Wagner’s military revolt: Russia lifts restrictions, while Prigozhin’s whereabouts remain unknown

Life in Moscow and the southwest border with Ukraine has returned to normal after the mercenaries stopped their march towards the Russian capital, but the security crisis has called into question Putin’s strongman image

The head of the Wagner Group mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov, to cheers from citizens, on Saturday night.
The head of the Wagner Group mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov, to cheers from citizens, on Saturday night.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)

On Sunday morning, when the sun was already timidly warm in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the streets were almost empty of tanks and uniformed men. Wagner’s masked mercenaries, who seized control of the city’s official buildings on Saturday, left overnight, some to applause from the public. The mercenary group’s leader, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the rebellion against the military leadership that put the Russian security apparatus in check, also left Rostov-on-Don to cheers, as though he were a celebrity. Meanwhile, the military column that Prigozhin sent to advance towards the capital, Moscow, turned back to avoid what he called “Russian bloodshed.”

The revolt was the biggest challenge to the Kremlin in decades. Prigozhin has left Rostov-on-Don, supposedly to travel to Belarus, according to an agreement to put an end to the attempted military coup, which was made with the Kremlin and mediated by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. But while he may have left the city, it is clear that he has left a very different Russia in his wake. The rebellion of the foul-mouthed Prigozhin, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, who had always remained loyal to Putin and Putin alone, has seriously called into question the Russian president’s strongman image. What’s more, it has revealed the cracks in a state devoured by infighting, exhausted by the war in Ukraine, angry with the elites, beset by inflation, with the economy nearly paralyzed by Western sanctions and the exodus of foreign capital. The immediate consequences, a Western intelligence source warns, is a renewed campaign of massive attacks on Ukraine in a bid to show force.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov confirmed the deal with Prigozhin. “There was a higher goal — to avoid bloodshed, to avoid an internal confrontation, to avoid clashes with unpredictable consequences,” Peskov said Saturday evening. “President Putin made the appropriate decision.”


The Kremlin has promised to drop the criminal charges against Prigozhin for rebellion — punishable by between 12 and 20 years in prison — and has offered him unspecified “security guarantees” through the Belarusian president. “The guarantee that Prigozhin will be able to leave for Belarus is the word of the Russian president,” Peskov said. Meanwhile, Prigozhin, whose rebellion was hindered by the lack of support from Russia’s elites, said Saturday night that his “march for justice” against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had achieved its objective. Shoigu and Prigozhin have maintained a fierce rivalry for years. Recently, Shoigu issued an order that would require all military contractors, including Wagner mercenaries, to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Military before July 1. Nothing has surfaced about a possible change in the leadership or the operation of Defense. Any reorganization, Peskov stressed, is “the sole prerogative and within the competence of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Putin] in accordance with the constitution.”

The Kremlin promised that the Wagner mercenaries who participated in the uprising would also face no consequences due to their “merits at the front.” Those who did not join the riot will be able to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, according to Peskov. For now, the Wagner revolt and Prigozhin agreement means that the Wagner Group will be dismantled and integrated into the Russian army, just as Shoigu has wanted to do for a long time.

But several analysts point out that what happens to the mercenary group — which has a presence as the unofficial armed wing of the Kremlin in Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali — may have global repercussions. Western intelligence sources point out that it is not clear if the mandate for military contractors to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry also includes mercenaries abroad. And this could be a point of the agreement with Prigozhin, who, according to U.S. intelligence sources, quoted by various media, had been preparing to take some kind of military action since Wednesday, and brought the move forward on Friday afternoon.

Streets return to normal

Russian cities and regions have begun Sunday to lift the restrictions imposed on Saturday following the Wagner revolt. And while Moscow remains under the “anti-terrorist operation” regime and will keep Monday as a non-working day, state television channels are broadcasting their usual programs. But behind that appearance of relative normality, there is a feeling that the impunity with which Prigozhin’s defiance has been met may impact the Putin regime. What’s more, it may affect how the Russian president is seen abroad, not only in the West but from allies such as China and India.

The agreement with Prigozhin “is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution,” stated the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, which highlights that the Kremlin now faces a “deeply unstable equilibrium.” “Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense,” the ISW added in its daily report.

Prigozhin’s rebellion and Lukashenko’s mediation to stop the military advance — which may have been a blow for Putin and ensured certain benefits for the Belarusian president — has called into question Putin’s image as the “guarantor of the stability of Russia.” But it does not leave Prigozhin in a good position either. Although he has won the support of an important part of the population with his criticism of the corruption in the army and bureaucracy, it will now be difficult for him to lead the Wagner Group, which has been instrumental in the offensive against Ukraine.

Russia, through various sources, has been quick to emphasize that Wagner’s armed rebellion has not affected the Kremlin’s forces in Ukraine. The rebellion, however, has highlighted Russia’s lack of reserves in the rearguard and the fact that Russia depends on inexperienced recruits to defend the country’s borders — a point that was made clear when the soldiers quickly surrendered to Wagner Group’s forces, which were able to advance without opposition.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Saturday that he believes that the crisis would lead to the end of the current power structure in Russia. He argued that even though the armed revolt fizzled out, it will have serious consequences, including the “destruction” of Prigozhin. “That order will be executed for sure,” Podolyak said on social media.

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