The Russian-Ukrainian war took an unexpected turn on Saturday after the head of the Wagner Group, which has played a major role in the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, called for a coup against Russia’s top military commanders.
The mercenary group Wagner, which had done most of the gruesome work in Bakhmut’s war, rebelled against the High Command and captured the southwestern Russian city of Rostov, largely unchallenged by local security forces. The rebellion was the result of a long-running dispute between Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigogine, and Russian military chiefs.
Prigogine claimed to have shot down three Russian helicopters and that armed forces had fired rockets at Wagner’s position. Al Jazeera could not independently verify his claim.
“Any internal turmoil is a serious threat to our statehood and to us as a nation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised address on Saturday.
“This is a blow for Russia, for our people. And our steps to protect the motherland against such threats will be tough. Those who deliberately set foot on the path of treason, those who prepared armed rebellion, those who followed the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, must suffer the inevitable punishment, they must answer before the law and before our people.”
While no one is sure what will happen next, all voices agree on one thing: The uprising undermines Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.
“We should help even Satan if he is against this regime!” exiled tycoon and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote on Instagram.
“We should help because there is no worse crime than starting a war of aggression. If one criminal is ready to interfere with another criminal – now is not the time to turn a blind eye – we must help, and then, if necessary, we will fight it. [Prigozhin]too and yes, this is just the beginning.”
‘a hard time’
Supporters of the Russian government condemned the uprising and called for unity.
“It’s a difficult time, I didn’t think I’d live to see it,” pro-Kremlin pundit and talk show host Vladimir Soloviev said in a video address to his million-plus Telegram followers.
“[Wagner’s] 25,000 men would be very useful on the front to Lviv, Kiev and if necessary further. But when you see what is happening, you ask yourself, how did this happen?”
“There are enemies, in Ukraine. We have to fight against ukro-fascism. Stop, before it’s too late. There is nothing more terrible than civil war.”
Dmitry Rogzin, Russia’s former space chief, said: “In war, you have to shake your political ambitions up your ass and support the front with all your might.”
“Any attempt to undermine it is nothing but helping the enemy.”
Pro-Kremlin journalist Armen Gasparian, who wanted to “openly call for the genocide of the Ukrainian people” in Ukraine, called Prigozhin’s actions a betrayal and a “stab in the back of the army”.
“Spitting on the graves of soldiers and officers who gave their lives for the motherland,” he wrote in a telegram. “But we have a president and we have a united society for a holy cause. We will win! Stop, do not go against the motherland!
‘A Historical Episode’
Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a former Russian military intelligence operative who led the initial uprising in Ukraine’s Donbass in 2014, analyzed the situation at length for his 845,000 Telegram followers. He called Prigogine’s claim of a missile attack on Wagner’s position “absolutely false”.
“To eliminate Wagner, hitting a camp is completely unnecessary,” he assessed.
“That’s enough to beat Prigogine himself. Well, he might be accompanied by someone else from his inner circle. And that’s all. And hitting ordinary soldiers and commanders is completely stupid – even [generals Sergei] Shoigu and [Valery] Gerasimov has enough brains to understand this.
Girkin said he doubted that Prigogine would be able to hold out long enough, lacking resources, support from the military and even control over Wagner, with most of his manpower still in Ukraine, to successfully advance on Moscow.
“If after five or six hours Wagner had not achieved significant success and the military units had not openly gone to his side, the rebellion would drag on and with each passing day its ultimate success would become more improbable,” he wrote. “Well, if the Kremlin doesn’t get out of habit, of course, and urgently start searching for a compromise.”
According to Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist and professor at the University of Chicago, such rebellions are still a sign of President Putin’s weak grip on power.
“The fact that Wagner was able to easily capture the million-strong Rostov-on-Don, the 10th largest city in Russia, where the headquarters of the Southern Military District is located, shows that Prigozhin’s plan has serious support among the regular army. . Wagner was allowed to Rostov without resistance,” Sonin wrote on Facebook.
“One way or another, this brings the end of both Putin (not in two years, as I wrote in the spring, but quickly) and the war. Even if nothing changes, Prigogine is captured or killed and the original Wagnerites are imprisoned, what has already happened is the collapse of the state on an epic scale, a historical episode.”