While few who have followed his statements over the past year were surprised at Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s hostility toward the Russian Armed Forces’ leadership, few thought this enmity would go as far as mutiny and capture of the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov, as was the case in the early hours of 24 June. Along with the SMD HQ, Prigozhin managed to capture senior members of the Russian General Staff (referred to as the ‘GenShtab’ in Russian), including Deputy Defence Minister Colonel General Yunus-bek Yevkurov and Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Staff Vladimir Alekseyev.
The capture of the SMD HQ was followed by a Wagner contingent driving northward along the M-4 motorway, downing around seven various Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) aircraft on the way, and reportedly taking control of at least one military site in Voronezh Oblast. In the meantime, Putin’s Presidential plane was reported to have left Moscow for St Petersburg, indicating the leader had fled the capital. When the column was approximately 200 km from Moscow, thought to be somewhere before the town of Tula, Prigozhin announced that the Wagner columns would be turning around and returning to their bases, since a deal had been reached with the help of President of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko. A few hours later the Kremlin announced that the deal included legal amnesty for Prigozhin and Wagner members who participated in the mutiny, but they would be relocated to Belarus, in a move that seemed to indicate de facto exile.
In a video filmed outside the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov, Prigozhin told Yevkurov and Alekseyev, that he desired an audience with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov. In a move that showed the disdain for both of these figures held by many throughout the armed forces, Alekseyev’s response was literally: “Take them away!”, but his tone would make the message perhaps more accurately translated as: “You’re welcome to them!”
Various Russian Telegram channels had stated that Gerasimov was rumoured to have been in Rostov the night before. While this has not been confirmed, it seems quite plausible given his glaringly total absence from the scene on the day of Prigozhin’s ‘March for Justice’ to Moscow. Shoigu too was conspicuously absent for the period from 23-26 June, whereupon he finally resurfaced in a Russian MoD telegram video showing the Minister inspecting a Western Military District command post. These absences have fed the perception that both may have been laying low amid the threat to their lives.
How Should Prigozhin’s March be Read?
Despite the Wagner leader announcing his intention to march on Moscow in the evening of 23 June, just before his takeover of the SMD HQ, this author believes it may not have been his preferred ‘Plan A’ considering Gerasimov’s rumoured presence in Rostov. If Prigozhin had successfully captured either Shoigu and/or Gerasimov in Rostov, this would have probably provided him with sufficient leverage in his power game with Russia’s leadership, making the symbolic theatrics of taking over Voronezh and driving to Moscow largely unnecessary.
However, in this case his quarry appeared to have eluded him, leaving him with little to do but make good on his promise, and hopefully either spook or embarrass Putin into coming to the negotiating table. The force taking part in the ‘March for Justice’ appeared to be relatively small compared to Wagner’s overall strength, possibly in the region of 2,000-3,000, though it is difficult to gauge exact numbers involved. During the day, reports continued to surface showing Wagner forces continuing to cross over from Luhansk Oblast into Rostov Oblast, illustrating that the majority of the force was not taking part in the drive to Moscow.
While the small advance force would have likely been outnumbered by Police and Rosgvardia units upon reaching Moscow, footage and imagery shared from within Moscow suggested that these forces were severely lacking the hardware to directly compete with Wagner. Rosgvardia equipment seen included various MRAP-type protected patrol vehicles, and some older models of APC such as original BTR-80s. While Wagner’s column also mainly consisted of unarmoured utility vehicles, trucks, protected patrol vehicles, and even a few technicals, it was nonetheless supplemented by much heavier hardware, including BTR-82A APCs, T-90A and T-72B3M tanks, BMP-2 and BMP-3 IFVs, Strela-10M4 and Pantsir-S air defence vehicles, as well as 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers.
Hardware aside, Wagner are assessed to be much more experienced and battle-hardened than typical Rosgvardia units, having spent much of the war fighting in fairly brutal conditions in Bakhmut and Soledar. Factoring in the equipment and experience gap, it is likely that Wagner would have been able to at least exact a heavy toll on the defenders, if not overcome them. Rosgvardia Chief Viktor Zolotov stated afterwards that his forces would have been able to stop Wagner, and that the reason Wagner managed to get so far was that Rosgvardia chose to concentrate on the defence of Moscow. Yet these claims seem less than convincing after seeing Rosgvardia’s hastily-assembled fighting positions and the relatively old equipment in their possession.
A major question which repeatedly surfaced during the drive to Moscow was why Russian aviation seemed unable to simply destroy the column. While on paper, this should have been perfectly possible for a VKS operating within its own airspace, there are various factors to consider. For starters, Wagner had high-ranking GenShtab hostages at the SMD HQ, discouraging action against the column. The second is that the remaining MoD may have thought that attacking the convoy could aggravate the situation and result in unpredictable behaviour, therefore providing an additional incentive to resolve the situation peacefully. Lastly, since Prigozhin was in contact with the Russian leadership for at least part of the day to work out a deal, this may have given the MoD additional hope that everything could be resolved through negotiation.
Having said that, footage has surfaced showing at least two such strikes purporting to be on the Wagner column, but it is difficult to confirm the effectiveness of these strikes, or if the vehicles hit even belonged to Wagner. Muddying the waters further is Prigozhin’s claim on the evening of 24 June that none of his men were killed that day. Wagner on the other hand were reported to have downed at least six helicopters, one of which was a Ka-52 attack helicopter, and a fixed-wing aircraft. The latter was shown to be an Il-22M airborne command post in footage of the wreckage which emerged in subsequent days, with the bort number RA-75917. All told, this was a fairly embarrassing day for the VKS.
While Prigozhin appears to have secured himself some kind of deal which appears to include his and the mutineer portion of Wagner’s effective exile to Belarus, the fine details of the deal are not known. Given that this incident was deeply embarrassing to Putin personally, along with much of his circle, it is hard to accept the notion that the situation has been truly settled, nor the working assumption that this will result in retribution down the line, if for no other reason but to secure the regime against direct challengers.
Furthermore, Putin and his circle will have likely been taking notes on how various actors behaved toward Wagner during the incident, using their statements as a litmus test of loyalty. Here, reactions ranged from criticising both Wagner and the Russian leadership in the case of Igor Strelkov, to the soft condemnation of Wagner and calls to halt the infighting by Sergey Surovikin, to comparisons of the incident to the “tragedy” of the 1917 revolution by the head of Russia’s SVR Sergey Naryshkin, to the outright support for Wagner shown by Aleksey Milchakov, leader of the neo-Nazi Rusich paramilitary group closely aligned with Wagner. Elsewhere, Ramzan Kadyrov and his Akhmat force declared their loyalty to the President and filmed themselves driving at least two columns to Rostov, ostensibly to fight Wagner. However, despite entering Rostov by the afternoon, they opted not to engage Wagner in combat.
It may yet be a while before we see any retaliation against actors deemed disloyal, but such action is likely to come once when the Putin regime feels that it is relatively safe to do so. Presumably Prigozhin is aware of this possibility, and will take measures to secure his own safety in Belarus. Yet it is difficult to make any hard predictions, as the fallout from the incident will likely be ongoing for some time, and the situation will remain dynamic. Possibly above all else, by exposing the regime’s internal and external weaknesses so starkly, the incident has opened up the conceptual space for change at the top to become a more likely possibility. However, the form this change may take remains difficult to predict. In the power game among the Kremlin elite, Prigozhin was a threat to the regime that day, but tomorrow it may be someone else. If nothing else, Prigozhin’s actions gained the attention of the leadership and have been witnessed by much of the Russian population, but for the time being at least, it looks like he missed his chance to ride eternal, shiny and chrome.
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