Disbelief, anger: Russians struggle to process Wagner revolt

A Rostov native recalls Saturday’s spectacle as Moscow decides what to do with mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

A Wagner Group supporter holds a flag for the mercenary group outside an office of Rostelecom near the headquarters of the Southern Military District, which Wagner fighters took control of on June 24, 2023, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia [Stringer/Reuters]

At first, 30-year-old Ivan from Rostov-an-Don did not believe an armed uprising was taking place in his southern Russian hometown on Saturday.

“That morning, I told my friends it was all fake news, to which they responded by sending me photos of tanks,” he told Al Jazeera.

After months of feuding with Russia’s military chiefs, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the feared Wagner Group, stepped up his fight and ordered his mercenaries to seize the port city of more than 1 million people.

They crossed the border with Ukraine and were ready to go “all the way” against the Russian military, the Wagner boss said.

“I went to the headquarters of the Southern Federal District, and at every intersection, there stood armed Wagnerites, and the headquarters itself was already surrounded by soldiers and tanks with their barrels pointed towards the building,” Ivan said.

Despite being under military occupation, the atmosphere in the city was very calm, Ivan said.

The presence of heavily armed men did not appear to bother the locals, who took pictures and struck up conversations with the mercenaries.

Ivan said he filmed a now-viral video of a cleaner nonchalantly sweeping the street next to a tank.

“By the time I returned to the city centre in the evening, there were already crowds of people, families with children, waving Wagner and Russian flags,” he recalled.

“They shouted in support of the Wagnerites, gave them cigarettes, hugged and shook hands. Every Rostovite now has a photo with a tank. By midnight, under the extremely warm reaction of the townsfolk, they gathered in a column and left just as quickly as they appeared. And today, everything in Rostov is calm.”

Prigozhin mutinied against the Russian high command and captured the country’s 10th largest city before marching his fighters towards the capital.

But the Wagner convoy stopped within 200km (124 miles) of Moscow, after a deal was seemingly struck with the help of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin was told he could go into exile in Belarus and charges against him would be dropped if he ended his mutiny.

Lukashenko is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin has held close ties with the Kremlin chief too. The convict-turned-oligarch was known as “Putin’s chef” because his restaurant and catering business was often awarded lucrative Russian government contracts.

The spectacle this weekend baffled observers of the Russia-Ukraine war as well as Russians themselves.

“It left me totally confused,” Alexey Krapukhin, a member of the liberal party Yabloko, told Al Jazeera.

“When I heard [Wagner] was crossing the border, I thought, ‘Alright, here we go. There are going to be some major changes in Russia, and not for the better.’ I can’t say I shared the excitement of certain oppositionists that here comes Prigozhin and he’s gonna topple Putin.

“But I had a small hope that if he came to power, people like him don’t last long, and then Russia will be, finally, on the path to reform. Then when he turned his forces around, that caught me totally by surprise. I spent the weekend in Karelia and thought when I returned to Moscow I’d see barricades, fires, soldiers on the street. But no, it’s just another peaceful city, unlike what’s happening in Ukraine.”

“I think soon we’ll learn the terms of the deal with Prigozhin. I wouldn’t wait for a revolution, but Putin’s power is weakening. People can see that a relatively small armed group can make it all the way to Moscow, and it’s frightening to think what could happen next. Will the security services interfere next time there’s an inter-elite squabble?”

Historian Ian Garner told Al Jazeera that Russians were following the story with “eyes agog” as the unprecedented events unfolded, with Telegram channels “deluged” in a hunt for information.

“However, we didn’t see much enthusiasm for any particular side in the conflict: liberal Russians didn’t use this opportunity to protest en masse against Putin or the war, but nor did ordinary patriots rush to man barricades against an advancing Wagner column,” he said.

Russia’s state-backed media extensively reported on Saturday’s attempted putsch but avoided vilifying the mutineers, at least at first.

The local St Petersburg news site Fontanka reported that police searching Wagner’s offices found passports for Prigozhin under various aliases, five gold bars, six pistols and five bricks of an “unidentified white powder”.

But after the announcement that charges against Prigozhin would be dropped, the story disappeared from the site. Investigative journalists have since managed to track the names on the passports and link them to Prigozhin’s activities.

An editorial released by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency described the mutinous mercenaries as “heroes of Artemovsk”, the Soviet and pre-2016 name for Ukraine’s now occupied city of Bakhmut, which Wagner helped capture. The editorial applauded the maturity of the Wagner fighters for seemingly reaching a compromise.

“On this day, people from both sides clashed, ready to die for Russia,” the RIA article read. “But they refused to kill each other for her.”

Tanks and soldiers on the street at night time. There are crowds of people on either side of the road taking photos
Members of the Wagner Group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base in Rostov-on-Don [Roman Romokhov/AFP]

But of course, a paramilitary army advancing so close to the capital practically unopposed is something that cannot be ignored.

On his web show, Solovyov Live, the prominent pro-Kremlin pundit Vladimir Solovyov pondered how such an event was allowed to happen.

“We must understand what happened today. We must leave emotions aside and carry out a very hard, sober calculation,” he told his audience.

“We need to sharply build up the armed forces. We need to boost the size of the armed forces, their combat readiness, so that not only the front, but also the rear is saturated with armed forces. In the event of an invasion on the territory of the Russian Federation, how and what and who should raise the alarm? How should various services operate. How should the roads be blocked and in what order? If there are tank columns, what stops them? A million questions that have been raised today and which we must answer.”

The weak response to Prigozhin’s insurrection was also seized upon by the oppositional liberal media.

Writing for the Latvia-based news site Meduza, journalist Maxim Trudolyubov compared Putin to the ruler in the Danish fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which everyone can see the king is naked but no one dares tell him except a little boy.

“Prigozhin has just proved that in Russia it is possible to capture a city of a million people without firing a shot and then move towards Moscow without encountering resistance,” Maxim wrote.

“Prigozhin’s rebellion is another link in a long process, as a result of which the king will be recognised as naked. … It is clear now that Putin is not able to control even ‘his’ people.”

Trudolyubov then referred to a leaked conversation between an oligarch and well-known music producer this year, in which the pair privately disparaged Putin and the decision to go to war.

“These people are losing money, power and opportunities to get rich because of Putin’s actions,” Trudolyubov said. “But they prefer to publicly praise the king’s outfit and earn as much as they can. There is an understandable explanation for this, and only it still allows Putin’s system to stay afloat: At the very moment when the king is finally recognised by everyone as naked, his court hypocrites will also be left without clothes.”

And Prigozhin’s revolt might not be forgiven after all.

On Monday, the Kommersant newspaper and RIA Novosti reported that according to insiders, the investigation against Prigozhin over armed rebellion is ongoing.

Source: Al Jazeera