24 June 2023

Tensions between the Russian military and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private military corporation, the Wagner Group, have been on a medium simmer for months. The divergence between Prigozhin and the Russian military has been widening for months. Prigozhin has chastised Defence Minister Shoigu and the Russian military leadership, criticizing the high command’s poor handling and general incompetence of the war over causalities and logistical constraints.  He has commonly stated that Russia’s generals are wasting the lives of Russian soldiers and Wagner troops. Progozhin’s frequent social media videos and rants are commonplace, but also his influence over Russian military bloggers has been significant. The assassination of a Russian military blogger at a St. Petersburg café previously owned by Prigozhin was seen by many as a warning to Prigozhin.

Russian forces have been accused of opening fire on Wagner mercenaries and leading Wagner forces to capture a Russian Lt.-Colonel and his troops. There have been numerous accusations from Prigozhin that the Russian military command diverted vital ammunition and supplies from his forces.

The Wagner Group is one of two of the most influential Russian units in the war. Recently, the Russian military command attempted to force Wagner mercenaries to integrate into the Russian military — an obvious sign that the Russian high command is trying to neutralize Prigozhin by dismantling his forces and influence. In a previous article, we discussed how Alexi Miller’s Potok PMC is deployed to Ukraine and tensions with the Wagner Group. Prigozhin’s position in Ukraine, and political position, are beginning to become untenable.

Yesterday, Prigozhin claimed that a Russian missile strike took out a significant number of his mercenaries. This seemed to be the last straw for Prigozhin. However, it also seems that this march onto Moscow was carefully planned. The first objective of the Wagner Group was to seize the city of Rostov-on-Don, where the Southern Military Command is located. The city is vital for the Russian army in Ukraine as it is a logistical hub. More importantly, capturing the Russian army’s logistical hub meant that the Wagner Group could extract ammunition, fuel and vehicles for its march on Moscow. One of the interesting observations from Wagner’s march into Russian territory was where extra fuel was stored on transportation trucks – being transported with tanks and other vehicles and not separated which meant for a more efficient convoy.

Fighting in the Voronezh region suggested that Prigozhin aimed to make a move against Moscow. Moscow police are cordoning off the city. Highways and bridges leading into the city’s south are closed. Russian army helicopters have fired on a Wagner column travelling on the Voronezh highway. There are reports that an oil depot is on fire, meaning there has been some combat. When writing this, the Wagner Group claims it shot down three helicopters and has been able to travel more than 800km in less than a day. They were able to move more than 800km, but Prigozhin was unable to move the hearts and minds of the Russian army to join his insurrection.

In a new audio message, Prigozhin states that he is halting his advance on Moscow to avoid further bloodshed. This comes after rumours that Belarussian President Lukashenko negotiated with Prigozhin to halt the advance. Prigozhin also states that his troops will return to field camps, which could mean back to Ukraine or elsewhere. There are indications that Wagner troops are leaving Rostov-on-Don. In the short term, this may mean the removal of Defence Minister Shoigu and Army Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and there are indications that this will occur in Russian state media. Prigozhin asked for the armed forces to rise up with Wagner and overthrow the military leadership. This did not occur, so his March of Justice was probably going to fizzle out.

Turbulent Road Ahead

Julius Caesar marched his legions across the Rubicon River and took power for himself. Obviously, this was not Prigozhin’s march across the Oka River, but it will have an effect. He has now proven himself to be a wild card for Putin, who referred to this act as mutinous and treasonous. It is hard to see what the long-term game for Putin is in Ukraine with Prigozhin still having a significant role. Both Prigozhin and Putin lost this political altercation.

Putin has had a huge moment of weakness and the removal of the Wagner Group, or at least Prigozhin, from the chessboard is necessary. Putin must maintain his image of being strong and in charge. Whatever settlement Prigozhin may have received from Putin cannot be significant enough for Prigozhin to trust that Putin will not attempt to erode Prigozhin’s political, and military, position further. This march demonstrated that the Russian state would not be able to stop an armed rebellion easily and in fact, may not be able to at all.

However, Prigozhin has made himself a celebrity of the war and removing the self-styled hard man will not be easy. Putin cannot simply remove Prigozhin and the Wagner Group from the Ukraine theatre. The Wagner Group has been one of the most effective Russian units in the war. In fact, aside from Wagner, only Kadyrov’s Chechen force has shown a higher level of effectiveness. Kadyrov did announce his support for Putin and stated that Chechen forces could be sent to Rostov-on-Don to remove the Wagner mutiny, so perhaps an increase of Chechen forces to Ukraine may be in the cards. The option of greatly increasing the effectiveness of the Russian army is out of the question with its lack of personnel and training. This mutiny will have implications for Russian army morale and may even spur increased animosity as it will seem that the Wagner Group won some concessions and were heard by the Kremlin. The situation on the front may be even shakier for the Russians.

The Russian military is extending an invitation for Wagner fighters to join the Russian army, which may indicate that the Wagner Group may dissolve with Prigozhin’s exile, but it is unclear. The mercenary group has been integral to the Russian efforts in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere in Africa. Progzhin’s exile to Belarus provides that concession that Putin requires to save face.  If Prigozhin is fully backing out of Russian politics, we may see that Gazprom will integrate Wagner into Potok in a “business merger”.

Ukraine was able to take advantage of the situation and launched several counteroffensive operations in multiple directions, including against Russian positions in Bakhmut and Yahidne.

The situation is an evolving one and one that we will be keeping our eye on.

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]