What’s Happening With Wagner in Russia?

This is a defining moment in Russia’s 16-month full-scale war in Ukraine and potentially a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

The Russian leader has accused Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin of treason, embarking on an armed rebellion and “a stab in the back of our country Russia“.

One of Russia’s most important figures, Prigozhin says his aim is “not a military coup but a march for justice”.

What is happening with the Wagner group?

For months Prigozhin has played a vital role in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, recruiting thousands to his Wagner mercenary group, especially from Russian jails.

He has long been in an open feud with the military chiefs running the war, but that has now turned into a revolt as they try to bring his forces under their command structure.

Wagner forces have crossed from occupied eastern Ukraine into the big southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and claim to have taken control of the city and its military facilities.

President Putin says the situation is difficult but has promised to do everything to defend Russia.

According to Prigozhin, any accusations of a military coup are ludicrous.

But what started as a no-holds-barred argument over the military’s inability to provide his mercenaries with adequate equipment and ammunition has now escalated into a direct challenge to the two men in charge of prosecuting the war – Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces head Valery Gerasimov.

So yet, there has been no explicit attempt to grab control from the government, indicating that this is not a coup. Prigozhin’s “private military company” also does not represent the military, despite his claims of extensive support among the armed services.

What does Prigozhin want?

His concept of a “march for justice” is hazy, but his feud with the military leadership has definitely progressed to the point where he wants to drive them out.

A video has emerged of Prigozhin threatening a deputy defence minister and a general in Rostov on Friday that unless the two senior military authorities come and talk to him, his mercenaries will shut off the city and proceed for Moscow.

There are rumours of a military helicopter being shot down and a Wagner convoy travelling north up the M4 road in the Voronezh area north of Rostov.

Prigozhin’s beef is not with Russian soldiers in Ukraine, but with the “clowns” who lead them, he claims. Several generals have urged him to cool down, but it appears that it is too late.

Military sites in Rostov seized

Prigozhin accused the military of organising a fatal bombardment on his forces in Ukraine, but the military denied it and Prigozhin failed to show the type of evidence he usually produces.

He proclaimed late Friday that his “march for justice” had begun. His 25,000-man force would be simply a “tactical reserve,” while the entire army and country would be their strategic reserve.

Gen Sergei Surovikin, Ukraine’s deputy commander of troops, urged him to take a step back and submit to President Putin’s authority.

Prigozhin’s soldiers had arrived in Rostov by morning: “We are inside [military] headquarters.” He subsequently claimed that they had conquered the city “without firing a shot.”

A serious moment for Putin and Russia

This is not a direct threat to Russia’s conflict in Ukraine, and Prigozhin has stated that he does not question Putin’s leadership.

However, it is severe enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin to deliver a resolute and uncompromising five-minute televised address.

If his military demands are not granted, Prigozhin has vowed to march on Moscow. What happens if he goes forward with it?

Vladimir Putin appears to be a leader who has lost control of a rapidly changing scenario.

Prigozhin enjoys widespread public support in Russia, and even if his challenge fails, it has created a problem for a military that has relied on his mercenaries in Ukraine.

It is also a watershed moment for Putin’s administration and a wake-up call for Russians. It is too early to predict how it will finish.

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