Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.
Major questions about Russia’s future remain after this weekend saw one of the most direct challenges to Putin’s authority in decades.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s shadowy mercenary unit the Wagner Group, on Friday pulled his troops from the Ukrainian frontline to confront the Russian government. After apparently taking the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, a critical military outpost just across the border from Ukraine, Prigozhin and his troops sped toward Moscow, coming within 200 kilometers of the capital city before abruptly agreeing to send his troops back to the frontline.
The chaotic, fast-moving events at first suggested a potential coup, with Prigozhin threatening a march on Moscow and insisting he aimed to rout out corruption in Russia’s leadership. But within 24 hours, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had apparently brokered an agreement between Prigozhin and the government, and Prigozhin announced his plans to send his troops back to Ukraine, while he will live in apparent exile in Belarus.
The seeming coup attempt started to appear more like a mutiny.
“They wanted to disband the Wagner military company,” Prigozhin said Saturday. “We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. Now, the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned.”
Since announcing his mutiny was over, Prigozhin has not been seen in public, though he did post a defiant audio message Monday claiming his feud was more with the Ministry of Defense than with the Russian state. Still, details about the deal between Proghozin and the Kremlin remain scant. But at least one reported component — that the Russian state would drop the criminal investigation into Prigozhin for his armed insurrection — appeared in flux.
Wagner mercenaries, many recruited from Russian penal colonies, have been a crucial part of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, but in recent months, Prigozhin has lashed out against Russian military leadership for its poor planning and decision-making, as well as what he saw as the lack of support for his troops. Prigozhin has had pointed conflict with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov about his group’s lack of ammunition, even threatening to leave the frontline in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May if his demands weren’t met. On Friday, Prigozhin appeared to mount his most brazen and desperate attack yet on the defense apparatus and Russian leadership overall.
Prigozhin and his group have the military effectiveness that regular Russian troops lack, but that alone wasn’t enough to give Prigozhin the influence that he sought in the Defense Ministry. Nor was it enough to bring other members of the Russian government on his side, which would have been critical for an effective coup attempt — if that had ever been his intent.
What is the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group is Prigozhin’s private army, created initially to further Russia’s military goals while still giving the government plausible deniability of actual involvement.
Prigozhin has long been part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s circle, but he is not one of the classical Russian elites. The convict-turned-hot-dog-seller eventually won lucrative government contracts for catering and construction through his Concord Group business; in 2014, he began building the paramilitary organization known as the Wagner Group. Initially used in Russia’s invasion of Crimea that year, the so-called “little green men” began popping up elsewhere as well — in Syria, where Russia supports the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, and in Mali and the Central African Republic, too.
Wagner has been accused of participating in horrific human rights abuses, most recently in Mali, where the military junta has contracted with the fighting force to try and wrest control from Islamist extremist groups that dominate parts of the country.
Prigozhin has long been the suspected head of the group, but had never publicly claimed that role until Wagner was recruited to fight in Ukraine. As Vox’s Jen Kirby reported in March:
“The Wagner Group has come out of the shadows,” said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defense research group in London, and author of Russia in Africa. “Prigozhin is now claiming that he oversees the Wagner Group, and he’s actively and aggressively promoting Wagner as a symbol of this new kind of Russian patriotism.”
US intelligence apparently had information in mid-June that Prigozhin and Wagner were planning their challenge, according to the Washington Post. Prigozhin, frustrated by attempts to bring his forces under the control of the regular military, spoke out against a June 10 order to have all volunteer detachments sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, which US government officials believe was a trigger for Prigozhin’s attempted march on Moscow. Prigozhin confirmed that as an impetus in his audio message posted Monday.
What does this mean for Putin and Russian leadership?
Prigozhin’s march on Moscow began as retaliation for a supposed Russian Defense Ministry attack on a Wagner camp. As the Guardian reported Friday, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of launching a rocket attack that killed Wagner forces, supposedly triggering Prigozhin’s plan to bring the fight to Moscow.
“Those who destroyed today our guys, who destroyed tens, tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers will be punished. I’m asking: no one resist,” Prigozhin said in one of several recordings released Friday. Prigozhin claimed to have 25,000 fighters at his disposal; however, the true number is difficult to verify.
Prigozhin and his men moved rapidly from Rostov-on-Don, about 1,000 kilometers from the capital, to within 200 kilometers of Moscow within hours before turning back.
Though Putin is out of immediate danger, he’s still in a deeply uncomfortable position. Kremlin leadership and local governments demonstrated their loyalty throughout the brief ordeal, posting videos of support to Telegram, but Prigozhin’s march was the most brazen attempt on Putin during his 20 years in power. While politicians like Aleksey Navalny, Ilya Yashin, and Vladimir Kara-Murza and activists like Pussy Riot have vocally challenged Putin’s corruption, repression, and stranglehold on power, none of them have an army behind them.
Prigozhin’s challenge to Putin’s authority was highly visible and caused very clear anxiety within Russian leadership. Security forces were on high alert in Moscow, even as life seemed to continue relatively normally.
