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A Ukrainian military officer walks along a muddy road toward trench lines in northern Ukraine in March.

Confusion and Uncertainty Follow Fiasco in Russia

An armed mutiny fizzled out within 24 hours, leaving in its wake a cloud of questions about what comes next for Russia, its war against Ukraine, and Putin.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson
Date:

Ruslana* was enjoying time with friends during her trip to Moscow when she received a worrying call from a friend in the early morning hours this Saturday, June 24. Yevgeny Prigozhin — the leader of Wagner, a notorious Russian mercenary group that has come to be something of a second army in Russia — had declared war against Russia’s official military leadership, the friend said.

“We didn’t know what was going on at all,” Ruslana said Monday morning as she went to buy groceries for breakfast in a Western European capital city. Ruslana asked to be identified by a pseudonym and to keep her location vague to protect her identity.

Speaking by phone, she recalled her flight from Moscow as what appeared to be an armed mutiny unfolded in Russia this weekend. The high-stakes showdown between Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of Russia’s armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov — presented the most serious challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent history as the mercenary leader seized control of a key military headquarters and advanced toward Moscow. It grabbed the world’s attention, and then ended almost as abruptly as it began, all within 24 hours.

Days later, many questions remain unanswered. But in the initial hours, virtually nothing was clear, especially to Ruslana. After the phone call, she got into a taxi to return to her apartment. She texted her spouse and her best friend, asking what she should do. Her spouse was still back in their recently adopted new home — like many other Russians, the couple left Russia after the start of the war and now live in Western Europe. Ruslana had traveled to Moscow for a brief personal trip; staying in the home her spouse still owns in the city, her worst fear before returning was that homesickness would make her want to stay. She could have never imagined the drama now unfolding around her.

Fleeing by Flight

Ruslana already had a flight home booked for Sunday, but her friend replied urging her to change her ticket to the soonest one possible. Heeding the advice, she booked a flight scheduled to depart several hours later. As the taxi took her home, the driver looked scared, Ruslana recalled. He described to her what he had seen: tanks and military or security forces positioning around Moscow. It made Ruslana worried. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Hours earlier, Prigozhin had released a video decrying the leadership of Russia’s military, which he accused of attacking his own forces on Friday, June 23, 2023. Russia’s defense ministry denied the claims, accusing Prigozhin of pedaling misinformation. But it didn’t matter. For months, Prigozhin — one of the most powerful men in Russia, at least prior to this weekend — had been feuding with Russia’s top military leaders, accusing them of failing to provide his forces with sufficient munitions and blaming them for heavy military losses in Moscow’s war against Ukraine. His message Friday evening was even more forceful and direct, laying the justification for what appears to have been a pre-planned move. “Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished,” Prigozhin declared. With forces allegedly totallying 25,000 troops, he launched his revolt.

After arriving back at the apartment in Moscow, Ruslana met a friend. She told Ruslana not to worry, that the whole situation was nothing serious. Ruslana refused to listen. “I don’t fucking care,” Ruslana told her. “I’m just trying to fly away because I don’t know what’s going on.”

There still had not been any public comment from the government, but Ruslana noted seeing a lot of cars heading toward the Kremlin. She would end up missing her flight and booking a new ticket for another flight a few hours later. As she made her way to the airport, Prigozhin’s revolt continued to unfold.

Videos emerged early Saturday showing Wagner forces in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a key logistics hub for Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine. Without a fight, Prigozhin’s troops took control of the city’s Southern Military District HQ. With the city of more than one million people apparently comfortably under his control, Wagner forces advanced toward Moscow.

As the country veered into what some thought would be a civil war, Putin gave a national address promising to forcefully squash the uprising. He warned against any threat to national unity as Russia, he claimed, squared off against the collective West in Ukraine. But for all his forceful language, Putin refrained from directly naming Prigozhin — or anyone for that matter.

At the airport, Ruslana was informed that her flight was overbooked. Once more, she booked another ticket for the afternoon. She managed to get her tickets for cheap, but as the day went on, prices jumped dramatically while others completely sold out. As she waited for her flight, she noticed a stronger military presence around Moscow. Prigozhin’s forces were nearing the capital and shooting down Russian military aircraft in the process. The mutiny was becoming more worrying, its outcome more uncertain. 

