Moscow’s fallout with Wagner: Your guide to the Russian rebellion

What’s next for Yevgeny Prigozhin and his fighters, and why have they been warring with Russian military chiefs? Here are the key things to know.

Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group are deployed in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer
Fighters from the Wagner Group of private mercenaries are deployed in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia [Stringer/Reuters]

An attempted rebellion in Russia amid the Ukraine war has sent shock waves across the world, exposed internal struggles, and revealed the vulnerabilities of Moscow’s defence and security structures.

On Saturday, mercenary fighters led by Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin seized the city of Rostov-on-Don and marched, seemingly unopposed, towards Moscow, demanding the removal of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Prigozhin’s uprising came to an abrupt end hours after it began within 200km (124 miles) of Moscow. He struck a deal with the Kremlin to end the operation, with a pact brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Since then, Prigozhin released an audio statement saying the march to Russian capital was not meant to overthrow the government.

While his whereabouts and the fate of his troops remain unclear, one thing is certain: The Wagner revolt is the biggest threat Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced in his 22-year rule.

Here’s your simple guide:

Who is Prighozin and what do his Wagner fighters do?

Prigozhin grew up in St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown.

He rose to prominence as a catering entrepreneur in the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.

From then on, his business boomed. In 2014, Prigozhin diversified into the military sector and became the head of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force allegedly founded by Ukrainian-born Russian army officer Dmitry Utkin in 2013.

(Al Jazeera)

Wagner troops fight on behalf of Russia. They have led Moscow’s campaigns in Ukraine, and participated in conflicts in Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan and Mozambique.

Until recently, Wagner was a shadowy group shrouded in secrecy. That all changed as the Ukraine war progressed, and Prigozhin is now more recognisable in Russia than ever before.

What’s Prigozhin’s beef with Russian military chiefs?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Prigozhin has been leading the Kremlin’s military operations, especially in eastern Ukraine.

In April, he announced the capture of Bakhmut, after a fierce months-long battle.

Putin congratulated the Wagner chief and his troops, but did not acknowledge Prigozhin’s ongoing beef with Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

For months, Prigozhin’s scarred face, tightly shaven head and uneven tobacco-stained teeth became widely recognised, with the Wagner chief releasing videos on Telegram criticising Shoigu.

In his almost daily videos, foul-mouthed Prigozhin argued that Russia’s military leaders were incompetent and that they did not provide enough ammunition to his fighters. He also accused them of attacking his troops in Ukraine.

Russia’s Defence Ministry denied these claims as “informational provocation”.

Journalist Yulia Shapovalova, in Moscow, told Al Jazeera that a criminal case of an “armed rebellion” was initiated on June 23 against Prigozhin, after he accused the Russian army of shelling Wagner positions.

What happened in the revolt?

On Saturday, Prigozhin said his men had crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia and were ready to go “all the way” against the Russian military.

After Wagner troops seized the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, they marched towards Moscow.

Putin accused Prigozhin of “treason” and a “stab in the back”.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally, said his forces would help Russian forces fight against Prigozhin’s revolt.

INTERACTIVE - Wagner Group revolt against Russia Progozhin

Prigozhin appeared determined to achieve his aims and according to some Russia watchers, baffled by the spectacle, had “gone rogue”.

Ultimately, though, he abruptly aborted his mission. Belarus’s Lukashenko, Putin’s closest international ally, said he brokered a deal with the Wagner chief to de-escalate the situation that led the Wagner fighters abandoning their march on Moscow.

Where is Prigozhin now?

Lukashenko’s office said the settlement contains security guarantees for Wagner troops, but the details remain scant.

The Wagner chief is expected to live in exile in Belarus.

Wagner fighters who did not participate in the march on Moscow will also be offered military contracts, according to the Kremlin.

“Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the criminal case against Prigozhin would be dropped and Prigozhin would go to Belarus – and his Wagner mercenaries who participated in the rebellion would not be prosecuted,” journalist Shapovalova said.

But on Monday, several Russian media outlets reported that Prigozhin remains under investigation by the Federal Security Service (FSB), though his exact whereabouts remain unclear.

What has Prigozhin said?

On Monday, Prigozhin released his first audio statement since the rebellion, defending the move as a reaction to an attack on his force that killed about 30 of his fighters.

“We started our march because of an injustice. We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country,” Prigozhin said in the 11-minute audio clip.

He did not offer any details as to where he was or what his future plans are.

Prigozhin said his fighters had the support of “happy” civilians in towns they went through as they advanced on Moscow.

“In Russian towns, civilians met us with Russian flags and the symbols of Wagner,” Prigozhin said. “They were all happy when we passed through.”

What will happen to Prighozin and his Wagner forces?

Prigozhin appears to have been driven out of Russia, at least for now, and how Moscow will proceed is unclear.

“We have to wait and see what happens. It is interesting and could be probably called an active disobedience from the side of the Russian investigative committee and the FSB,” Shapovalova said.

Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, told Al Jazeera that Prigozhin’s deal with Belarus does not necessarily guarantee his safety.

“People that cross Vladimir Putin tend to have a bad track record of falling out of windows in Russia. We’ve seen them eliminated with little fanfare and in multiple, very brutal ways,” he said.

Will Russia shake up the military?

Prigozhin seemed intent on toppling Shoigu, the defence minister. He has also heavily criticised Valery Gerasimov, the Russian commander leading Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine.

But on Monday, a Defence Ministry video showed Shoigu visiting Russian troops.

While the location and timing of the video are unclear, some Russian media outlets say his first public appearance since the weekend’s upheaval has ruled out his resignation.

Asked by reporters whether Putin trusts Shoigu, Peskov said he wasn’t aware of any changes in the president’s attitude.

On Sunday, Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera “All bets are off.”

“We simply don’t have any fixed data points that we can rely on to figure out what’s going to happen next,” he noted.

Western diplomats say the episode has lifted the lid on Putin’s weaknesses.

Before a meeting with European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters: “The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now.”

“The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking,” Borrell said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies