Chris Lange, FISM News
The events surrounding the aborted Wagner mutiny continue to play out with all the intrigue, betrayal, and mystery of a spy thriller.
A week’s worth of public statements, scraps of intelligence, rumors, and innuendo have in many ways prompted more questions than answers. One thing is certain: the fallout from the events of June 24, 2023, has just begun. This is perhaps best explained with a look at the key players.
Just a few hours into the armed rebellion, Russian state television released a video of Russian President Vladimir Putin who denounced the maneuver as an “act of treason” and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Though he did not mention longtime associate and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin by name, Putin referred to the thwarted coup as a “stab in the back.”
Hours later, the Kremlin abruptly announced that Prighozin would be exiled to Belarus in an amnesty deal brokered by Belarusian President Viktor Lukashenko. Lukashenko confirmed on Tuesday that Prigozhin had arrived in Minsk by plane. Reports that the Wagner leader was spotted in the Green City Hotel in Minsk that day were unconfirmed.
In an effort to project strength and stability, Putin downplayed the remarkable events of July 24, declaring that an “armed rebellion would have been suppressed anyway,” in Monday evening remarks. “Civil solidarity showed that any blackmail and attempts to organize an internal mutiny will end in defeat.”
Putin acknowledged that several Russian military pilots were killed during Wagner’s takeover of Russia’s southeastern command in Rostov-on-don, stating that “The fallen pilots’ bravery and selflessness saved Russia from tragic, ruinous consequences.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin was a petty criminal and young restaurateur when he met former KGB agent and rising politician Vladimir Putin in the 1990s. When Putin came to power, he put Prigozhin in charge of negotiating catering contracts for the Kremlin, earning Prigozhin the moniker of “Putin’s chef.”
For years, Prigozhin denied any links to Wagner but has become the group’s public face in the Russian invasion.
As Prigozhin’s prominence rose with a series of battlefield victories, so too did his complaints against Russia’s military command. Prigozhin repeatedly accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov of withholding weapons and ammunition from his forces and agitated for their dismissals.
He has also been highly critical of their inability to make gains in Putin’s “special military operation.”
Hours before Wagner troops rolled into Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin claimed that Kremlin military forces targeted his troops with shelling, which he said resulted in the deaths of a “huge amount” of his men.
“There are 25,000 of us, and we are going to find out why there is such chaos in the country,” Prigozhin declared on the eve of the aborted mutiny.
SHOIGU AND GERASIMOV
Gen. Shoigu has not only served as a key political ally of Putin’s but appears to be one of the president’s only friends among the Kremlin elite, according to a report in The Guardian. The two men have reportedly vacationed together and even played on the same hockey team.
Shoigu played significant roles in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the advancement of Russia’s interests in Syria, and in the plotting of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Three days after the coup attempt, Russian state TV publicized Shoigu’s Tuesday visit to a command post in Ukraine. He hasn’t been seen since. His deputy minister, Gen. Gerasimov, has not been seen since June 9.
An experienced army chief who saw action in the Chechnya rebellion in the ‘90s, Gerasimov is one of three Russian commanders who hold “nuclear briefcases,” according to a Fox News report.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told the Financial Times that Shoigu and Gerasimov are “now obvious lame ducks” and predicted both would “be removed” by Putin.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov wrote on his Telegram channel that replacements for Shoigu and Gerasimov have already been lined up but added that the switch “will not happen immediately, so that there are no thoughts that Shoigu and Gerasimov were removed at the request of the rebels.”
Another top Russian military official who appears to have gone missing is Gen. Sergei Surovikin. The Russian aerospace chief was tapped by Putin to lead the invasion of Ukraine in October. He also has close ties to Prigozhin.
A U.S. intelligence report provided a compelling motive for purging Surovikin, stating that he had prior knowledge of Prigozhin’s plans, per Fox News.
According to The Guardian, when Wagner forces launched the incursion, Surovikin released a suspiciously “ambiguous statement” of warning to Prigozhin and support for the Kremlin.
“We fought together with you, took risks, we won together,” Surovikin said. “We are of the same blood, we are warriors. I urge you to stop. The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to escalate in our country.”
Chinese officials sought to downplay the events of July 24, referring to the aborted mutiny as a matter of Russia’s “internal affairs” while expressing support for Moscow’s efforts to stabilize the situation.
Privately, however, the “no limits” partnership between Chinese leader Xi Xinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing signs of strain. Chinese officials have raised questions about whether Beijing should disentangle itself from its economic and political ties to Moscow as the war drags on with no end in sight.
A top U.S. official on Monday said that Beijing officials were unsettled by the incident.
“It has put a fly in the ointment of that ‘no-limits’ relationship,” said Singapore-based security analyst Alexander Neill.
China has maintained that it is a neutral party in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, insisting that it wants to see a peaceful resolution. At the same time, however, Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s actions and has given Moscow political cover and economic support. The loss of Xi’s support would be a devastating blow to Putin.
Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy responded to the weekend’s chaos with a statement that “Russia’s weakness is obvious.”
“Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself,” Zelenskyy wrote in a Twitter post. “For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it.”
The Wagner rebellion did little to move the needle in Ukraine’s slow-moving counteroffensive against invading Russian forces.
The only figure who appears to have benefited from the Wagner rebellion is Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who wasted little time in congratulating himself for single-handedly defusing an armed mutiny.
The self-described “last dictator” of Europe bragged to the press that he talked Putin down from “wiping out” Wagner forces. Belarusian state media hailed Lukashenko as Moscow’s savior, crediting him with rescuing the lives of “hundreds, maybe even thousands” of Russian citizens.
After years of exhibiting obsequious gratitude for Kremlin favors, Lukashenko appeared delighted to find himself feted in Moscow on Wednesday.
A press photo showed a beaming, corpulent Lukashenko gesturing animatedly as he recounted his brilliance and bravery – a marked contrast to the stiff bearing and somber countenance of his dinner companion. Across the expanse of crisp linens, fresh flowers, and gleaming silver sat a stone-faced Vladimir Putin.
Lukashenko opposition advisor Franak Viacorka described the relationship between the two leaders as one of mutual disdain.
“They hate each other. But they need each other,” he said.
The aftershocks of the Wagner rebellion will likely continue to be felt for some time. What role, if any, it will play in the war, now dragging into its 17th month, remains to be seen.