud between Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass amid the fighting in Ukraine erupted into a mutiny that saw fighters from the mercenary group leave the front in Ukraine to seize a south Russian city and march seemingly unopposed on the capital, before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.
The Kremlin said it had made a deal that the mercenary chief will move to Belarus and receive an amnesty, along with his soldiers. Yet on Monday, Russian media reported that a criminal probe against Prigozhin continued, and his whereabouts were unknown.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since the rebellion that demanded his ouster, inspecting troops in Ukraine Monday in a video aimed at projecting a sense of order, as Russian media speculated that he and other top military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.
Shoigu was shown in video released by the Defense Ministry flying in a helicopter and then attending a meeting with military officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. The video was widely shown on Russian media, including state-controlled television. It was unclear when it was filmed.
General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, also a main target of Prigozhin’s ire, has not appeared in public.
It was unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal with the Kremlin brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The state RIA Novosti news agency cited unnamed sources in the Prosecutor General’s office as saying that the criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements. The Interfax news agency carried a similar report.
Should the case continue, Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus — a staunch Kremlin ally — would offer little protection against arrest and extradition.
Prigozhin appeared nonchalant in some of the last footage taken during the rebellion. As Wagner’s convoy drove out of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don after its brief occupation on Saturday, led by Prigozhin in an SUV, someone asked how he viewed the result of his revolt, according to a video posted later on Russian social media.
“It’s normal, we have cheered everyone up,” the mercenary chief responded.
Before starting the revolt, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and army chief Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Prigozhin’s rift with the top military brass dates back years further, to the Russian military intervention in Syria, where Wagner Group was also active.
Putin stood back from the rift, and Shoigu and Gerasimov remained mum, possibly reflecting uncertainty about Putin’s support. Observers said that by failing to end the feud, Putin had encouraged Prigozhin to dramatically up the stakes.
Alex Younger, former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, said it appeared that “neither side was in control” during the rebellion.
He told the BBC that Prigozhin “didn’t have a plan, he didn’t have enough people” to succeed, while Putin looked indecisive, first vowing to crush the rebels then striking a deal.
“Everyone comes out of this weaker,” Younger said.
Russian media and commentators speculated that Putin could replace Shoigu, but noted that Putin, who avoids making decisions under pressure, would likely wait before announcing a shakeup.
Some analysts saw Prigozhin’s revolt as a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with Russia’s Defense Ministry by July 1.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with Russia’s military leadership.
“Prigozhin was forced out of Ukraine and found himself unable to sustain Wagner the way he did before, while the state machinery was turning against him,” she wrote in a commentary om Twitter. “To top it off, Putin was ignoring him and publicly supporting his most dangerous adversaries.”
Stanovaya said that while Prigozhin could get out of crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time, suggesting the revolt was planned in advance. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military, which he said killed a large number of his men. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the defense affairs committee in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, said lawmakers were set to consider a bill that would regulate the activities of private military companies.
In remarks published Sunday, Kartapolov said it makes sense to continue use Wagner troops, calling the company “the most capable unit in Russia.”
He noted that it’s unclear whether the Wagner Group would remain as a single company or what it would be called, saying some Wagner troops could be offered contracts with the Defense Ministry.
It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale.
But it resulted in some of the best forces fighting for Russia being pulled from the battlefield: the Wagner troops, who had shown their effectiveness in scoring the Kremlin’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut, and Chechen soldiers sent to stop them on the approach to Moscow.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town.
“There has been little evidence that Russia maintains any significant ground forces operational level reserves which could be used to reinforce against the multiple threats it is now facing in widely separated sectors,” it said in a daily assessment of the war.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”
Speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, he said the crisis was “yet another demonstration of the big strategic mistake that President Putin made with his illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking to reporters before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said the revolt showed that the war is “cracking Russia’s political system.”
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”
– AP News