Prigozhin Calls Off Coup (Updated)
Yevgeny Prigozhin has told his forces to stand down after a deal was brokered by Belarus to end the Wagner insurrection.
On the second day of an attempted coup that has the world watching warily, Wagner boss and now enemy of the Russian state Yevgeny Prigozhin and the core of his forces remain entrenched in Rostov, while other elements are now holding Voronezh, which sits between Rostov and Moscow along the M4 highway. Additional Wagner forces are said to have splintered off and continued on a push to the Russian capital. Now, it appears that some of those elements have come under fire.
Author's note: See latest updates, including regarding the supposed deal that was reached to end Prigozhin's coup, at the bottom of this article.
You can and should get up to speed on the situation, including a full explainer on how it begun and rapidly evolved, by checking out our previous rolling coverage here.
A column of Prigozhin’s forces with troop carriers and at least one tank on a flatbed truck passing by the southern city of Voronezh has come under fire by Russian attack helicopters, according to a Reuters journalist who witnessed the event.
It appears that some heavy roadblocks put on the highway have been breached by Wagner forces.
The city of Voronezh — more than halfway along the 1,100-km (680-mile) highway from Rostov to Moscow — was supposedly the scene of brief fighting earlier in the day between Wagner troops and Russian forces. Putin has vowed to brutally crush what he is calling an act of “treason” and “betrayal.” It appears that Russian military and security forces are beefing up their presence near there ahead of what could be a far more intense clash.
Residents of Voronezh are said to be in a state of panic, unable to leave, and are queuing up for gas and food, and for train rides out of the area, but the central part of the city has so far not seen any major fighting between Wagner and Russian troops, according to a witness there. Wagner says they seized the city and its military installations hours ago.
Prigozhin was able to seize the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don with virtually no resistance, going directly to the headquarters of the Southern Military District and taking control of it. In an impromptu address, Prigozhin said he would not interfere with military operations against Ukraine, but his control of the Southern Military District and its installations in the area of Roston would make sure Russian military capabilities aren't used against him. He also said he had fired nobody and everyone can continue to do their jobs.
There are also widespread reports that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops are now in or very near Rostov on behalf of Putin. Kadryrov publicly sided with Putin shortly after his national address where he deemed Prigozhin and his Wagner forces traitors.
In a statement, Kadyrov described Prigozhin’s behavior as “a knife in the back” and called on Russian soldiers not to give in to any “provocations.”
Prigozhin, aware of those approaching forces, said he anticipates a violent clash.
"A battle is expected for Rostov-on-Don between PMC Wagner and [Kadyrov],” he said on his Telegram channel. “They want to arrange a bloody massacre.”
Pushing back against the comments from Putin, for whom he once famously served as a chef before his meteoric rise as a global mercenary warlord, Prigozhin said the Russian president “was deeply mistaken” in calling him a traitor.
“No one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president … We don’t want the country to continue to live in corruption and lies,” he added. “We are patriots, and those who are against us are the ones who gathered around the bastards,” Prigozhin said.
You can read a full translation of that message in the tweet below.
Meanwhile, RIA Novosti reports that Putin today signed a law on fines and administrative arrest for up to 30 days for violating martial law in places where it has been imposed. According to TASS, while citizens can be fined up to 1,000 rubles (almost $12) or face administrative arrest of up to 30 days, for officials, the fine can be doubled.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, obviously paying close attention to the unfolding drama, called it a sign of Russian "weakness."
“For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government," Zelensky said on Twitter. "And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it. And all this is one person, who again and again scares by the year 1917, although he is able to result in nothing else but this."
“Russia’s weakness is obvious. Full-scale weakness. And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later. It is also obvious. Ukraine is able to protect Europe from the spread of Russian evil and chaos. We keep our resilience, unity, and strength."
And despite what's playing out with Prigozhin, the war still rages on. The Russian Defense Ministry has maintained a measure of command and control, ordering airstrikes across Ukraine that resulted in at least two deaths in Kyiv according to authorities there.
There is a swirl of other activity as part of this rapidly evolving situation. Footage yesterday showed Russian KA-52 attack helicopters bombing a fuel depot in Voronezh, a move seemingly aimed at starving Wagner of fuel, although that would take some time regardless of the depot being hit. Now we are seeing more KA-52 operations, including one that may have narrowly missed being shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
This appears to be the engagement from another angle.
Russian airpower is quite active over the Voronezh area, with additional KA-52s and Su-27/30/35s seen in the skies.
Wagner is setting up it's own roadblocks in Rostov ahead of what could be an incredibly bloody fight.