By the evening, Wagner forces had reportedly reached within some 120 miles of Moscow. Tensions were high, but then came a surprise: Prigozhin announced he was calling off the entire ordeal, apparently in a bid to avoid bloodshed. In a surprise agreement reportedly brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin-ally, Prigozhin would leave for Belarus. Wagner forces, meanwhile, were granted amnesty and allowed to peacefully return to their positions. 

As the world tried to wrap its head around what had happened, Ruslana’s plane landed in Western Europe. 

Just a Protest, Not Mutiny

Shortly after 6 pm on Monday, June 26, 2023, Prigozhin released his first statement since backing down from his armed revolt. In an 11-minute voice note posted on Telegram, he described his actions as a “protest” against “injustice” from the Russian defense ministry and denied allegations that he sought to topple Putin. He accused the Russian defense ministry of trying to disband Wagner by announcing early this month that it would soon force volunteer units to sign contracts with the ministry. Then came the alleged missile attack on Wagner’s rear camps on Friday, which he claimed resulted in around 30 deaths.

His comments provide a sliver of clarity to pressing questions that arose in the wake of Saturday’s events. Still, other questions persist as the dust continues to settle, such as what exactly will happen to Wagner, which has been active in other regions like the Middle East and Africa as well. On Monday, media reports stated that military camps were being constructed in Belarus for Wagner forces. 

For all its drama, the events over the weekend didn’t come as much of a surprise to experts who had been closely watching the growing tensions between Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership.

“For me, it wasn’t unexpected,” Oleksandr Musiienko, head of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Military and Legal Studies, said in an interview on Sunday. “But it was unexpected that Prigozhin would give up so fast. I was really surprised by this. He was with his mercenaries near Moscow, and he had a chance (to lead a coup). But he did nothing. That was unexpected.”

Some experts interpreted Prigozhin’s actions as a drastic move to preserve his mercenary group, which has grown from a shadowy force advancing Russian interests in faraway places into a borderline second military.

“Let’s be honest, Prigozhin didn’t rebel to replace Putin,” Lesia Bidochko, a Ukrainian political scientist and associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, wrote in a message. “He was in despair after being actually expelled from Ukraine and unable to preserve his organization. He wanted to grab attention, and negotiate some future favorable conditions.”

“This may have been an act of desperation, that he was trying to get Putin’s attention and maybe spark the firing of his rivals (Shoigu and Gerasimov),” said Michael David-Fox, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

“The mystique that [Putin] had with everyone has been punctured. It’s hard to get that back.”

Michael David-Fox

If one thing is clear, it’s that Prigozhin’s actions showed a clear weakness in Putin’s government and his grip on power. “Putin’s system is a powerful system, but this system isn’t such a monolith and isn’t as strong as we believed even before,” said Igor Lyman, Coordinator of International Relations at Berdyansk State Pedagogical University.

“What we’re learning now is his position has been even more weakened because the mystique that he had with everyone has been punctured,” said David-Fox. “It’s hard to get that back.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told media on Sunday that Prigozhin “create[d] more cracks in the Russian facade, and those cracks were already profound. Economically, militarily, its standing in the world — all of those things have been dramatically diminished by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.” 

“A significant blow has been delivered to Putin and Russian authorities,” said Bidochko. “It will have a profound impact on the regime, causing further fractures in the Russian political and state body.”

Still, Blinken noted that the situation appeared to be far from over. “It’s too soon to say with any certainty what the final chapter in this particular book is going to be,” he said.

Impact on Russian Troops

Prigozhin’s actions come at a critical point for Russia as it attempts to defend captured territory amid a highly anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, which Western officials have noted is going well. Ukraine’s military appeared to exploit the chaos over the weekend, gaining ground in its embattled east. 

