This week, Vladimir Putin’s murderous war of aggression against Ukraine took a remarkable turn when one of his own henchmen initiated an armed uprising against the Russian government and began mobilizing his fighters to march on Moscow, backing down only after the Kremlin offered him a dignified exit ramp.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, sixty-two, is a political operative, mercenary organizer, and favorite of Vladimir Putin’s who has admitted to being the founder of the evil Wagner Group and illegally interfering in United States elections. Prigozhin acquired the nickname “Putin’s chef” because he owns restaurants and catering companies that have previously provided services for the Kremlin.
In 2020, “a long-running investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and Der Spiegel… uncovered that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s disinformation, political interference and military operations are tightly integrated with Russia’s Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU,” reads a report published by the three publications.
“Prigozhin’s private infrastructure – along with that of other government-dependent entrepreneurs, like Kostantin Malofeev – it appears serves as a deniable veneer and a round-tripping money laundering channel for government-mandated overseas operations.” Their full report is well worth reading.
The Wagner Group has played a key role in Putin’s murderous war of aggression against Ukraine, but Prigozhin has increasingly become openly critical of the prosecution of the war and has accosted others within Putin’s inner circle and in the Kremlin. A few days ago, he alleged, without offering any evidence, that the Russian military had attacked his fighters, and subsequently moved to take over a key Russian military base inside of Russia — Rostov-on-Don. Some of his fighters then began advancing towards Moscow, with his approval and encouragement.
The Russian government swiftly proclaimed him a mutineer, with Putin declaring in a televised speech that his conduct was treasonous. The Kremlin directed the FSB to initiate a criminal case against Prigozhin for “inciting an armed revolt” against the Russian Federation. However, as some Wagner forces got closer to an increasingly locked down Moscow, Prigozhin decided to accept an offer from the Kremlin, brokered by a Putin ally, to go to Belarus and call off his uprising.
“As part of the roller coaster developments, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists on Saturday night that the criminal case against Mr. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, would be dropped,” The New York Times reported. “Under the terms of the deal, Mr. Prigozhin will go to Belarus, Mr. Peskov said, while the fighters who rebelled with him would not be prosecuted, given their ‘service at the front.’ Wagner fighters who did not participate in the mutiny would have the opportunity to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense and continue their service, he said, saying their ‘heroic deeds at the front’ would ‘always be respected.’ ”
Many Wagner fighters are convicts who were recruited from prisons to participate in Putin’s conquest of Ukraine. They are particularly loathed by Ukrainian forces.
The brazen Prigozhin perhaps calculated that he had succeeded in making his point and roiling Putin’s inner circle, but wasn’t getting the support necessary to take his insurrection further and accomplish grander goals. While Prigozhin has vocally criticized many Russian officials, he has remained respectful of Putin.
“According to Russian State Media, Major Changes to the Leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense including changes to the current Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu and Army Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov have reportedly been Agreed upon in order to Stop the March of the Wagner PMC Group towards the Capital of Moscow; these Negotiations have also reportedly included the assured ‘Security of the Wagner Group,’ ” tweeted OSINTdefender. “These Negotiations are also reported to have included a ‘Stipulation’ that the Majority of Wagner PMC Forces will be Redeployed out of Russia and Ukraine to Africa.”
However, the Associated Press reported: “Prigozhin did not say whether the Kremlin had responded to his demand [to get rid of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu]. Peskov [the Kremlin spokesman] said the issue could not have been discussed during the negotiations, which were conducted by the president of Belarus, and is the ‘exclusive prerogative of the commander in chief.’ ”
“Prigozhin’s phenomenal choice…” commented Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainrain President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, after the deal was announced.
“You almost nullified Putin, took control of the central authorities, reached Moscow and suddenly… you retreat. Because one very specific intermediary with a dubious reputation (#Lukashenko) promised security guarantees from the person (#Putin) who ordered to destroy you in the morning.”
“And for the fear that the Putin elite has experienced in the past twenty-four hours, this order will certainly be executed.”
“Although not without benefit: #Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence…”
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, declared: “Today, the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability. First, the world should not be afraid. We know what protects us. Our unity. Ukraine will definitely be able to protect Europe from any Russian forces, and it doesn’t matter who commands them. We will protect. The security of Europe’s eastern flank depends only on our defense.”
“Ukrainian soldiers, Ukrainian guns, Ukrainian tanks, Ukrainian missiles are all that protect Europe from such marches as we see today on Russian territory. And when we ask to give us the F‑16 fighters or the ATACMS, we’re enhancing our common defense. Real defense,” Zelenskyy added, shrewdly working in an appeal for further defense assistance from NATO and Ukraine’s western allies.
“It’s time for everyone in the world to frankly say that all of Russia’s criminal actions against Ukraine were and are unprovoked,” Zelenskyy continued. “And we all have to focus exclusively on our common security priorities. NATO is not just a word or a set of formal promises. These are reliable guarantees for everyone that peace won’t be destroyed. Without Ukraine, such guarantees are worthless. Already in July at the summit in Vilnius, it is a historic chance for real decisions without looking back at Russia. Any nation that borders Russia supports this.”
“What will we, Ukrainians, do? We will defend our country. We will defend our freedom. We will not be silent and we will not be inactive. We know how to win – and it will happen. Our victory in this war. And what will you, Russians, do? The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person is in the Kremlin, the more disasters there will be.”
(“This person” is a reference to Vladimir Putin).
“It will be interesting to see how the Russian Air Force and Russian soldiers work with Wagner in the future,” said Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noting that Russian channels are suggesting Wagner is responsible for the destruction of 7–8 Russian aircraft during the past 48 hours, which supposedly resulted in the deaths of thirteen or more airmen. “Wagner’s pilots likely knew some of those killed today, and Wagner depends on the Russian Air Force in Ukraine and for operations elsewhere. This is just the beginning.”
“If it is actually true that no one in Wagner will be punished for this, there will be a lot of animosity directed at the leadership of the MoD and the Kremlin for allowing Russian airmen to be killed without a serious response,” Lee added.
Prigozhin is a wanted man in the West and must be careful where he sets foot. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has offered a reward of $250,000 for any information which leads to his arrest. His wanted poster explains:
Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the United States Department of Justice, and the United States Department of State.
This occurred in Washington, D.C., from early 2014 to February 16, 2018. Prigozhin was the primary funder of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). He allegedly oversaw and approved their political and electoral interference operations in the United States which included the purchase of American computer server space, the creation of hundreds of fictitious online personas, and the use of stolen identities of persons from the United States.
These actions were allegedly taken to reach significant numbers of Americans for the purposes of interfering with the United States political system, including the 2016 Presidential Election.
On February 16, 2018, a federal arrest warrant was issued for Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia after he was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Belarus, where Prigozhin is headed, is an ally of Russia and has no extradition agreement with the United States. It remains to be seen whether Putin and his minions will overlook Prigozhin’s treachery in the hope that he can be of use to them, or whether they will make an attempt to eliminate him.
Why has Putin tolerated Prigozhin’s rhetorical bombs against Russian military leadership? New York Times Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski offered this theory in a news analysis: “Many believed that the president saw good reason not to put a final stop to Mr. Prigozhin’s social media attacks on the Defense Ministry, which he characterized as inept, corrupt and indifferent to soldiers’ lives.”
“Some analysts say Mr. Putin saw him as a useful figure — a check against the risk that a military leader could become overly popular.”
Troianovski concluded his article with a quote from Mark Galeotti, “a London-based political scientist, lecturer and writer on transnational crime and Russian security affairs and director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence.”
Prigozhin “had no real independent power base except the favor of the president,” Galeotti told Troianovski. The article ends with these words: “However this goes, it undermines Putin’s credibility and legitimacy.”
That’s for sure. We’ve all just witnessed a pivotal development in this conflict which could have deeply negative repercussions for Putin and Russia.
Putin has been gambling that he and the forces he controls can outlast the West and ultimately subjugate Ukraine. But the events of the last few days have blown up the picture of the conflict he and his underlings have tried to paint.
The rapid pivot to cutting a deal demonstrates the Kremlin’s desperation. They are not operating from a position of strength. Russian forces are not unified, they are in disarray… and everyone can see that, not just Europe and NATO, but the entire global community, from China to Iran to the members of the African Union.