Yevgeny Prigozhin has made his decision. He puts words into action. After months of criticism of the Russian military leadership, the head of the notorious “Group Wagner” has started an uprising.
On Saturday night, his mercenaries marched into the southern Russian city of Rostov. This has now been confirmed by several news agencies and by Putin himself. The units are said to have numerous military facilities under control. But that’s not all.
According to British intelligence, Prigozhin’s men are moving further north through the Voronezh region. According to the London experts, the destination is the capital Moscow.
“Unfortunately, the situation is very serious”
That is why there is a state of emergency in Russia. Law enforcement authorities have launched investigations into armed insurgency against Prigozhin. In addition, an anti-terror emergency was declared in Moscow and the surrounding area.
“Unfortunately, the situation is very serious. More seriously than many observers suspected,” says Alexander Libman in an interview with FOCUS online. He is Professor of Political Science with a focus on Eastern Europe and Russia at Freie Universität Berlin.
The political scientist finds the speech that Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin gave on Saturday morning remarkable. The uprising of the Wagner mercenaries was a “stab in the back” and a “mortal threat to Russia,” he said. “Furthermore, Putin called on the military to unite,” explains Libman.
In his eyes, one word made the Kremlin chief’s speech particularly explosive. Against the background of the Wagner revolt, Putin spoke of “treason”. He positioned himself more clearly than ever against Prigozhin, who was previously considered his confidant.
Prigozhin kept going overboard
For a long time, as Russia expert Gerhard Mangott put it in an interview with FOCUS online, Putin “held his protective hand over Prigozhin”. And that, although the Wagner boss regularly went overboard.
He repeatedly publicly criticized the Moscow military, accusing them of incompetence, inactivity and lies. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov would feed Putin “nonsense” about the situation at the front, Prigozhin rumbled in a voice message on Telegram just a few days ago.
The Ukrainian armed forces have already achieved significant successes. “These are large areas that we have lost,” he grumbled. In other statements, the mercenary boss described officials as “perfumed chair farts” and warned the elites that the people would take revenge if the war went on as before.
On Friday evening, Prigozhin then accused the Russian military leadership of attacking a camp owned by his mercenaries with artillery, helicopters and rockets. Many of his men were killed in the process.
Prigozhin didn’t say a bad word about Putin
Prigozhin wanted revenge and took action. He marched into Rostov with his men and called Shoigu and Gerasimov “scum” that had to be eliminated. At first he didn’t drop a bad word about Putin.
On the contrary. The Wagner boss emphasized that it was neither a “military putsch” nor did he want to oppose the Russian president. But the good, or at least professional, relationship with the Kremlin boss seems to be over now.
“It doesn’t matter what Prigozhin says. Putin has clearly taken a stand against him,” says Libman. And Mangott also says: “Even if Prigozhin claims that his rebellion is only directed against the military leadership, that is of course also a rebellion against Putin.”
In his estimation, the Kremlin boss will now ask himself why he waited so long. Why he didn’t take the many border crossings that Prigozhin has allowed himself to do in recent months as an opportunity to rebuke him. “That was a big mistake,” says Mangott.
Prigozhin and Putin benefited from each other
But it is also true that the Kremlin and Wagner bosses have benefited from each other in the past. Prigozhin’s men supported Putin in the Ukraine war and did the “dirty work” there.
They also helped him with operations in Syria and Africa. For Prigozhin, on the other hand, the orders he received from the Russian state were lucrative. This is from a report by “Time” out, which appeared in May of this year.
What is meant are, for example, commitments to catering for schools or the construction of practice areas. After all, “Wagner” is not just a military company, Prigozhin’s empire also includes a catering company and a media holding.
“If Prigozhin were to lose his state contracts, everything would collapse, his media empire, his mercenaries and also his business in Africa,” said Denis Korotokov, ex-journalist and police officer, the paper.
Is Putin’s power crumbling now?
Now the relationship between the two men appears to be seriously damaged. Not only Putin, but also Prigozhin has now expressed himself much more critically. On Saturday morning he said in a voice message on Telegram: “The President is badly mistaken” and that the Wagner mercenaries would continue their uprising.
So it’s clear: his former cook, his military contractor, is becoming a threat to Putin. He must do something to get the escalation that Prigozhin initiated under control as quickly as possible.
He can no longer act as if what is happening between the Wagner boss and the Russian military leadership is still an ugly but harmless friction. The situation is tense and it is Putin himself who has allowed it to get to this point.
For Libman, a central question now arises: is the Wagner boss acting alone or is he supported by political elites? Neither scenario would be beneficial to the Kremlin boss.
“The rebellion openly challenges the authority of the President”
Because either his power would be seriously questioned, could even crumble. Or there would be doubts about his strength, his assertiveness. “In the end, I don’t think it’s out of the question that Prigozhin will receive support from elites,” says Libman.
In his eyes, however, the uprising does not pose a real, immediate threat to Putin. Even if the Kremlin chief is cornered and the revolt could have consequences for the Ukraine war.
“The war may escalate now. Putin will feel compelled to take tougher action,” says Libman. Because Prigozhin has been calling for tougher action on the offensive in the neighboring country for months.
Mangott from the University of Innsbruck takes a similar view. “The rebellion openly challenges the authority of the President. It’s a duel that only one can win, or maybe literally survive,” he says.