Working at a Ukrainian military headquarters on Saturday, June 25, 2023, Andrii joked with his comrades that if the situation blew “into an actual civil war, we will be out of work.” Texting via the messaging app Signal because he wasn’t permitted to speak over the phone while at HQ, the Ukrainian soldier said that he had had an easy day. “I had plenty of time to watch the situation unfold on Twitter and share memes with friends,” he wrote. “It was a fun day, as some of us were hoping that mutiny might help end the war earlier.” He felt disappointed following Prigozhin’s backdown, calling it an “incredibly lame and weak ending of a very confusing mutiny.” But he still believed that the ordeal made Putin look weak and would ultimately benefit Ukraine.

Some experts speculated that the incident may also undermine morale in the Russian military and the trust of rank-and-file troops in their commanders. “One has to wonder about the morale of the troops in Ukraine because one thing that happened was that Prigozhin openly attacked the whole rationale for war,” said David-Fox. In his statement on Friday, Prigozhin accused Shoigu of attempting to bolster his image by talking Putin into launching a war against Ukraine by lying about the threat that Kyiv and NATO posed to Russia.

Musiienko said that the current mood in the Russian military provides the Ukrainian military an opportunity to hit hard. “When morale is low, you need to move forward, you need to strike, you need to use missiles, you need to use artillery,” he said. “Pressure, pressure, and pressure.”

Musiienko also noted that Wagner’s downing of Russian military aircraft may stir animosity between the two forces. In his statement on Monday, June 26, 2023, Prigozhin said he regretted that his troops shot down Russian aircraft — resulting in the death of Russian troops — but that they were forced to retaliate after being fired upon. The damage in relations, though, may already be done. On Sunday, June 25, 2023, a video emerged purportedly showing Russian troops slitting the throat of a handcuffed Russian soldier who they accused of supporting Prigozhin.

Another question lingering in many minds is what the exact terms are of the deal brokered by Lukashenko, as well as what will become of Prigozhin, whose whereabouts remained unclear as of Monday evening. “He couldn’t occupy Moscow with (just 25,000 troops),” said Lyman. “So he could die in battle, or he could do what he did. Now he waits to be killed by the FSB in Belarus or elsewhere. Sooner or later, he will be killed.”

Not Safe in Russia

Late Monday evening, hours after Prigozhin released his statement, Putin delivered his own address. It was short and seemed aimed at downplaying the events over the weekend by saying that the “armed mutiny would have been suppressed in any case.” Describing most Wagner fighters as patriots who were manipulated into attempting a rebellion, Putin said they had the option of signing contracts with the Ministry of Defense or other security agencies, going home, or heading to Belarus. As he rebuked the organizers of the mutiny, he continued to refrain from directly naming Prigozhin or anyone else. Putin also thanked Lukashenko for helping broker “the peaceful resolution of this situation.” 

“But I repeat, it is the patriotic spirit of people, the consolidation of the entire Russian society, that played the deciding role in these days,” Putin said. “This support allowed us to overcome this hard challenge.” 

Immediately after, Putin reportedly held a meeting with security officials, including Shoigu, suggesting that the defense minister is here to stay, at least for now.

“I don’t plan for long term. I’m just trying to live right now. That’s the only way you can deal with war.”

Ruslana

With still so much uncertainty about what happened and what is still to come, the events provided at least one token of clarity to Ruslana. “It was a good sign to me not to come back,” she said. “Moscow is a very good city. Not government-wise, but the city itself and the people who live there…. It’s home for me. I love the city so much.” But as much as she may miss home, the weekend’s events made clear to her that Russia is not a place she can live.

“No one knows” what’s going to happen next, she said. For now, she’s planning to stay in her home in Western Europe. “I don’t plan for long term. I’m just trying to live right now. That’s the only way you can deal with war.”

She believes it’s the same for many other Russians living in Russia as well. “People in Russia, they are making jokes,” she said. “There are thousands of memes about this.”

“People in Russia don’t panic anymore,” she continued. “They just understand that is how you live your life when your country is aggressively doing shit to another country. If you’re going to panic all the time, you can’t live your life.”

Cover photo is by Hunter Williamson and shows a Ukrainian military officer walking along a muddy road toward trench lines in northern Ukraine in March 2023. 

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Ukraine.

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