If you’ve been following the news at all you know about the 36 hour uprising in Russia that could be the beginning of the end of the Putin regime and the Ukraine war, or it could amount to no such thing. Nobody knows. Literally.
Let’s set the stage first by introducing the main characters in this play:
Vladimir Putin, who is the President of Russia, and who needs no further introduction.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader and founder of the Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization, and a former close ally of Putin.
The Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization, some 50,000 troops strong, which has been the most effective Russian fighting force in the Ukraine war. The Wagner group has previously fought on Russia’s behalf in places like Syria, Lybia, and the Central African Republic. The Wagner group is well known for recruiting inmates from Russia’s prisons into their fighting force.
Alexsandr Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, and another close ally of Putin’s. Under Lukashenko’s leadership Belarus has essentially become a vassal state of Russia’s.
Prigozhin’s military has been assisting Russia in Syria and other locations from 2014 onwards. Once the war in Ukraine started and the Russians got bogged down in Ukraine, the Wagner group was called in and quickly became the most effective fighting force on the Russian side. Right from the beginning, however, Prigozhin was critical of Russian tactics and the performance of the regular military. Much of that criticism was communicated via social media, where Prigozhin amassed a considerable following.
In 36 hours, beginning on Friday morning, Prigozhin led an uprising which seemed to fizzle just as quickly as it began. In brief:
- 11 a.m. Friday, Prigozhin publicly questioned the rationale for the war and accused the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, of ordering deadly airstrikes on Wagner fighters the previous days.
- Just after midnight Friday, Russia ordered Prigozhin’s arrest.
- 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Wagner forces take Rostov-on-Don and the regional military headquarters located there.
- Saturday morning Wagner forces push north to Moscow, facing essentially no opposition.
- 10 a.m. Saturday, Putin addresses the nation, calling Prigozhin a traitor and ordering his arrest.
- Early Saturday afternoon, the Wagner convoy reaches Yelets, where they stop about 250 miles south of Moscow.
- 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Lukashenko announces a surprise deal under which Prigozhin can find sanctuary in Belarus.
- 11 p.m. Saturday, Prigozhin turns around his troops and leaves Rostov-on-Don.
- Putin announces that Prigozhin will not be arrested, and that his Wagner troops will be granted amnesty.
That’s the question everyone is asking. First of all it’s not really clear why Prigozhin turned around and stopped his march towards Moscow. In one day, his army took a major city and military center, and marched about 434 miles north, which is more than the distance from Boston to Baltimore.
In one day!
In Moscow, they were starting to put up street barricades as they were anticipating that nobody would stop Prigozhin and his Wagner forces before they reached the city.
Then Lukashenko gets on the phone with Prigozhin and promises him what?
Nobody seems to know.
For his part, Prigozhin rationalizes stopping by saying that he didn’t want to have “Russian blood” on his hands. He hadn’t thought of that before he started marching north for an entire day?
And what happens to the estimated 25,000 or so Wagner forces that are still in Russia. Do they turn around and start fighting in Ukraine again?
Seems more likely that they would just go to Belarus with their top guy.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, seems to know what happens next.
In any case, it is certainly good news for Ukraine that Russia is in such disarray. Without the Wagner forces spearheading the opposition to the Ukrainian troops, it’s unclear how much success the regular Russian military will have in holding the parts of Ukraine that they did manage to take.
And what would their motivation be? It’s known that thousands and thousands of young Russian men tried to evade conscription, or fled to neighboring countries, or let the Ukrainians capture them as prisoners of war. Why would they want to sacrifice their lives for Putin’s war of vanity, a war that has gone worse than Putin could ever have imagined?