As Wagner troops marched on Moscow, Ukraine made further gains

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position weakened by the Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny amid Ukraine war, analysts say.

Seventy weeks since he ordered his troops into neighbouring Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced a major mutiny back home.

On June 23, Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin circulated a video purportedly showing a missile attack against his private military company that has been fighting alongside Russian soldiers.

“According to eyewitnesses, the strike was delivered from the rear, that is, it was delivered by the military of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence,” he wrote on Telegram.

Prigozhin said his 25,000 armed men would “march for justice” to “stop the evil brought by the Russian military leadership”. He promised that after settling scores with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, his troops would then return to the front lines in Ukraine.

Why did he do it?

Prigozhin has frequently criticised the Russian military leadership, claiming their incompetence has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers.

He put himself in competition with Shoigu and Gerasimov by claiming credit for the capture of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east, elevating Wagner’s reputation.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company,
A still image from Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s video addresses in Rostov-on-Don on June 24 [Prigozhin Press Service via AP Photo]

After the occupation of Bakhmut in May, Russia’s defence ministry cycled Wagner mercenaries out and replaced them with regular marines and paratroopers.

On June 10, Shoigu announced that all volunteer formations must sign military contracts with the Russian defence ministry by July 1. Prigozhin said that would not happen.

“He was pushed to act because the defence ministry was trying to absorb Wagner, and he knew that once they grabbed Wagner, he had nothing – and God knows what would happen to him afterwards,” Seth Krummrich, a former US army colonel who is now the vice president at Global Guardian, a security consultancy, told Al Jazeera.

How did the mutiny unfold?

Following their withdrawal from Bakhmut, Wagner forces either redeployed to Krasnodar in Russia, or remained encamped behind the front lines in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Unengaged in the war, they were free to attack Russia itself.

Well before 8am local time [05:00 GMT] on June 24, footage showed Prigozhin casually walking through the regional military headquarters of Rostov-on-Don, which his men had occupied. They were not only the headquarters for the 58th Combined Arms Army, currently engaged in Ukraine, but also the command centre for all Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.

“They were able to walk in there,” Krummrich said. “That told me the Russian headquarters there was taken completely by surprise … or they’re realising what’s happening in Ukraine, they’re seeing the losses and the lies in Moscow, so there was an emotional support level,” he said.

By 10:30am [07:30 GMT], geolocated footage showed Wagner forces crossing the administrative border of the Voronezh region, where Russian troops surrendered to them. Wagner quickly seized the city of Voronezh with relatively little resistance.

By early afternoon, Wagner forces had advanced past Lipetsk and were seemingly filmed driving on the M4 highway to Moscow with T-90 tanks and BMP-2 armoured personnel carriers. Bulldozer crews began to dig up a trench across the M4 to stop them.

The Kremlin mobilised Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard), special police and special rapid response troops to barricade the capital, in what some observers said was increasingly looking like a coup attempt that could have led to civil war.

By 6pm [15:00 GMT], Wagner troops were filmed in northern Lipetsk region, 330 kilometres (205 miles) from Moscow.

In just a matter of hours, Wagner had covered half the distance from the Ukrainian border to Moscow.

Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don
Fighters from Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don [Reuters]

“Such fast moving and impactful developments make it almost certain … that Wagner had a plan for a military uprising already well worked out, had stockpiled equipment, and had analysed the weak points in the Russian military and state that it could exploit,” Phillips Obrien, professor of strategy at St Andrews University, wrote in a Substack post.

Even the Russian air force was unable to stop the advancing columns because they carried Pantsir and manually portable air defence systems. “They had integrated air defence systems that are mobile, so they were able to protect their convoy and protect their movement. Any sort of aviation that came in they could strike it right away,” said Krummrich.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, assessed that Wagner forces “may have shot down up to three Mi-8 MTPR electronic warfare helicopters, one Mi-8 helicopter, one Ka-52 helicopter, one Mi-35 helicopter, one Mi-28 helicopter, and one An-26/Il-28 transport aircraft, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 pilots and airmen – and one of the single deadliest days for the Russian air force of the war in Ukraine to date”.

