After a day of high drama, Yevgeny Prigozhin makes a deal with Putin, orders Wagner mercenary army U-turn

After a day of high drama, Yevgeny Prigozhin makes a deal with Putin, orders Wagner mercenary army U-turn

The astonishing rebellion which Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, launched against the Russian government and then suddenly aborted on Saturday, has considerably weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. It may well have weakened Prigozhin also.

Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his mercenary army just 200 kilometres short of Moscow, and announced that he was turning back, after a deal negotiated by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin. 

He did not immediately disclose the deal, but speculation was strong it would include Putin firing his defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the general in charge of the Ukraine campaign, Valery Gerasimov, who Prigozhin has persistently castigated for corrupt and inept handling of the war in Ukraine. 

It also remained unclear if the deal would stick or whether Prigozhin would pull his fighters back from all of their positions – including the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, a Russian military logistics and command centre for the war in Europe which Wagner troops had just seized.

Prigozhin’s insurrection had raised hopes in Ukraine that it would weaken Russia’s military and give new impetus to the Ukraine counteroffensive, which has been moving very slowly, meeting strong resistance. It is unclear now what impact Prigozhin’s gambit might have. Analysts did observe that the departure from Ukraine of the Wagner soldiers – among the fiercest on Russia’s side – might have weakened Russia’s military position, along with the likely blow to Russian troops morale caused by the evident weakening of Putin’s power. On the other hand, the replacement of the military leadership could boost the campaign against Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a televised address to the nation in Moscow, Russia, 24 June 2023. EPA-EFE/GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL

Russia expert Irina Filatova, professor emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said she believed the day’s events had left both Putin and Prigozhin looking considerably weaker. Clearly, Putin’s aura of invincibility had been shaken by Wagner’s rapid drive from Rostov-on-Don for about 800 kilometres towards Moscow.

But she also felt Prigozhin had been weakened. “You don’t go into such an enterprise and then turn back.” Filatova felt that even if Prigozhin had succeeded in getting rid of Shoigu and Gerasimov – which her sources had told her was the gist of the deal brokered by Lukashenko –  Putin would eventually get rid of Prigozhin too for having so clearly embarrassed him by challenging his authority. 

But Abel Esterhuyse, professor of  strategic studies at Stellenbosch University, saw the events differently, raising the question “to what extent this rebellion was orchestrated by Putin himself as a way out of the war; and to blame the failure on the generals”.

He noted that Prigozhin had never criticised Putin; and had directed all his ire at Shoigu and the generals.

The convulsions in Russia have also raised questions about Russia’s future relations with South Africa and Africa. Before news broke that Prigozhin had called off his march to Moscow, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, national director of the SA Institute for International Affairs, had suggested that the rebellion could solve Ramaphosa’s dilemma over Putin’s problematic possible visit to South Africa in August for the BRICS summit. South Africa would be obliged to arrest Putin, who has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Last week, Ramaphosa discussed this with Putin in St Petersburg on the margins of an African peace mission, but Putin reportedly refused to attend the summit virtually. 

Sidiropoulos said however events turned out, Putin would probably not risk leaving Moscow in the immediate aftermath of such a threat to his position. “It’s not going to be business as usual for a while, whatever happens,” she said. 

And that probably remains true, even after the march was aborted. 

Putin’s preoccupation with internal security now could also likely affect Russia’s relations with BRICS and South Africa more generally, she predicted. She also noted the rebellion had raised questions about whether the Russia-Africa summit, billed for the end of July in St Petersburg, would still take place. 

“The other thing to consider is scenarios for Wagner. If Prigozhin is taken out, where does that leave Wagner? He is Wagner.”

This is a big question, considering Wagner’s expanding influence outside Russia and Ukraine, especially in Africa, where it has displaced France as the provider of security support, in Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and possibly Burkina Faso. Wagner has been accused of exchanging security in those countries for natural resource concessions and of committing atrocities against locals. 

Nathalia Dukhan, Senior Investigator at The Sentry, which will publish a major investigative report on Wagner Group activities in Africa on Tuesday, believes that Wagner’s operations in Africa could continue, regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s drama.  

