A series of events unfolded over the course of a day and night, orchestrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a well-known mercenary leader in Russia.
His actions raised concerns about the stability of Vladimir Putin’s hold on power and led to a heated exchange between the two former allies.
Putin accused Prigozhin of treason, referring to his armed rebellion as a “stab in the back of our country.” However, within a short span of 24 hours, Prigozhin called off the operation and ordered his men to return to their base.
Despite the chaos that ensued during this period, many details remain unknown. Was Prigozhin planning a coup? He vehemently denied it, labeling it as a “march for justice.” Regardless, the situation was swiftly resolved.
Prigozhin had been actively involved in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine for months, recruiting numerous individuals, especially from Russian prisons, into his Wagner mercenary group.
Tensions arose when the military leaders attempted to integrate Prigozhin’s forces into their command structure by July 1st.
The Wagner fighters crossed into Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia, from occupied eastern Ukraine. They then proceeded north along the main motorway via Voronezh, en route to Moscow.
This moment felt significant in the context of Russia’s 16-month large-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, news soon emerged of a deal brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, adding a bizarre twist to the situation.
Although the details of the deal remain unclear, the Kremlin claims that Prigozhin will face no criminal charges and is heading to Belarus. His fighters have been promised amnesty, although the extent of bloodshed during the events is uncertain, with reports of at least one military helicopter being shot down.
The implications for Vladimir Putin are yet to be determined. Prigozhin had long been engaged in a public feud with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov.
He criticized their failure to provide sufficient equipment and ammunition to his mercenaries. When Putin supported the military chiefs’ ultimatum to have all mercenary groups fighting in Ukraine sign defense ministry contracts, Prigozhin refused, viewing it as a challenge to his authority.
In a lengthy diatribe on June 23rd, Prigozhin exposed what he believed to be lies behind the war, accusing a small group of individuals of deceiving the public and the president.
This dispute escalated dramatically when he claimed that the military had launched a deadly attack on his men in Ukraine, a claim the military vehemently denied. Late on Friday, he declared the start of his “march for justice.”
Prigozhin swiftly gained control of the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and videos showed his forces in the city center encountering little resistance. By Saturday morning, he announced their presence inside the headquarters, emphasizing that the city had been taken without a fight.
On Saturday morning, Vladimir Putin addressed the nation on state-run TV, conveying a stern and resolute demeanor. He referred to the mutiny as an act of treason, accusing those behind it of betraying Russia and promising that they would face consequences.
Prigozhin promptly denied betraying his country and criticized the president, which was seen as an indirect but scathing rebuke.
Columns of armored Wagner vehicles were witnessed traveling north through Voronezh and Lipetsk regions. There was an incident where a fuel depot in Voronezh caught fire due to an airstrike, although the reason behind it remains unclear.
While Prigozhin maintained that he did not challenge Russia’s war in Ukraine, but rather the leadership of those in charge, he did threaten to head towards Moscow if his demands were not met.
For a brief period, Putin appeared to have lost control of the rapidly unfolding situation. However, on Saturday evening, news broke of a deal brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, another close ally of Putin.
According to the deal, Prigozhin would go to Belarus and avoid criminal charges. He was later seen leaving Rostov in a car. The Wagner fighters were offered immunity from prosecution, and those interested could sign contracts with the defense ministry.
On the surface, Putin may appear weakened, seemingly outmaneuvered by Prigozhin and presiding over a day of chaos in the country.
The reliance on Lukashenko to resolve the situation adds a touch of awkwardness, considering that Russia had supported Lukashenko during the protests in his country in 2020, which were widely perceived as rigged.
The Ukrainian presidency viewed this episode as a humiliation for Putin. However, another perspective suggests that Russians have now witnessed an alternative to Putin’s leadership, which, for a few hours, seemed to bring about anarchy.
Additionally, the military has found a way to bring Prigozhin’s potentially volatile force of 25,000 mercenaries under its control. The situation is yet to fully unfold, but the turbulent leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is no longer in the picture.