Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Coup Targets Putin and His “Oligarchic Clan”

The mercenary leader’s bid for control may be the greatest threat to Moscow since the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev.

2R42CA8 Bakhmut, Ukraine. 25th May, 2023. Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin (L) addresses his units withdrawing from Bakhmut, the city captured from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. May 25, 2023. Wagner forces have begun withdrawing from Bakhmut and will hand over positions to the Russian army, says the mercenary group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, having claimed to have captured Ukraine's eastern city. Photo by Press service of Prigozhin/ Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, addresses his units withdrawing from Bakhmut, the city captured from the Ukrainian Armed Forces, on May 25, 2023.

Photo: UPI/Alamy Live News

Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a full-scale coup attempt against Russian President Vladimir Putin late Friday and early Saturday morning, as his mercenaries took control of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, which serves as a key military hub for Russian combat operations for the war in Ukraine.

Forces from the Wagner Group, Prigozhin’s private army, moved east from Ukraine, where they had been fighting alongside the Russian Army, and took over Rostov. By Saturday, they were reported to be moving north toward Moscow. There were reports of fighting between Wagner and the Russian military near the Russian city of Voronezh, which is between Rostov and Moscow. By the time this article was published, Wagner forces were moving north into the area around Lipetsk, only some 250 miles from the capital. Russian security forces were deployed around Moscow on Saturday to block Prigozhin’s troops from entering the city.

British intelligence confirmed the moves, reporting on Twitter that “in an operation characterized by Prigozhin as a ‘march for freedom,’ Wagner Group forces crossed from occupied Ukraine into Russia in at least two locations. In Rostov-on-Don, Wagner has almost certainly occupied key security sites, including the HQ which runs Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Further Wagner units are moving north through Vorenezh Oblast, almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow.”

Prigozhin’s bid for control is arguably the greatest threat to Moscow’s government since the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In August of that year, Communist Party and KGB hard-liners, angered by Gorbachev’s reform efforts, sought to take over the government by sending troops into Moscow. But that coup quickly failed, and the Soviet Union rapidly broke apart, ending the Cold War.

I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that summer, and I was sent to Moscow to help cover the coup’s aftermath. For one story, I traveled to a rural area outside the Russian capital to interview troops who had been sent to Moscow by the coup-plotters but had left the city after the takeover failed.

The troops who had so recently threatened to bring down the government were by then picking cabbages because farmworkers had largely disappeared during the crisis. The soldiers were happy to be doing farm work because they were getting paid extra on top of their military salaries, a rare benefit that stemmed from the government’s concerns about an imminent food shortage. The impoverished conditions of those soldiers connects directly to what Prigozhin has been saying about the incompetence and corruption of the Russian government today and its casual waste of soldiers’ lives on the battlefield in Ukraine. A key part of his argument for staging a coup is that the war has been fought to enrich Russian elites.

Russian soldiers “came here as volunteers, and they died to let you lounge in your mahogany offices,” Prigozhin said in a May video directed at Russia’s military leaders. “You are sitting in your expensive clubs, your children are enjoying good living and filming videos on YouTube. Those who don’t give us ammunition will be eaten alive in hell!”

In a remarkable emergency national address on Saturday, Putin called for the support of the Russian Army and security services and demanded that Wagner end its rebellion. He called Prigozhin’s actions treasonous and appealed to “those who were deceptively pulled into the criminal adventure, pushed towards a serious crime of an armed mutiny.”

Putin compared the rebellion to the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power; Russia was subsequently forced out of World War I, surrendered territory to Germany, and experienced a bloody civil war. “Everything that weakens us must be put to the side, any differences that may be used or are used by our enemies to disrupt us from within. Thus, the actions splitting our unity are a betrayal of our people, of our brothers in combat who fight now at the front line,” Putin said in his address. “It’s a stab in the back of our country and our people. Exactly this strike was dealt in 1917 when the country was in World War I, but its victory was stolen. Intrigues and arguments behind the army’s back turned out to be the greatest catastrophe, destruction of the army and the state, loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war.” He added, “I believe that we will defend and preserve what’s sacred for us. And together with the motherland, we will overcome all challenges and become even stronger.”

Prigozhin responded to Putin’s speech with defiance, saying that Russia’s leader had “made the wrong decision. Too bad for him. We will have a new president soon.”

“No one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB, or anyone else. No one wants to go on living in corruption and deceit,” Prigozhin said, using an acronym for Russia’s Federal Security Service. Any who oppose him, he added, “are those who have gathered around the scum.” He claimed on Saturday that Wagner would march on Moscow, saying, “We will go to the end.”

ROSTOV-ON-DON, RUSSIA - JUNE 24: A member of Wagner group stands guard in a street after Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin's statement in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. The Wagner paramilitary group has taken control of the headquarters of Russia's southern military district in Rostov-Na-Don, according to the groupâs leader on Saturday. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Wagner paramilitary group has taken control of the headquarters of Russia’s southern military district in Rostov-on-Don on June 24, 2023.

Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The key question in the current crisis is whether Russian military and security forces will remain loyal to Putin or switch sides to back Prigozhin. Videos showed that Wagner forces had taken control of Rostov, including the Russian Army regional headquarters there, without any significant opposition from Russian forces. There were videos of Wagner tanks driving through the city’s streets unimpeded.


Russia’s Newest Weapon in Ukraine May Be Mercenaries Linked to Putin

It is unclear how many Wagner fighters have left Ukraine, where they have been operating as a separate combat force alongside the Russian military, but the United States has estimated that the mercenary group had as many as 50,000 troops deployed there. If the bulk of those troops leave Ukraine to march on Russia, it could seriously weaken Putin’s combat power at a time when Ukraine has launched a major counteroffensive.

The high-stakes power struggle between Prigozhin and the Russian government began Friday, when the mercenary leader issued a blistering challenge to Russia’s military leadership.

Relations between Prigozhin and Russian military commanders have worsened over the last few months, as Prigozhin has become increasingly public and bitter in denouncing the Russian military’s poor handling of the war. He has frequently posted videos of himself attacking the incompetence and corruption of Russian military leaders, including a dramatic video last month in which he showed the bodies of dead Russian soldiers and attacked Russian military officials for failing to give Wagner the ammunition it needed to fight the Ukrainians.

On Friday, Prigozhin launched his most brutal online tirade yet, going far beyond anything he had said before, by broadly accusing Russian defense officials and military commanders of launching the war based on lies in order to enrich themselves and gain power. Russia’s public justifications for last year’s invasion — that Ukrainian forces were Nazis who were preparing to attack Russia along with NATO — were lies, he said.

“The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO bloc,” Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel. The truth, he said, was that “there was nothing extraordinary happening” on February 24, 2022, the day Russian invaded. Instead of launching a war, Prigozhin added, Russia should have negotiated with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy. “He was ready for agreements. All that needed to be done was to get off Mount Olympus and negotiate with him.”

In his angry video on Friday, Prigozhin did not blame Putin by name for launching the war. Instead, he focused on his longtime nemesis, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“What was the war for?” Prigozhin asked. “The war was needed for Shoigu to receive a hero star. … The oligarchic clan that rules Russia needed the war,” he said. “The mentally ill scumbags decided: ‘It’s OK, we’ll throw in a few thousand more Russian men as cannon fodder. They’ll die under artillery fire, but we’ll get what we want.’”

But after Prigozhin posted the video, events began to spiral out of control. He followed up his criticism of the war by claiming that the Russian military had launched a rocket strike that killed Wagner troops in Ukraine, which the Russian military quickly denied. Prigozhin then angrily claimed that Wagner forces were going to cross the border back into Russia to take Rostov, and then move on to Moscow to go after Shoigu. By late Friday, Russian prosecutors and the FSB announced that a criminal case had been opened against Prigozhin, claiming that he was inciting an “armed rebellion.” By then, Russian military officials were openly alarmed. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, put out a video of his own in which he told Wagner forces not to turn on the Russian military. “You need to stop your columns and return them to their positions,” he said.

But Prigozhin easily seized Rostov, and videos showed him meeting with two senior Russian military commanders early Saturday at the headquarters there. He told them that Wagner had just shot down three Russian military helicopters. “They shoot at us and we shoot them down,” Prigozhin said.

By Saturday, after focusing on Shoigu and the Russian military leadership, Prigozhin began to target Putin by name, and made it clear that he was now determined to topple Putin’s regime. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense issued a terse comment on Twitter: “We are watching.”

Western reporting on the unfolding crisis is being hampered by Putin’s crackdown on the Russian press, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Many independent Russian journalists have been forced to flee the country; most Western journalists have also left Russia in the wake of the crackdown and the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on false spying charges. Russian state-run media has covered up the truth about the Ukraine war and now seems dazed about how to cover the Prigozhin coup.

Reporting on the 1991 coup in Moscow was much different; back then, the story was far more accessible to Western reporters. In speaking to the soldiers picking cabbages outside Moscow, as well as their commanders, I quickly learned that they had no idea why they had been sent to the capital. No one had told them they were part of a coup attempt, so when they had arrived in the city, they’d simply parked their tanks and waited for orders. The orders never came, because the coup-plotters lost their nerve.

A big question now is whether Prigozhin will also lose his nerve in the coming days.

Update: Saturday, June 24, 2023

Just as his forces were closing on Moscow, amid reports of a deal brokered by Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic leader and a close Putin ally, Prigozhin announced that his forces would turn around. It remains uncertain whether Prigozhin’s reversal represents an end to the crisis or merely a short-term tactical shift by the mercurial Wagner leader.  

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