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Moscow has stepped back from civil war with Wagner. But the danger’s not over, experts warn

Author
CNN,
Publish Date
Mon, 26 Jun 2023, 2:54pm
Wagner Group fighters prepare to depart Rostov-on-Don, Russia, as crowds cheer on June 24, 2023. Roman Romokhov/AFP/Getty Images
Wagner Group fighters prepare to depart Rostov-on-Don, Russia, as crowds cheer on June 24, 2023. Roman Romokhov/AFP/Getty Images

Moscow has stepped back from civil war with Wagner. But the danger’s not over, experts warn

Author
CNN,
Publish Date
Mon, 26 Jun 2023, 2:54pm

CNN — Russia glimpsed the threat of armed insurrection over the weekend, with Wagner Group mercenaries marching toward Moscow as President Vladimir Putin vowed retribution – all before a sudden deal seemed to defuse the crisis as rapidly as it had emerged.

The immediate risk of bloodshed appears to have dissipated, but much remains uncertain; experts warn that the rare uprising is still likely to have consequences down the line.

Putin must now navigate the aftermath of the most serious challenge to his authority since he came to power over 20 years ago, which appeared to have him on the back foot for a day and half.

The fate of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin – who led the provocative march and seizure of cities along the way – remains murky. The typically outspoken oligarch has been quiet about the Minsk-brokered deal, which would see him sent to Belarus and his troops absorbed by the Russian military.

Neither the Kremlin nor Belarusian officials could say where he was on Sunday.

Here’s what we know.

What’s the latest?

According to the deal described by the Kremlin and the Belarusian government, Prigozhin has agreed to leave Russia for neighboring Belarus. However, his whereabouts remain unknown.

Wagner fighters leave the military headquarters they had briefly occupied in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.

Wagner fighters leave the military headquarters they had briefly occupied in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24. Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Belarusian officials told CNN on Sunday that they had no details on what Prigozhin’s status would be in Belarus and could not confirm whether he had already arrived in the country.

The press service for Prigozhin’s Concord management company declined to offer an update, telling CNN only that the warlord “sends his regards to everyone and will answer questions when he has proper communication.”

A Kremlin spokesman also said that a criminal case against Prigozhin for the rebellion will be dropped.

Wagner fighters will now sign contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense, the spokesman also said – a move Prigozhin had previously rejected as an attempt to bring his paramilitary force in line.

Videos authenticated and geolocated by CNN on Saturday showed Prigozhin and his forces withdrawing from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

How did this happen?

The crisis in Russia erupted Friday when Prigozhin accused Russia’s military of attacking a Wagner camp and killing his men – and vowed to retaliate by force.

Prigozhin then led his troops into Rostov-on-Don and claimed to have taken control of key military facilities in the Voronezh region, where there was an apparent clash between Wagner units and Russian forces.

Prigozhin claimed it wasn’t a coup but a “march of justice.” But that did little to appease Moscow, with a top security official calling Prigozhin’s actions a “staged coup d’état,” according to Russian state media.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation after an insurrection led by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, on June 24.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation after an insurrection led by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, on June 24. Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik via AP

Russia’s Defense Ministry denied attacking Wagner’s troops, and Russia’s internal security force opened a criminal case against Prigozhin.

Then came a remarkable national address from Putin.

In a speech that was broadcast across Russia on Saturday morning local time, a visibly furious Putin vowed to punish those “on a path to treason.”

Wagner’s “betrayal” was a “stab in the back of our country and our people,” he said, likening the group’s actions to the 1917 Russian Revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas II in the midst of WWI.

Things were tense on the ground, with civilians in Voronezh told to stay home. Meanwhile, Moscow stepped up its security measures across the capital, declaring Monday a non-workday. Photos show Russian forces in body armor and wielding automatic weapons near a highway outside Moscow.

All signs pointed to an impending armed confrontation in the capital as rumors and uncertainty swirled.

Then almost as suddenly as it began, the short-lived mutiny fizzled out with the Belarus deal seeming putting out the fire – at least for now.

