Russian mercenaries' short-lived revolt could have long-term consequences for Putin
Russian government troops withdrew from the streets of Moscow and people flocked to parks and cafes Sunday following a short-lived revolt by mercenary forces that weakened President Vladimir Putin and raised questions about his ability to wage war in Ukraine.
The march on the capital by Wagner troops led by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the late-night deal that eventually halted it severely dented Putin’s reputation as a leader who is willing to ruthlessly punish anyone who challenges his authority. That may open the door for others who are unhappy with Putin’s two-decade grip on power, especially after his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine.
Under terms of the agreement, Prigozhin will go into exile in Belarus but will not face prosecution and his forces won’t either. Neither Putin nor Prigozhin has been heard from since the deal, reportedly brokered by Belarussian President Aleksander Lukashenko, was announced Saturday night.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the weekend’s events as “extraordinary,” recalling that 16 months ago Putin appeared poised to seize the capital of Ukraine and now he has had to defend Moscow from forces led by his onetime protege.
“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade,” Blinken said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “It is too soon to tell exactly where they go and when they get there, but certainly we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.”
It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for that war. But it resulted in some of the best forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine being pulled from the battlefield: Prigozhin’s own Wagner troops and Chechen ones sent to stop them.
But Ukrainians hoped and some analysts suggested that the Russian infighting could create opportunities for their army, which is in the early stages of a counteroffensive to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Another question is what will happen to Prigozhin-owned Wagner, in general. The military contractor has deployed forces in several countries where they are believed to fight for Russian interests.
Under terms of the agreement that stopped Prigozhin’s advance, Wagner troops who didn’t back the revolt will be offered contracts directly with the Russian military, putting them under the control of the military brass that Prigozhin was trying to oust.
The deal appears to be a “hasty” arrangement designed to protect Prigozhin and safeguard his money and his family, Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“What we don’t know is if he saved Wagner,” O’Brien wrote in his online newsletter. “It’s not clear how many of his mercenaries are coming with him to Belarus, or how many will be forced to now sign contracts with the Russian military.”
In their lightning advance, Prigozhin’s forces on Saturday took control of two military hubs in southern Russia and got within 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow before retreating.
In a scene that plays into Putin’s fear of a popular uprising, a video taken by The Associated Press on Saturday in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin, who was riding in an SUV.
The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city. Russian news agencies also reported that Lipetsk authorities confirmed Wagner forces had left that region, which sits on the road to Moscow from Rostov.
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported. Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
By Sunday afternoon, the troops had withdrawn from the capital, and people swarmed the streets and flocked to cafes. Traffic returned to normal and roadblocks and checkpoints were removed, but Red Square remained closed to visitors. On highways leading to Moscow, crews repaired roads ripped up just hours earlier in panic.
Anchors on state-controlled television stations cast the deal ending the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and aired footage of Wagner troops retreating from Rostov-on-Don to the relief of local residents who feared a bloody battle for control of the city.
People there who were interviewed by Channel 1 hailed Putin’s role.
But the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War warned that “the Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium.”
The “deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution,” wrote the institute, which has tracked the war in Ukraine from the beginning.
Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin has long criticized in withering terms for his conduct of the war in Ukraine.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military.
In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of targeting the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do it.