A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 24, 2023

Putin Orders Russian Military To Crush Wagner Uprising, But...

Putin has ordered the military to crush the rebellion launched by Wagner paramilitaries under their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

But the response of the military to this order has been uneven - with some attacking the Wagner troops but some simply moving out of the way - suggesting that Russian units are waiting to see who emerges as the most likely to win and revealing a lack of deep support for Putin. JL 

Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Wagner troops, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin took over the main military headquarters for southern Russia, in Rostov, and other installations there, encountering no resistance from regular armed forces. Putin said Saturday he ordered his military to act against the Wagner group that seized the southern Russian city of Rostov. As Wagner columns moved toward Moscow Saturday, they were attacked by Russian aircraft in the Voronezh region, some 300 miles south of the capital. Videos from the area showed the city of Voronezh’s main fuel depot ablaze, a Ka-52 helicopter destroying a vehicle, and another helicopter narrowly escaping a Wagner antiaircraft missile. A Russian plane was also shot down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday he ordered his military to act against the Wagner paramilitary group that seized the southern Russian city of Rostov, describing its actions as treason that put the country’s survival in peril.

As Wagner columns moved toward Moscow Saturday, they were attacked by Russian aircraft in the Voronezh region, some 300 miles south of the capital. Videos from the area showed the city of Voronezh’s main fuel depot ablaze, a Ka-52 helicopter destroying a vehicle, and another helicopter narrowly escaping a Wagner antiaircraft missile. A Russian plane was also shot down.

The crisis unfolding in Russia represents the most serious challenge to Putin’s 23-year rule—a direct consequence of the strains put on Russian society and armed forces by the war that he unleashed against Ukraine in February last year.


If the Wagner insurrection isn’t put down swiftly, the strife could significantly undermine Russia’s front-line troops in Ukraine just as Kyiv carries out a Western-backed offensive to reclaim occupied lands. The uprising exposes the fault lines that have already emerged in Russian society and challenges Putin’s strategy of waging a long war against Ukraine in the hopes that Western political will to support Kyiv would eventually collapse.

Wagner troops, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, earlier in the day took over the main military headquarters for southern Russia, in Rostov, and other installations there, encountering virtually no resistance from the regular armed forces. After that, Wagner sent columns of troops northward toward Moscow, as the Russian army rushed to cut off highways and defend the capital city. Moving past Voronezh, Wagner’s tanks and troop carriers were seen by Saturday lunchtime crossing the Lipetsk region, where authorities called on residents to remain indoors.







Black Sea

While Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian president remained in the Kremlin, flight-monitoring services showed that at least two special flight-squadron aircraft used by Russia’s top leadership left the capital for St. Petersburg on Saturday. Russian troops started preparing fortifications on approaches to Moscow.

Until Saturday, Prigozhin focused his diatribes on Russia’s military leadership, avoiding direct attacks on Putin. But, responding to the Russian president, he said that Wagner’s men are not traitors but real patriots of Russia. Putin, Prigozhin added, is “profoundly mistaken,” and Wagner won’t follow his orders as it pursues the fight against “those who had gathered around scoundrels.”

“Whatever happens now, what we’re seeing is historic and it will have serious consequences for Putin,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who is now a regime critic living outside Russia. “This feels like the initial phase of a revolution.”

In a televised speech Saturday morning, Putin—while not naming Prigozhin by name—described his moves as a “criminal adventure, a grave crime, an armed mutiny.” Wagner’s power grab, he added, is reminiscent of the 1917 revolution that destroyed the Russian Empire, “when the country was waging World War I but its victory was stolen,” leading to the loss of huge territories.

“We will not let this be repeated. We will defend our people and our state against all the threats, including internal treason. And what we are facing is precisely treason,” Putin said. “Any internal strife will be a mortal threat for our statehood, for us as a nation. Our actions to defend the motherland against this danger will be harsh.” The military and other security forces, he added, have already received appropriate orders, including to regain control over Rostov.

Putin’s onetime chef and confidant, Prigozhin moved his forces to Rostov after claiming that the Russian military killed “an enormous amount” of his troops in strikes on Wagner camps on Friday. The military denied these strikes had occurred, and there was no independent evidence to back up his claim. Russian authorities issued an arrest warrant for him on mutiny charges.

Prigozhin also said that the war on Ukraine was launched on false pretenses and accused Russia’s military of hiding the true scale of casualties among Russian forces on the front. Hundreds of thousands of Russian men have been mobilized and sent to fight in Ukraine since last fall. “Justice in the armed forces will be restored, and after that justice in all of Russia,” Prigozhin said.

A senior Eastern European intelligence official said the service was scrambling to get a clear picture of events but added that “time is not on Putin’s side.”

