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The Wagner Coup: Another Serving of Chaos at Putin’s Table

Saturday, 24th June 2023 saw the foundations of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s power totter on the edge of collapse. The embattled ruler of the Russian state has not had a weekend to relish as, in addition to the war of attrition going on in Ukraine, he had to watch 25,000 armed mercenaries march on his fortress of power, Moscow. The Russian army, which he has kept an iron grip on, proved to be a paper tiger in the face of this mutiny. In another highlight of the toxic relationship between the state’s military and mercenary groups, Yevgeny Prigozhin kicked off the mutiny after months of a war of words with the Russian military. In the months following the overdrawn Russo-Ukrainian war, Prigozhin has blamed the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu,

Saturday, 24th June 2023 saw the foundations of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s power totter on the edge of collapse. The embattled ruler of the Russian state has not had a weekend to relish as, in addition to the war of attrition going on in Ukraine, he had to watch 25,000 armed mercenaries march on his fortress of power, Moscow. The Russian army, which he has kept an iron grip on, proved to be a paper tiger in the face of this mutiny.

In another highlight of the toxic relationship between the state’s military and mercenary groups, Yevgeny Prigozhin kicked off the mutiny after months of a war of words with the Russian military. In the months following the overdrawn Russo-Ukrainian war, Prigozhin has blamed the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and armed forces chief, Valery Gerasimov, for failing to supply his troops with sufficient gear and ammunition.

Another point in the dispute was when President Putin supported the policy that gave a deadline to bring all mercenary groups fighting in Ukraine to sign defense ministry contracts. Prigozhin, for fear of losing control over his men, refused.

On Friday, 23rd June, he told Russians the whole justification for their war was a lie and merely an excuse for “a small group of scumbags” to promote themselves and deceive the public and president.

Things soon took a chaotic turn when Prigozhin accused the military of staging a deadly attack on his men in Ukraine. The military denied launching a strike and the video he produced as evidence revealed nothing that backed up his claims.

Later that day, the warlord announced that his “march for justice” was under way. He said:

“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to find out why there is such chaos in the country…Everyone who wants, join us.”

Observers who thought Prigozhin was only making empty threats were in for a cruel awakening. On Saturday morning, he moved his forces across the border into Rostov-on-Don overnight, claiming control of the military HQ from where the war is being run, and videos showed his men in the center of the city apparently encountering no resistance.

He announced: “We are inside [military] headquarters.” He also claimed that the city had been taken “without a shot being fired”.

Prigozhin had made his move, checking the seat of power. It was Putin’s turn to save his spot at the chess table.

In response, Russia’s FSB security service then opened a criminal case. The entire Moscow region was put on an alert under a strict “counter-terrorist operation regime”, as well as Voronezh halfway up the M4 highway from Rostov.

On Saturday morning, in his usual stern and determined disposition, Vladimir Putin gave a five-minute address on the state-run TV and appealed for unity. In his words, “What we are facing is precisely treason,”. It is interesting to note that he refrained from mentioning his former ally. However, the President of the Russian state said those behind the military mutiny had betrayed Russia and would answer for it.

Prigozhin soon responded to this feeble counterattack. He denied that his ‘march for justice’ was a betrayal of the nation, describing Putin’s accusations as deeply mistaken. Putin’s televised speech was like water off a duck’s back as it did little to halt the insurrection.

Columns of armored Wagner vehicles were soon seen heading up the motorway through the Voronezh region and further north into Lipetsk too. There were no major attempts by Russian ground forces to stop them along the M4 highway, though the column was occasionally attacked by Russian combat aircraft. If nothing else, this revealed the disorganized state of the Russian military.

Video footage showed the main Voronezh fuel depot ablaze after an airstrike, the wreckage of several helicopters, and one warplane being shot out of the sky. Fighterbomber, a Russian military aviation Telegram channel that is well connected with the Russian Air Force, said that Wagner on Saturday downed six Russian helicopters, including a Ka-52 gunship, and an IL-18 or IL-22 airborne command center plane. A total of 12 Air Force crew died, according to Fighterbomber.

The action soon began to wind down on Saturday evening as the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, in response to Putin’s request for foreign intervention, declared that he had brokered a truce with Prigozhin.

To avoid criminal charges, Prigozhin will leave for Belarus, while his Wagner fighters will not be prosecuted for their roles in the chaos. Mercenary fighters who did not participate will still have to sign contracts with the defense ministry.

The Wagner Chief was later seen leaving Rostov in a car, with crowds taking pictures of him and chanting “Wagner”. In their imaginations, defying the autocratic leadership of Putin and escaping alive was a feat meant for superheroes. Prigozhin was such a superhero.

Thus the 24 hours of chaos finally ended, leaving the long-drawn Ukrainian war as the wedged fishbone in Putin’s throat. The war, which began in February 2022 as a ‘special operation’, has left both sides of the conflict with severe losses. Ukraine has continued to hold out against the superpower that is the Russian military, inflicting no small number of casualties on the latter. It is unknown just when the Big Dog will head home to lick its wounds. One can only hope that day is not far off.


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