“What we’ve seen is that Prigozhin’s private army has previously proved highly resilient,” she told Daily Maverick, also before Prigozhin called off his march. 

“When the war in Ukraine broke out, and Russia pulled Wagner mercenaries out of the Central African Republic and other countries to support Putin’s invasion, many expected it would mean the end of Wagner prospects in Africa. 

“Instead, we documented Wagner’s mutation into an even more aggressive, predatory and deadly monster that has been expanding its campaigns of terror, gaining an even stronger hold in countries like the CAR and Mali. Using corruption, terror, and testing a broad range of tools and tactics of ultraviolent domination, Wagner has been able to maintain its presence on the African continent ever since, increase its profits and its ability to fund its wars and criminal business operations around the world.”

Dukhan added that Wagner’s fortunes might not be clear, “But what we have learnt from investigating and analysing Wagner in Africa, in the past five years, is that the group is resilient, creative, fearless and predatory so it’s less likely the empire will instantly fall like a house of cards.”

Earlier on Saturday, after seizing control of Russian military headquarters in the strategic city of Rostov-on-Don, Wagner troops had moved swiftly north towards Moscow.

They briefly clashed with official military in Voronezh, just 500km southwest of the capital and then moved rapidly further north through the Lipetsk region meeting little resistance. Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin on Saturday urged city residents to stay at home if possible as counter-terrorism operation had been declared.

The British military had described the crisis as the “most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times” and added: “Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out.” That guard, the Rosgvarda, with a huge complement of about 350,000 troops could have indeed been crucial to Putin as it is probably his most dependable force. 

Prigozhin, a former confidante of Putin who is still sometimes called “Putin’s chef” from the time he held a lucrative catering contract at the Kremlin, had claimed he was not mounting a coup but was merely leading his 25,000 troops on a “march for justice” mainly against Shoigu and Gerasimov. 

Tensions with them had been rising for months and began peaking last month when he accused them of failing to supply him with ammunition in the bloody battle for  the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donbas region which Wagner played a key role in capturing. . 

British strategic analyst Lawrence Freedman noted in a blog on Saturday that tensions came to a head when Shoigu recently tried to place Wagner and other private military companies under his direct control. “Prigozhin made a big show of rejecting Shoigu’s orders. He was already in a mutinous mood.” In some ways, this reflected the similar power struggle between Sudan’s regular army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, leader of the Rapid Support Forces militia, which plunged Sudan into civil war in April. 

Putin kept silent as the tensions between Prigozhin and his military commanders rose. Freedman noted that it was widely assumed that Putin was giving his old friend Prigozhin latitude, perhaps to keep his foreign minister and his generals on their toes – as they had been widely criticised for inept conduct of the war in Ukraine. 

The tensions erupted on Friday when Prigozhin accused the military of firing missiles at a Wagner base, killing hundreds of his fighters and announced his march for justice. Putin finally reacted, going on national television to accuse Prigozhin – though without naming him – of stabbing Russia in the back and vowed to deal with the rebellion harshly.  

“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people,” he said. 

Filatova said that apart from showing weakness by abandoning his mutiny, Prigozhin had also betrayed the regular soldiers and others whom he had urged to join his cause. She had noted earlier a debate on social media among Russia troops about whether to join Prigozhin or fight him. 

Sidiropoulos cautioned that the unfolding instability in Russia was not necessarily a good thing, even if Western governments and Ukraine might be welcoming it. “I have seen a lot of commentary today about regime change. But one must be careful what you wish for,” she added, saying if Prigozhin prevailed, “you are going to end up with a thug par excellence in charge.” 

Prigozhin has been in prison and his Wagner troops, many of them convicts recruited from prison, are notorious for their brutality and human rights abuses in battle, not only in Ukraine but in other conflicts such as in Mali and CAR. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    As I read this article, like a chess game, its strangely as if the blood and guts and stone and home of the ordinary people that bear all the costs of war exist in another reality. Is there anything closer on this earth to psycopathy than the percieved legitimacy of war?

