The Russian-Ukrainian war took an unexpected turn on Saturday after the head of the Wagner Group, which has played a prominent role in the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, called for a rebellion against Russia’s top military brass.
The mercenary outfit Wagner, which carried out much of the grunt work in the battle of Bakhmut, mutinied against high command and seized the city of Rostov in southwestern Russia, largely unopposed by local security forces. The mutiny is the fruition of a long-running feud between Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian military chiefs.
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Prigozhin claims to have shot down three Russian helicopters, and that the armed forces have fired rockets on Wagner’s positions. Al Jazeera could not independently verify his claims.
“Any internal turmoil is a mortal threat to our statehood and to us as a nation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised speech on Saturday.
“This is a blow to Russia, to our people. And our actions to defend the fatherland against such a threat will be tough. All those who deliberately stepped onto the path of treachery, who prepared an armed insurrection, who followed the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer an inevitable punishment, will have to answer before the law and before our people.”
Although no one is certain what will happen next, all voices agree on one thing: this rebellion undermines Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.
“We should help even the devil if he’s against this regime!” exiled tycoon and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote on Instagram.
“We should help because there is no worse crime than unleashing an aggressive war. If one criminal is ready to interfere with another – now’s not the time to make sour faces – we need to help, and then, if necessary, we will fight this one [Prigozhin], too. And yes, this is just the beginning.”
‘A tough time’
Supporters of the Russian government decried the mutiny and urged for unity.
“It’s a tough time, I didn’t think I’d live to see this,” said pro-Kremlin pundit and talk show host Vladimir Solovyov in a video address to his million-plus Telegram followers.
“[Wagner’s] 25,000 men would be very useful at the front for the march on Lviv, Kyiv and if necessary, even further. But when you look at what’s going on, you ask yourself, how did this happen?”
“The enemy is there, in Ukraine. We need to be fighting with Ukro-fascism. Stop, before it’s too late. There’s nothing scarier than civil war.”
Russia’s former space chief Dmitry Rogozin said: “In war, you need to shove your political ambitions up your ass and support the front with all your might.”
“Any attempt to weaken it is nothing but aiding the enemy.”
Pro-Kremlin journalist Armen Gasparyan, who is wanted in Ukraine for “publically calling for the genocide of Ukrainian people”, called Prigozhin’s actions a betrayal and a “stab in the back of the army”.
“Spitting on the graves of soldiers and officers who gave their lives to the Motherland,” he wrote on Telegram. “But we have a president and there is a consolidation in our society for the sake of a holy goal. We will win! Stop, do not go against the Motherland!”
‘A historic episode’
Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, the former Russian military intelligence operative who led the initial uprising in Ukraine’s Donbas back in 2014, analysed the situation at length for his 845,000 Telegram followers. He called Prigozhin’s claim of a missile attack on Wagner’s positions “a complete lie”.
“To eliminate Wagner, it’s completely unnecessary to inflict blows on any camp,” he assessed.
“It’s enough to whack Prigozhin himself. Well, maybe someone else from his inner circle along with him. And that’s all. And to hit ordinary soldiers and commanders is utter stupidity – even [generals Sergei] Shoigu and [Valery] Gerasimov have enough brains to understand this.”
Girkin said he doubted that Prigozhin will be able to hold out for long, lacking the resources, support from the military and even control over Wagner itself, with much of his manpower still in Ukraine, to successfully march on Moscow.
“If after five-six hours Wagner does not achieve significant success and military units do not openly go over to its side, the rebellion will drag on, and with each passing day its final success will be more and more improbable,” he wrote. “Well, if the Kremlin doesn’t screw up out of habit, of course, and start urgently searching for compromises.”
Still, the fact of such a mutiny taking place is a sign of the tenuous grip President Putin has on power, according to Russian economist and University of Chicago professor Konstantin Sonin.
“The fact that Wagner was able to easily capture the million-strong Rostov-on-Don, the 10th largest city in Russia, in which the headquarters of the Southern Military District is located, shows that Prigozhin’s plan has serious support among the regular army. Wagner was allowed into Rostov without resistance,” Sonin wrote on Facebook.
“One way or another, this brings the end of both Putin (not in two years, as I wrote in the spring, but faster), and the war. Even if nothing changes at all, Prigozhin is captured or killed, and key Wagnerites are imprisoned, what has already happened is the collapse of the state on an epic scale, a historic episode.”