Prigozhin’s Wagner forces mutiny, capture Rostov

Prigozhin’s Wagner forces mutiny, capture Rostov
The forces of Russian private military company Wagner have mutinied and crossed back into Russia, taking control of the southern military capital of Rostov-on-Don. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin June 24, 2023

At around 2am on Saturday morning, Moscow time (11pm, Friday, GMT), 24 June, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner private military company, posted a message saying his forces had crossed the border from Ukraine, and were in the militarily important southern Russian city of Rostov.

Prigozhin declared that he was on a “march for justice” in an attempt to oust the Russian military leadership. The authorities described events as an armed mutiny.

Wagner forces were pulled out of Ukraine at midnight on June 23. They headed for Rostov-on-Don, essentially Russia's southern military capital. Soon after, Prigozhin said they were in control of Rostov and were ready to "go all the way" against the top brass. They would destroy anyone who stood in their way, he said, threatening to march on Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on TV on the morning of June 24. He said he would protect the sovereignty of the country.

Prigozhin said his actions were not a military coup. But in a frenzied series of audio messages, in which the sound of his voice sometimes varied and could not be independently verified, he said 25,000 Wagner fighters were en route to oust the leaders of the defence establishment in Moscow. However, there were no reports of Wagner troops leaving Rostov at the time of writing. 

He said: "Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance."

"There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country," he said, promising to destroy any checkpoints or air power that got in Wagner's way.

Wagner appeared to take control of Rostov-on-Don with little resistance and released a video of Prigozhin standing in the centre of the city this morning looking calm and relaxed.

"We are at the HQ of the Southern Military District in Rostov. It is 7:30 in the morning. Military objects in Rostov are under control, including the airfield, planes that leave for the battle work in Ukraine are leaving normally," Prigozhin said. "There are no problems. Medical planes are leaving. NO problems. All that’s being done is we are taking control to ensure assault aviation does not conduct strikes on us, and instead of Ukrainians."

Wagner tanks rolled into the centre of Rostov unopposed. 

He claimed in a video put out the day before that the Kremlin had attacked a Wagner camp and killed a "huge number" of fighters from his Wagner mercenary force in an air strike, something the defence ministry denied.

The clash comes as the apex of an increasingly bitter struggle between Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Prigozhin. Shoigu last week moved to take control of Wagner, ordering all Wagner troops to sign a contract with the regular army by July 1, an order confirmed by Putin a few days later. Prigozhin said that his troops would refuse the order and remain under his direct control.

"The war was needed ... so that Shoigu could become a marshal ... so that he could get a second 'Hero' [of Russia] medal," Prigozhin said in a video clip, making his most outspoken criticisms of Shoigu to date.

"The war wasn't needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine," he said, referring to Putin's justifications for the conflict and thus making a direct attack on the Kremlin’s publicly stated reasoning for the war.

Prigozhin demanded that Shoigu and Russia's armed forces chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, two figures he has pledged to oust over what he says is their disastrous leadership of the war against Ukraine, come to see him in Rostov, a city near the Ukrainian border. He called the two generals “criminals” and said they had “destroyed around 100,000 Russian soldiers” during the fighting in Ukraine.

At around the same time, state news agency TASS quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that all Russia's main security services were reporting to Putin "round the clock" on fulfilment of his orders with respect to Prigozhin.

Earlier on June 23, Prigozhin had crossed a new line in his increasingly vitriolic feud with the ministry, saying that the Kremlin's rationale for invading Ukraine was based on lies concocted by the army's top brass.

Convoy of vehicles

At around 5am local time the administration of the southern Voronezh region on Ukraine’s border said that the M-4 motorway between Rostov-on-Don and Moscow was under Wagner’s control and urged residents to avoid using it.

Unverified footage posted on social media showed a convoy of assorted military vehicles, including at least one tank and one armoured vehicle on flatbed trucks. It was not clear where they were, or whether the covered trucks in the convoy contained troops. Some of the vehicles were flying the Russian flag, Reuters reports.

On the morning of June 24, in a video released on social media, Prigozhin returned to claims he had been provoked by an attack on Wagner forces by the regular army. The unverified video posted on a Telegram channel close to Wagner showed the purported scene of an air strike against Wagner forces. It showed a forest where small fires were burning and trees that appeared to have been broken by a violent force. There appeared to be one body, but no more direct evidence of any attack.

It carried the caption: "A missile attack was launched on the camps of PMC [Private Military Company] Wagner. Many victims. According to eyewitnesses, the strike was delivered from the rear, that is, it was delivered by the military of the Russian Ministry of Defence." 

Russia's FSB said that Prigozhin's statements amounted to "calls for the start of an armed civil conflict on Russian territory and his actions are a stab in the back of Russian servicemen fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces".

It added: "We urge the ... fighters not to make irreparable mistakes, to stop any forceful actions against the Russian people, not to carry out the criminal and traitorous orders of Prigozhin, to take measures to detain him."

Prigozhin's political ambitions

Prigozhin has exploited Wagner's battlefield success, achieved at enormous human cost, to publicly berate Moscow with seeming impunity. He has carefully steered clear of criticism of Putin himself.

But on June 23, Prigozhin, for the first time, dismissed Putin's core justifications for invading Ukraine on February 24 last year. Many Russians have been fined or jailed for making such dismissals.

Prigozhin is widely seen as having political ambitions, but he remains an outsider in the Kremlin hierarchy and is totally dependent on his personal ties to Putin for influence.

However, bne IntelliNews columnist Alexander Kabanovsky points out that a hardline faction in the Kremlin believes Putin has not gone far enough in the war in Ukraine and is a potential source of support for Prigozhin. Some analysts have speculated that the mutiny could spread and become a coup d'état to oust Putin if he does not retake control of the situation quickly.

Though many details about the standoff remain unclear, the situation is the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It could have serious consequences for the ongoing war in Ukraine as Putin may be forced to redeploy significant forces to Rostov to supress the insurrection, thus creating weaknesses in the Russia lines that Ukraine can exploit.

The FSB domestic security service said it had opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for calling for an armed mutiny, a crime punishable with a jail term of up to 20 years.

Army Lieutenant-General Vladimir Alekseyev issued a video appeal asking Prigozhin to reconsider his actions.

"Only the president has the right to appoint the top leadership of the armed forces, and you are trying to encroach on his authority," he said.

Army General Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine whom Prigozhin has praised in the past, in a separate video said that "the enemy is just waiting for our internal political situation to deteriorate".

"Before it is too late ... you must submit to the will and order of the people's president of the Russian Federation. Stop the columns and return them to their permanent bases," he said.

Prigozhin, whose men spearheaded the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last month, has for months been openly accusing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia's top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence and of denying Wagner ammunition and support.

This report was compiled with the help of reporting by Reuters and Tass.