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Good riddance to bad rubbish! Progozhin is no less a murderous thug than is the evil monster and KGB thug that is Putin. Both are the most vile vermin imaginable and both should suffer slow lingering and painful deaths for all the crimes against humanity that they have perpetrated, especially Putin on a much bigger scale. Wholesale murder, destruction, terror, rape, kidnapping, torture etc. I have particular hatred and contempt for the bestial Putin devil – he created and let loose Prigozhin and Wagner, and has used his country and state control for his own nefarious, deranged, murderous and brutal machinations. A veritable Stalin/Hitler monster that should burn in hell forever more!

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    I guess that puts and end to Vlad’s travel plans in August, and our moronic government’s idiotic master plan to welcome him here….

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    It seems that firing Shoigu and Gerasimov is not part of the deal.

    • matheyc58 says:

      Reading about the comment blaming the “monster” in the Kremlin makes me
      wonder where were those desktops warriors when their friends killed some
      one million iraqis and destroyed Libya, a prosperous country, both with plenty
      of oil? As Madeline Albright said: The death of some 500 000 Iraqi children
      was well worth it” I do not even mention the murder of some 25 million by the
      “exceptional powers ” including todays” post mortem” power..I rest my case.

  • Peter Vos says:

    With any luck this pair of subhuman horrors will take each other out

  • Marc Caldwell says:

    Does this mean Wagner will open a new front against Ukraine from Belarus? It would surely bring Ukraine’s southern counter-offensive to a halt.

  • Gerhardj90 says:

    Heed the words of Prof. Abel. Good cop, Bad cop on an industrial scale.

  • Luan Sml says:

    It all seems too orchestrated to me, my opinion it’s just another chess move by Putin and his murderous hired Wagner army, all in the battle to subdue Ukraine…
    One other thing, why don’t African leaders via the AU speak out against the atrocities committed by a private military groap aginst fellow Africans? Including our own governemt?
    What of the innocent victims in all of this.. ?

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    Prigozhin and Wagner and Putin have done no worse than the anc has done to SA and the people of SA. Thousands have died (mbeki and HIV) and thousands are poor and uneducated because of anc rule.

  • Allan Z says:

    Thanks for a top class and insightful report. It’s amazing that so many ‘experts’ who should know better who and what Prigozhin and Wagner really are don’t.

    • matheyc58 says:

      War is a terrible business, but sometimes war is the only outcome. The first casualty of war is the truth. The truth has been perverted by the MSM since
      the beginning. Everybody is ganging against Russia. If some power had put
      39 biological labs on the border of Botswana , whose legitimate govt had be overthrown in 2014 would SA be fully legitimate in taking them out? I maybe
      an illiterate paysan but I would tell our government to taken them out. . The
      Minsk agreement in Ukraine offered peace and neutrality. The rulers in Kiev
      listened to the false prophets in the West and now we have the Apocalypse. I feel sorry for mothers of the Ukraine who had to sacrifice their children and
      husband for the sins of their illegitimate rulers.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Consider this – Russia lies across the Western border of Ukraine and Belarus on Ukraines Northern border. One look at a map tells you all you need to know. The “attempted” Wagner attack on Moscow is merely a smokescreen to get to the northern Ukrainian border to stretch Ukrainian military resources and weaken their defences elsewhere. Don’t be mistaken, Putin and Progozhin are long standing firm friends who talk the same language and have the same madness….the invasion is being ramped up!

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    The history books of the future will show whether it was a staging. In view of the global situation, normal-thinking people are repeatedly amazed at the abysses of the human soul in general, which are expressed in the criminal predisposition of many rulers worldwide. But as far as the sensitivities and abysses of the Russian soul in particular are concerned, we certainly find indications in Dostoyevsky’s novels.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Sounds too well orchestrated with easy, “nice” solutions to be credible… In a country where saving face, political ideology and a well-run propaganda machine are top priorities, this sounds to simple and friendly to be what we see on face-value. I suspect that there’s much more than meets the eye here… watch this space! You don’t threaten Russia, only to kiss and make up… unless its part of the plan.

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