Tensions are also growing outside the seized Southern Military District headquarters and in greater Rostov following Putin's speech.
Flight-tracking data indicates the movement of a Russian military presidential transport aircraft departing Moscow in the direction of St. Petersburg, although this could also be a routine flight.
The events of the next few days have wide ramifications. Ukraine has already attempted to take advantage of the chaos, with reported attacks in the Bakhmut area. But beyond that is the troubling issue of an internal fracture in a nation with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
This is a dangerous and extremely fluid situation. We will update this story as more information comes in.
Update: 10:20 p.m. EST
The Washington Post is stating that U.S. intel knew by mid-June that Prigozhin was planning an insurrection and had shared that assessment with the White House and other government agencies. The Russian MoD's early June declaration that all Wagner forces would have to be contracted with the MoD was a major catalyst (as we have posited). Once again, what about Russian intel? How did they miss it? Or did they?
According to this report, Putin was alerted that he was planning something, as well, but how long in advance is not clear.
The New York Times has a similar report, saying by Wednesday of last week U.S. intel had become aware that a plan was in motion, although they likely were tracking that possibility much earlier. The main worry was Wagner's armed fight against the Russian Ministry of Defense could destabilize an enemy country armed with thousands of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. limited its messaging on the Wagner insurrection over the weekend because they didn't want to give Putin fodder for claiming it was backed by Western intelligence agencies.
There is now the question about Prigozhin's big claim that many of his Wagner troops got decimated by a Russian missile strike in Ukraine on Friday. That was his big call to action, remember? Now Russia whacking tons of its own mercenaries near the front is all forgotten and forgiven? That seems unlikely.
Clearly he had been planning this for some time, and U.S. intel confirms that, so that 'blue on blue' attack was either manufactured or extremely convenient. That is unless Russia tried to take him out before he moved and missed. Still, all seems forgotten now. And now Prigozhin thinks he will live out his golden years in peace in Belarus.
That too seems very unlikely.
ABS News is also reporting the following regarding the confusion over how this all went down and it seems the fate of General Shoigu remains in play:
"A senior U.S. official says it is a mystery as to why Yevgeny Prigozhin stopped his march to Moscow given that he was seemingly in a dominant position.
The official said he was greeted as a hero in Rostov-on-Don. However, the senior official told ABC News that Prigozhin is in an "emotional state," and perhaps did it because he thought this would destroy Russia, or because he glimpsed his own end. It is impossible to tell whether Prigozhin thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin will actually honor their deal which included allowing Wagner group soldiers to be folded into the Russian military.
The official said that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was very effective, telling Prigozhin and Putin that this was all a misunderstanding and that they are both patriots and aligned for the same goals.
Putin is said to be completely shocked by how fast Wagner Group moved through Russia. For now, he is just trying to secure his position. He does not want to be seen negotiating over his defense minister, but the official says the U.S. believes concessions were made over Sergei Shoigu's future as well as others."
Update: 4:45 p.m. EST
The deal Putin cut with Prigozhin includes the following terms, based on Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov:
- All criminal charges against Prigozhin are dropped
- Wagner fighters involved in insurrection will not be prosecuted
- Prigozhin will move to Belarus (possible exile?)
- Wagner troops who didn't take part in the insurrection will have to sign contracts with the Russian MoD (this could be the end of Wagner or at least as we knew it)
- No word on any change in Russian military leadership
Still many unanswered questions, but those are the terms they are disclosing at this time. Unless Putin has a plan for him of some kind, it would be hard to imagine Prigozhin living out a peaceful existence in Belarus, but we will just have to see how this plays out.
Prigozhin got a rock star farewell in Rostov. This is also the first sight of him since taking the Southern Military Distract HQ.
The Ukraine factor also looms large at this moment. With thousands of fighters, many of which are hardened, taken off the battlefield, some degree of chaos/disarray/distraction throughout Russia's command hierarchy, and a probable hit to Russian troops' morale, now is as good a time as any to do something big.
Of course many other battlefield factors also exist, but this seems like the best opportunity yet, based on external factors, for Ukraine to make a major move. And the window for this opportunity is already quickly shrinking.
We should see if anything comes of it in the next 24 hours.
Update: 3:22 p.m. EST
One of the biggest questions is how didn't Moscow see this coming? Prigozhin has been getting increasingly aggressive in his accusations against the Russian MoD's leadership and other power players in Moscow. He had made threats before. Bluster? Sure, OK. But this operation took major planning, vast communications, and logistics to accomplish. Thousands were involved. How didn't Russia know? Or maybe they did but leadership decided not to act. If so, why?
