The Wagner Group turns against the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Ukraine at D+485: “We are dying for the Russian people.”
The UK's Ministry of Defence this morning summarized what's now known about the Wagner Group's decision to turn against the Russian Ministry of Defense, and arguably against the present regime in Moscow as a whole. "In the early hours of 24 June 2023, the feud between Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group and the Russian MoD escalated into outright military confrontation. In an operation characterised by Prigozhin as a ‘march for freedom’, Wagner Group forces crossed from occupied Ukraine into Russia in at least two locations. In Rostov-on-Don, Wagner has almost certainly occupied key security sites, including the HQ which runs Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Further Wagner units are moving north through Vorenezh Oblast, almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow. With very limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces, some have likely remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner. Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out. This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times."
Kyiv reacted to reports of a Wagnerite insurrection by saying that the incident displayed Russia's inherent weakness. Al Jaeera quotes President Zelenskyy as saying, “Russia’s weakness is obvious. And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later.” CNN quotes Andriy Yusov, a representative of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, “The internal Russian confrontation… is a sign of the collapse of the Putin regime."
How the incident began, and Russia's official reaction.
The proximate cause of Mr. Prigozhin's decision is said to have been a missile strike by the Russian army against a Wagner Group unit. It's unclear whether it was a deliberate attack, or a friendly fire incident, or even if it happened at all, but RT quotes Mr. Prigozhin as calling it an "atrocity" that he'd redress.
Russia's Ministry of Defense characterizes the public statements of the Wagner Group as disinformation. TASS reports that Mr. Prigozhin has been formally charged with "calling for armed mutiny." The FSB's public affairs unit explained, "Amid the seriousness of situation and the threat of escalation of confrontation in the Russian Federation the FSB has opened a criminal case into the fact of a call for an armed rebellion on the part of Yevgeny Prigozhin." The FSB also called on the Wagnerites in the line to think twice before following their now-suspect leader. "Prigozhin’s statements and actions effectively constitute calls for an armed civil conflict on Russian territory and a stab in the back of Russian servicemen fighting with pro-Nazi Ukrainian forces. We call on the PMC fighter not to commit irreparable mistakes, to stop any force actions against the Russian people, and not to comply with criminal and traitorous orders of Prigozhin, and to take measures on his apprehension. All information being disseminated on social media in Yevgeny Prigozhin’s name about the alleged Defense Ministry’s missile strikes on Wagner PMC units are false and are an informational provocation."
President Putin addresses the Russian nation.
Reuters, which also reports that Wagnerite forces are "barreling toward Moscow," quotes President Putin's address to the nation this morning. Mr. Putin said, in part, "We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history." He promised defeat and retribution for the insurrectos. "All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people."
The state-controlled Russian news service RT has a summary of Mr. Putin's address. "The president characterized 'any internal mutiny' as a death threat to the Russian state and nation. The president pledged to take 'tough measures' against the mutineers, who have 'willingly entered the path of betrayal' and prepared 'armed insurrection.'” Another report by RT quotes an appeal to the Wagnerites from General Sergey Surovikin, deputy commander of Russian joint forces. “I appeal to the fighters and commanders of the PMC Wagner,” Surovikin said. RT specifies carefully that the general was "still wearing his fatigues" when he made his video appeal. “We have walked a difficult road together. We fought together, took risks together, suffered losses together, and won together. We are of the same blood. We are warriors. I urge you to stop. The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to worsen. We should not play into the enemy’s hands in these difficult times for our country.”
TASS reports President Putin's call for national unity, highlighting his direct appeal to the Wagner Group's mercenaries: "The heroes who liberated Soledar and Artyomovsk, towns and settlements in Donbass, who fought and lost their lives for Novorossiya, for the unity of the Russian world - their name and glory have also been betrayed by those who are trying to stage a mutiny and pushing the country towards anarchy and fratricide, defeat and finally surrender,"
Also going on the record is Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev, a former President during a brief, planned interregnum in Mr. Putin's personal rule and a senior government official who functions as Mr. Putin's secundo. TASS quotes Mr. Medvedev on the need for national unity. "Rallying around our president and the supreme commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces is crucial for defeating the external and internal enemy, which seeks to tear our Homeland apart, and for saving our state. National split and betrayal would lead to the greatest tragedy ever and a universal catastrophe... We will not let it happen. The enemy will be crushed. Victory will be ours." Inter alia, TASS also denies reports that Mr. Medvedev has been evacuated from Moscow. He's at his desk and busy at work.
"March for justice."
Mr. Prigozhin's Wagner Group appears to have explained its new mission and objectives. From @wartranslated:
"Why is the country supporting us? Because we went with a March for Justice. We were hit, first with artillery, then with helicopters. We went without a single round fired, we didn’t touch a single conscript. We didn’t kill a single person on our way.
"We were attacked by aviation, helis, planes, but we reached Rostov. Without a single round, we captured the building of the HQs. We didn’t interfere with the work of a single person.
"On the streets, people are unfurling flags of PMC Wagner. In shops, when guys go there, people ask to pay for them as they want to do something good.
"Words of compliments are voiced. And another thing. In media, information about certain 'mine barriers' are spread. When we came here, we removed these mine barriers from the adjacent building of the HQs, in the morning. It was poorly placed. It was just an unprofessional, not useful idea. So we removed this mine barrier."
So far, in Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty's assessment, Mr. Prigozhin has been careful to direct his rage toward the ministries, and not the president himself, thus following the familiar "good tsar, bad boyars" template of inchoate Russian political discontent. Bad boyar #1 would be Defense Minister Shoigu. Reuters quotes Mr. Prigozhin's own response to President Putin's denunciatory speech: "The president makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it. We don't want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy."
A war against REMFs.
There are signs of growing resentment among other frontline fighters against the rear echelon. Ukraine Reporter (@StateofUkraine) says that at least one other private military corporation, Storm-Z (established as the instigation of the Ministry of Defense as a competitor of, and therefore a potential check on, the Wagner Group) is showing signs of sympathy for Wagner. Storm-Z fighters, many of them convicts released to join the PMC, say they're willing to join Mr. Prigozhin's fight against "the rats in the rear."
The EU activates its crisis center to cope with the situation in Russia.
Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports that the European Union has activated its crisis center. Josep Borrell, the EU's senior diplomat, tweeted this morning, "Had a call with @G7 Foreign Ministers to exchange views on the situation in Russia. Ahead of Monday’s EU Foreign Affairs Council, I am coordinating inside the European Union and have activated the crisis response centre. Our support to Ukraine continues unabated."
The US monitors the situation.
CNN describes the ways in which the US has been keeping close watch on the tensions between the Wagner Group and the Ministry of Defense. The Telegraph reports, in contrast, that both the EU and the US were caught on the hop by Mr. Prigozhin's actions. If so, that's not surprising. Strategic awareness doesn't preclude operational surprise.