Assuming Prigozhin is still headed to apparent exile in Belarus, what comes next for Russia is as much a mystery as the events of this past weekend.
What does this mean for the Ukraine war?
Though Prigozhin and his troops have turned back toward the frontlines, the brief reprieve could prove useful for Ukrainian fighters attempting to recapture Bakhmut and other southern areas. Furthermore, Prigozhin’s future role in the Wagner apparatus is unclear. There are other leaders within the militia and someone could take Prigozhin’s place, but the uncertainty is likely to have some effect on the war effort as Wagner troops move back toward Ukraine.
Was this really a coup — and how real was the risk to Putin’s power?
Any successful coup relies on a few components: a weak central state, a contentious relationship between the military and the civilian government, and allies on the inside willing to support an overthrow attempt. If Prigozhin’s attempt had succeeded, it would have been a true outlier, Graeme Robertson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told Vox.
“I don’t know what allies he has in the Kremlin, if any. He’s obviously got connections with the St. Petersburg oligarchs, and the super-rich people around Putin,” Robertson said. “But he’s always been a bit of an outside figure.“ Without political insiders, Prigozhin could have perhaps demanded the Kremlin’s attention and caused chaos for a few days or weeks, but it likely could not have gone much further.
As Prigozhin’s motivations — and limitations — became clearer, some experts argued this was not a coup attempt but a mutiny. In other words, its intent was not to depose Putin, but to force him to recalibrate the state’s relationship with the Wagner Group and to protect Prigozhin’s own power.
Regardless, the armed march toward the capital was a direct challenge to Putin’s authority. And it gave some insight into the strength of the central state, which Putin has intently engineered during his rule, Robertson told Vox. “[Putin] has spent the last 15 years trying to coup-proof this regime. One of the key things that any political scientist will tell you is that you need to have lots of separate security forces to make coordination of a coup extremely difficult — Putin has been a zealot in generating lots and lots of different militarized, armed institutions in an attempt to make it really hard to coordinate anything against him.”
What happens next?
Within Russia, it’s difficult to tell; the politics are so secretive and the motivations of leadership so opaque that predicting the next developments is nearly impossible. Though Putin has seemingly wrapped up this brief challenge to his authority, things probably won’t go back to normal for him, as Sam Greene, director of Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis tweeted Saturday.
“My main thought, as Prigozhin sends his men back to base, is that this isn’t over yet,” Greene wrote. “I’m not suggesting that Prigozhin will try again. But my strong sense is that Putin’s challenges are only beginning.”
If Lukashenko, one of Putin’s few allies — indeed, his apparent subordinate — actually brokered this resolution, that’s likely to be highly embarrassing for Putin. Details on the deal remain scant even on Monday, and some experts have expressed doubt over just how important Lukashenko was to this resolution. Regardless, rather than quickly get rid of Prigozhin as he advanced, Putin seemingly relied on another leader to solve his problems — and Prigozhin came out looking the more mature and calmer party, according to Greene.
“This will also be the conversation topic around tens of millions of kitchen tables, and people will debate whether Putin was right or wrong. Previously unimaginable things, like a change of leadership, may become more plausible,” he wrote.
What does this mean for the Russian people?
As with previous challenges to Putin’s power, Russian people will suffer further repression, Robertson said, though what form that will take remains to be seen. “It could be purges in the ranks of the security forces if it turns out, upon investigation, that there has been some collaboration or support for Prigozhin,” Robertson told Vox.
Putin enacted harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation and other repressive measures in the wake of protests against sham parliamentary elections and Putin’s return to the presidency. After anti-war protests sprang up last year in response to the invasion of Ukraine, the Duma and the Kremlin enacted increasingly harsh penalties for speaking out against the war.
“At every stage in this war — every stage since 2012 — we’ve seen Putin respond to challenges and threats with more repression. Every time,” Robertson said. “Sometimes it’s hard to think of how much more repressive you can be [...]. But I would expect, if the past is anything to go by, there is going to be even more repression than we’ve seen before.”
What will happen to Prigozhin?
“I think the fact that he chose to speak out so loudly, so crudely, so aggressively signals that he doesn’t have significant allies, and he was trying a kind of desperate move to save himself from an increasingly difficult situation, and this to me seems like the last roll of the dice,” Robertson told Vox.
After this last-ditch effort to get out of the Ukraine war, it seems that Prigozhin may have gotten his wish, though perhaps not the way he imagined. As part of the deal to turn away from Moscow, Reuters reports, Prigozhin will move to Belarus and the FSB, Russia’s state security apparatus, will drop its criminal charges against him.
But Monday, reports emerged in Russian media that the criminal case was still open — perhaps a public warning to Prigozhin to follow through on the still-unknown terms of the deal.
Though the chaos is over for now, the events of the past 24 hours won’t just fade away, Greene tweeted after Prigozhin agreed to stop his march toward Moscow. “Indeed, it’s hard to see how anyone wakes up in Moscow tomorrow and pretends that this didn’t just happen,” he wrote. “Something will have to give.”
Update, June 26, 11:45 am ET: This story, originally published June 24, has been updated multiple times to include developments in Russia’s response and Prigozhin’s activity.