Then they moved on a known route through a war zone in territory that Russia controls. It was all over social media for hours. He proclaimed what he was doing. Yet he rolled right into Russia and onto the headquarters of the Southern Military District. While moving across eastern Ukraine unopposed can maybe be better explained than not seeing it coming at all, making it into Russia with ease hours after declaring his intentions is puzzling.
There is also the question of the state of Wagner going forward. Who will run it? Will its mercenaries be forced to sign contracts with the Russian MoD, which was a looming demand that largely set this chain of events into action?
These are just some of the questions, of which there are many, that will surely be discussed in the days ahead.
Moving on, it looks like Wagner troops are following through with leaving.
Another scene in Rostov had locals cheering Wagner and taking pictures with them.
That tank that got stuck between those two gate pillars in Rostov has now been freed.
Russian troops appear to be heading back from some checkpoints, as well.
Roads are being cleared.
This is Dmitri Alperovitch's take on the whole end of the ordeal.
Zelensky was back on camera trolling Putin.
Fighterbomber telegram channel is claiming the aviation losses, and the lives lost in connection to those losses, were more than what they seem.
Update: 2:30 p.m. EST
There are a number of still unconfirmed rumors flying around as to what this deal actually included. The biggest includes the stepping down of Russia's top military officers — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Army chief of the general staff. The are the two key figures that Prigozhin derided for months and demanded their dismissal and worse. Once again, this remains unconfirmed on an official level, but it would be hugely significant and a stunning win for Prigozhin.
For instance, this was posted on the widely popular Russian milblogging channel Two Majors:
"His is a message that an agreement has been reached to prevent bloodshed.
After that, Prigogine stopped Wagner's movement, can only mean one thing.
Prigozhin received guarantees. that Shoigu and Gerasimov will at least resign. The political configuration is seriously changing.
Persons associated with Prigozhin are brought to the fore - Turchak, Kovalchuk, Likhachev, Kiriyenko
There are additional claims that Prigozhin will focus his work on operations outside of Ukraine, specifically Africa as part of this deal, although once again, this is not confirmed.
Even without the demand of firing Putin's top generals being met, Putin making a deal with a man that personally betrayed him, just took over an entire military district at gunpoint with his private army, shot down Russian aircraft, called the reasons for going to war baseless, and was deemed an outright traitor shows you the state of Russian affairs at the moment. Amazing and telling turn if indeed this all pans out to be true. And that is a very big if.
It is hard to see how Prigozhin survives this. Getting all of his men out of Russia or disarmed before dealing with him is one possible play. This is very much a wait and see situation.
Update: 2 p.m. EST
Yevgeny Prigozhin is ending his march to Moscow and returning his forces to their bases, he said in a message posted on his Telegram channels according to Russian media outlets TASS and RIA Novosti.
“Realizing all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed on one of the sides, we turn our columns around and leave in the opposite direction to the field camps according to the plan,” he said, according to TASS.
Prigozhin’s change of heart, which came after his forces were fired upon during their move to Moscow, was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, according to his press service.
After being briefed by Putin, Lukashenko entered negotiations with Prigozhin, according to Lukashenko’s press service.
“Negotiations continued throughout the day. As a result, they came to agreements on the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloody massacre on the territory of Russia. Yevgeny Prigozhin accepted the proposal of President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to stop the movement of armed persons of the Wagner company in Russia and take further steps to de-escalate tensions.”
At the moment, “on the table is an absolutely profitable and acceptable option for solving the situation, with security guarantees for the Wagner PMC fighters,” according to Lukashenko’s press service.
Once again, we remind you this is a rapidly evolving situation. While the sentiments stated here are a major shift in this story, major questions remain and we will have to see if the supposed plan agreed to is matched with actions.
Update: 1:34 p.m. EST
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were briefed by their national security team this morning about the latest developments in Russia, according to a White House press pool report. Participants included National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The president and vice president will continue to be briefed throughout the day.
Update: 1:12 p.m. EST
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, has postponed a trip to the Middle East because of the current situation in Russia, his spokesman tells The War Zone, confirming earlier reporting by Reuters.
Update: 11:50 a.m. EST
Kyiv is watching the unfolding events with an eye toward how they benefit its defense against Russia’s all-out invasion, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Saturday on her Telegram channel.
Calling the coup attempt "predictable" and “the inevitable degradation of the Russian state,” Maliar said they were “a window of opportunity” for Ukraine.
“Should we be happy?” she asked rhetorically.
“It is better to be careful and prepare for any scenarios,” she said. “Therefore, let's not relax. We continue to work on our strengthening and victory.”
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