THE RISK FOR PUTIN IS WHETHER HE WILL BE SEEN AS WEAK, ANALYSTS SAID
Courtesy of Barrie 360 and Canadian PressPublished: Jun 25th, 2023
The greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out after the rebellious mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow abruptly reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sounded the retreat.
The brief revolt, though, exposed vulnerabilities among Russian government forces, with Wagner Group soldiers under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin able to move unimpeded into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advance hundreds of kilometres (miles) toward Moscow. The Russian military scrambled to defend Russia’s capital.
Under the deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighbouring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped.
The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
By Sunday morning there were still no reports of Prigozhin arriving in Belarus. Many other questions remained unanswered, including whether Prigozhin would be joined in exile by any of Wagner’s troops and what role, if any, he might have there.
Prigozhin, who sent out a series of audio and video updates during his revolt, has gone silent since the Kremlin announced that the deal had been brokered for him to end his march and leave Russia.
Video taken by The Associated Press in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin, who was riding in an SUV. The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city.
Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”
The risk for Putin is whether he will be seen as weak, analysts said.
“Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said on CNN.
Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometres) south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
Moscow braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armoured vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported. Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
Wagner troops advanced to just 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Moscow, according to Prigozhin. But after the deal was struck, Prigozhin announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”
A U.S.-based think tank argued that Prigozhin’s rebellion “exposed severe weaknesses” in the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense.
The Institute for the Study of War said that the Kremlin struggled to put up a coherent response to the rebellion, and that one reason was likely the impact of heavy Russian losses in Ukraine.
“Wagner likely could have reached the outskirts of Moscow if Prigozhin chose to order them to do so,” the institute said.
On Sunday morning some restrictions were still in place along the main highway between Moscow and Rostov-on-Don though traffic restrictions were gradually being lifted in other places.
Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin has long criticized in withering terms for his conduct of the 16-month-long war in Ukraine.
If Putin were to agree to Shoigu’s ouster, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military.
In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of targeting the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He alleged that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in which they decided to destroy the military contractor.
The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner buildup earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The U.S. intelligence briefing was first reported by CNN.
A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do it.
“It may well be that he struck now because he saw that deadline as a danger to his control of his troops,” Herbst wrote in an article for the Atlantic Council.
The Institute for the Study of War said the agreement that ended the crisis “will very likely eliminate Wagner Group as a Prigozhin-led independent actor in its current form, although elements of the organization may endure under existing and new capacities.”
Russian media reported that several helicopters and a military communications plane were downed by Wagner troops. Russia’s Defense Ministry has not commented.
Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometres (225 miles) south of Moscow.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared Monday a non-working day for most residents as part of the heightened security, a measure that remained in effect even after the retreat.
Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Saturday, shortly before Prigozhin announced his retreat, that the march exposed weakness in the Kremlin and “showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs” that it is easy to capture Russian cities “and, probably, arsenals.”
The Kremlin’s offer of amnesty to Prigozhin was negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which might have raised his stature in his relationship with Putin.
The Institute for the Study of War wrote that the Belarusian leader’s role was “humiliating to Putin and may have secured Lukashenko other benefits.”
Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions.
The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has longstanding ties to Putin and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
He and a dozen other Russian nationals were charged in the United States with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. Wagner has sent military contractors to Libya, Syria and several African countries, as well as Ukraine.
Wagner’s Mercenary Leader Issues A Defiant Statement As Moscow Tries To Project Stability
‘WE STARTED OUR MARCH BECAUSE OF AN INJUSTICE’
Courtesy of Barrie 360 and Canadian PressPublished: Jun 26th, 2023
The Associated Press
The leader of the Wagner mercenary group defended his short-lived insurrection in a boastful audio statement Monday as the Kremlin tried to project stability, with authorities releasing a video of Russia’s defence minister reviewing troops in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said he wasn’t seeking to stage a coup but was acting to prevent the destruction of Wagner, his private military company. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said in an 11-minute statement, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.
The feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass has festered throughout the war, erupting into a mutiny over the weekend when mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city. They rolled seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.
The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Prigozhin taunted Russia’s military on Monday, calling his march a “master class” on how it should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the military for failing to protect Russia, pointing out security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometres (500 miles) toward Moscow without facing resistance.
The bullish statement made no clearer what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin said only that Lukashenko “proposed finding solutions for the Wagner private military company to continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction.” That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn’t immediately clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.
The independent Russian news outlet Vyorstka claimed that construction of a field camp for up to 8,000 Wagner troops was underway in an area of Belarus about 200 kilometres (320 miles) north of the border with Ukraine.
The report couldn’t be independently verified. The Belarusian military monitoring group Belaruski Hajun said Monday on Telegram that it had seen no activity in that district consistent with construction of a facility, and had no indications of Wagner convoys in or moving towards Belarus.
Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for attacking the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.
Russian media reported that a criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements, and some Russian lawmakers called for his head.
Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has had rows with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin deserve “a bullet in the head.”
And Nikita Yurefev, a city council member in St. Petersburg, said he filed an official request with Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed in a Saturday morning address to punish those behind it.
It was unclear what resources Prigozhin can draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office amid the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He said the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.
Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened on Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.
In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armoured vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.
The Defense Ministry published video of defence chief Sergei Shoigu in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. It was unclear when the video was shot. It came as Russian media speculated that Shoigu and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.
Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, accusing them of failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Prigozhin’s statement appeared to confirm analysts’ view that the revolt was a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.
Prigozhin said most of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command, and the force planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30 after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. He accused the Defense Ministry of attacking Wagner’s camp, prompting them to move sooner.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with the military leadership.
While Prigozhin could get out of the crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.
It was unclear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed the events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.
Biden said Monday that the U.S. and NATO were not involved in the short-lived insurrection. Speaking at the White House, Biden explained that he was cautious about speaking publicly because he wanted to give “Putin no excuse to blame this on the West and blame this on NATO.”
“We made clear that we were not involved, we had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Biden said the U.S. was coordinating with allies to monitor the situation and maintain support for Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg concurred Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”
And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy had contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the U.S. was not involved in the mutiny.
The events show the war is “cracking Russia’s political system,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”
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