“The longer it goes on, it would be more difficult for him to retake control,” the official said. “When there’s internal fighting in Russia, they are less dangerous for the rest of the world.” 

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who also possesses a personal military force, on Saturday cast his lot with Putin, describing Prigozhin’s rebellion as a “stab in the back” and saying that his troops are deploying to help repel it.

Videos posted online by local reporters and bystanders showed Wagner tanks and fighting vehicles easily bypassing barricades of buses and streaming into Rostov early Saturday morning. Wagner fighters wearing white armbands surrounded the cream-colored headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District.

Prigozhin, in body armor, appeared in a video as he entered the Rostov military headquarters, berating Russia’s deputy minister of defense, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and the deputy head of the Russian military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev.

Wagner’s forces had already shot down three helicopters that fired on his troops, he said. “We will shoot down all of them if you keep sending them,” he told Yevkurov. “Because you kill civilians.” The city’s military airport and other installations were under his control, he said.

Prigozhin said that his troops would remain in charge of Rostov until the minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, come to meet him. “We are saving Russia,” he said.

Alekseyev, who on Friday night made an appeal for Wagner to stop so that Russia would avoid civil war, quipped that Prigozhin was welcome to take Shoigu and Gerasimov away.

“What saddens me the most is that they will celebrate with champagne for three days in Kyiv,” Alekseyev said. 

“Nothing terrible about that,” Prigozhin replied, saying that there were weeklong celebrations in Kyiv when Russian forces abandoned the Ukrainian cities of Lyman and Izyum last fall. Unlike the regular army, Wagner has never surrendered positions, he added: “We came here so that the shame in which our country finds itself ends.”

Large numbers of Russian troops gathered on the roads leading to Moscow on Saturday morning, but it wasn’t clear whether they would be willing to fight Wagner, with its ferocious reputation.  

The uprising, fueled by the military’s incompetence, makes clear Putin’s gamble on hopes that Moscow’s political solidarity, maintained by increasingly draconian laws at home, can outlast the West in its military support for Kyiv. 

“This story clearly shows that the hopes of a part of the Russian elite, including, apparently, the president himself, that a long war is allegedly beneficial for Russia and that Russia will be able to ‘wait out’ on Ukraine is a dangerous illusion,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “Prolongation of the war carries huge domestic political risks for the Russian Federation.”


Authorities in Moscow have introduced antiterrorism measures across the city, which allows them to cancel public events, establish road checks and track internet communications. Security measures in St. Petersburg were also tightened.

Residents inside Rostov said Wagner fighters arrived around 4 a.m. and started taking up positions around the city administration and military offices. Long lines of automobiles lined up at exits out of the city, which were blocked by Wagner. Police disappeared. “No one can get out right now,” said one resident. “If the situation doesn’t clear up soon, we’ll have to make tough decisions about what to do with our children and get them out.”

Rostov, 600 miles south from Moscow, is the main logistical hub for Russian forces operating in Ukraine. Even though Prigozhin said he is not interfering with the campaign against Ukrainian forces, Wagner’s takeover of the city is bound to have immediate consequences on the battlefield. The consequences for the war in Ukraine could equally be profound, said Gallyamov, the former Putin speechwriter, because Prigozhin has called Putin’s reasoning to invade into question, challenging the war’s legitimacy and potentially weakening the already low morale of many Russian soldiers.

 “And this isn’t coming from Russian opposition figures who are branded as U.S. spies, but from someone seen as a patriot,” Gallyamov said. 

Videos posted by Wagner on Saturday also showed what it said were 180 Russian troops and security personnel surrendering to the group at the Bugaevka border crossing between Ukraine’s occupied Luhansk region and the Voronezh region of Russia.

Wagner’s ranks include many former members of Russia’s military, particularly from the special forces and other select units, as well as fighters recruited in Russian prisons with a promise of amnesty. The group, which operates its own aircraft, has a cultlike discipline, executing deserters and traitors with a sledgehammer. According to Prigozhin, some 25,000 Wagner fighters were already under arms.

A former convict who grew close to Putin after serving as his caterer in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin turned Wagner into a highly skilled military force that assisted Moscow’s goals around the world, from eastern Ukraine in 2014 to Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic.

Prigozhin has used the war in Ukraine to become one of Russia’s most powerful and popular personalities, with Wagner opening recruitment centers all over the country. Wagner troops were the only Russian forces able to advance in Ukraine in nearly a year, taking the city of Bakhmut last month, and he has garnered a wide following for his firebrand, populist rhetoric against Russian elites.

On Saturday morning, Russian officials started taking down Wagner recruitment banners in the nation’s cities.

In a statement Saturday, Russia’s Ministry of Defense called on Wagner fighters to reject calls to participate in what it described as an armed rebellion, saying they have been “tricked into Prigozhin’s criminal adventure.”


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