What’s next for Prigozhin and Wagner?

Much remains unclear, such as what will happen to Prigozhin’s role within Wagner and the Ukraine war, and whether all his fighters will be contracted to Russia’s military.

The Kremlin spokesperson said on Saturday he “cannot answer” what position Prigozhin will take in Belarus. Prigozhin himself has provided little detail about his agreement to halt the advance on Moscow.

The Wagner group is “an independent fighting company” with different conditions than the Russian military, said retired US Army Maj. Mike Lyons on Saturday. For instance, Wagner fighters are better fed than the military – meaning a full assimilation would be difficult.

“Maybe some will splinter off,” he added. “Those people are loyal to the man, Prigozhin, not to the country, not to the mission. I think we’ve got a lot more questions that are not answered right now.”

The danger isn’t over for the Wagner boss, either, experts say.

“Putin doesn’t forgive traitors. Even if Putin says, ‘Prigozhin, you go to Belarus,’ he is still a traitor and I think Putin will never forgive that,” said Jill Dougherty, CNN’s former Moscow bureau chief and a longstanding expert on Russian affairs.

It’s possible we could see Prigozhin “get killed in Belarus,” she added – but it’s a tough dilemma for Moscow because as long as Prigozhin “has some type of support, he is a threat, regardless of where he is.”

What does this mean for Putin?

Putin now faces real problems, too.

Multiple experts told CNN that while the Russian president survived the stand-off, he now looks weak – not only to the world and his enemies, but to his own people and military. That could pose a risk if there are skeptics or rivals within Moscow who see an opportunity to undermine Putin’s position.

“If I were Putin, I would be worried about those people on the streets of Rostov cheering the Wagner people as they leave,” said Dougherty.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in the backseat of a vehicle departing Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in the backseat of a vehicle departing Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24. Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

One video, geolocated and verified by CNN, showed crowds cheering as Prigozhin’s vehicle departed Rostov-on-Don. The vehicle stopped when one individual approached and shook Prigozhin’s hand.

“Why are average Russians on the street cheering people who just tried to carry out a coup?” Dougherty said. “That means that maybe they support them or they like them. Whatever it is, it’s really bad news for Putin.”

Who is Prigozhin? Why would he do this?

Prigozhin has known Putin since the 1990s, and was nicknamed “Putin’s chef” after winning lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. But Russian-backed separatist movements in Ukraine in 2014 set the foundation for Prigozhin’s transformation into a warlord.

Prigozhin founded Wagner to be a shadowy mercenary outfit that fought both in eastern Ukraine and, increasingly, for Russian-backed causes around the world.

Wagner was thrust into the spotlight during the Ukraine war, with the fighters appearing to win tangible progress where regular Russian troops failed. However, its brutal tactics are believed to have caused high numbers of casualties.

As the war dragged on, Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership have engaged in a public feud, with the Wagner boss accusing the military of not giving his forces ammunition and bemoaning the lack of battlefield successes by regular military units.

He was repeatedly critical of their handling of the conflict, casting himself as ruthless and competent in comparison.

Prigozhin was always careful to direct his blame towards Russia’s military leadership, not Putin, and had defended the reasoning for the war in Ukraine.

That was, until Friday as the insurrection kicked off.

In a remarkable statement, Prigozhin said Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses devised by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and that Russia was actually losing ground on the battlefield.

Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations, said even seasoned Russia watchers were taken aback by recent events.

“Everybody is scratching their heads,” he told CNN. “The only sense I can make from a day like today, you have two guys who found themselves in untenable situations and had to find their way out.”

Hall said Prigozhin may have felt he had bitten off more than he could chew as his column of troops marched towards Moscow. But at the same time Putin faced the very real prospect of having to defeat some 25,000 Wagner mercenaries.

Sending Prigozhin to Belarus was a face saving move for both sides.

But Hall said Putin comes out ultimately worse off and weakened.

“Putin should have seen it coming literally months ago. We’ll see how it ends up. I don’t think the story is over yet,” Hall said.

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