The lack of resistance to Wagner was also remarkable. “Rosgvardia’s founding mission is to protect internal threats to the security of the Russian government, such as an advance on Moscow, and it is notable that Rosgvardia failed to engage even as Wagner captured critical military assets in Rostov-on-Don and destroyed Russian military aircraft,” said the ISW.

Why did the mutiny end?

In an address to the nation, Putin on June 24 declared Prigozhin a traitor and described his mutiny as “a betrayal of our people … a knife in the back of our country”.

“Inflated ambitions and personal interests have led to treason,” Putin said. “Those who staged the mutiny and took up arms against their comrades – they have betrayed Russia and will be brought to account.”

Yet by the end of the day, Prigozhin announced a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that gave him immunity in Belarus. He claimed his decision to accept it was driven by a desire to avoid further bloodshed and civil war.

“[Prigozhin] did not see the people rising up. He has 25,000 soldiers. That’s maybe 10,000 foot soldiers. The rest are logistics. You can maybe take one neighbourhood in Moscow with that … there’s no chance of him taking it militarily. What he needed was a spark to set off a coup where the people rose up, but the people are clearly not at that point,” said Krummrich. “I think he struck too early.”

Independent Russian news service Verstka reported that a 24,000 square kilometres (9,266 square miles) training base for Wagner was already under construction at Asipovichy in Belarus, 200km (124 miles) from the Ukrainian border. But it was unlikely that Putin would allow Prigozhin to live, said Krummrich.

“I think he’s a dead man walking,” he added. “If you’re Putin, you have to kill him; you have to, because the next batch of oligarchs who decide to break off are going to be much more savvy, much more sophisticated, and they’re going to win.”

In a second address to the Russian people on June 26, Putin left the door open for Wagner mercenaries to sign up with the armed forces, a sign of how greatly in need he is of trained and experienced personnel.

“Today, you have the opportunity to continue your service to Russia by signing a contract with the defence ministry or other law enforcement or security agency, or return home,” Putin said. “Those who want to are free to go to Belarus. I will keep my promise.”

What did Ukraine do?

Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, greeted the short-lived rebellion across the border with caution and hope, as Kyiv’s troops continued to probe Russian defences for weaknesses and reclaim occupied territory.

Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said Ukraine’s counteroffensive had liberated 130sq km (50.1sq miles) by June 26, a gain of 17sq km (6.6sq miles) compared with a week earlier.

Ukraine had also launched new offensives north and south of Bakhmut, Maliar said, in Orikhovo-Vasylivka, Bohdanivka, Yahidne, Klishchiivka and Kurdyumivka, reinforcing a flanking action that began in mid-May. Ukrainian troops advanced 1-2km (0.6-1.2 miles) along these new axes, she said.

Ukraine’s southern forces continued to put pressure on Russian defences in front of the port cities of Melitopol and Berdyansk. “The Russian occupation forces are putting up strong resistance, while suffering significant losses in personnel, weapons and equipment. The enemy’s casualties over the past week are eight times more than ours,” Maliar said.

It was not possible to independently verify the figures.

But in an upbeat address to Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country’s forces had “advanced in all directions”.

“This is a happy day. I wished the guys more days like this,” he said in the video message that was released in the early hours of Tuesday after visiting Ukrainian forces on the front lines.

“It was a busy day, a lot of emotions … I was honoured to award our warriors, to thank them personally, to shake their hands,” Zelenskyy added.

Ukrainian soldiers shooting rounds into Russian positions [File: Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu Agency]

What will the effects of Wagner’s mutiny be?

Many observers noted that, despite the failure of Prigozhin’s mutiny, the chaotic weekend events left Putin looking weak.

“There’s still other players in the game of thrones in Moscow that are waiting and watching,” said Krummrich. “They see the weakness. Blood’s in the water, and here come the sharks … His situation has become much more dangerous.”

Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, wrote that the Russian president “let the Shoigu-Prigozhin argument fester without dealing with it decisively”.

“As the confrontation reached a critical stage, the masses were not running out onto the streets to support [Putin] … Those urging Prigozhin to back off did so in regretful tones … without going out of their way to praise Putin as a glorious and irreplaceable war leader, whose judgement bordered on the infallible and whose bravery moved all those who witnessed it,” he continued.

“Putin will be aware that at this vital moment when his position was under the greatest threat, many were watching to see what happened next.”

Source: Al Jazeera