To misquote Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. This morning history has come at a rush, as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner paramilitary forces march on Moscow.
Earlier this morning, Prigozhin released a public address in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border of Ukraine. While facts on the ground are hard to verify, it appears Wagner is now in control of the city and has reportedly entered the town of Voronezh. The next spot appears to be Moscow, with reports of a 72-vehicle military convoy headed towards to capital.
Prigozhin has been public in his criticism of the regime for some time, claiming that his Wagner forces have been under supplied and used as cannon fodder, particularly in the brutal fighting in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Last month, Prigozhin threatened to pull Wagner forces out of Bakhmut unless they received more ammunition, a threat he later retracted. It appears Prigozhin’s patience with the regime has finally run out.
In his address, Prigozhin stated that “we have arrived here, we want to receive the chief of the general staff and Shoigu” and that “unless they come, we’ll be here, we’ll blockade the city of Rostov and head for Moscow.”
In response, the Kremlin has declared a “counter-terrorism” operation and given its security forces increased powers in an attempt to end the uprising. The regime has also declared Prigozhin a criminal for organising an “armed rebellion”. Russian President Vladimir Putin used a press conference this morning to accuse his former ally of treason, stating that “those who started the mutiny betrayed Russia and will be held responsible”.
History suggests the putsch is headed for defeat; but it still means the end for Vladimir Putin.
The uprising is undoubtedly a response to the invasion. Putin’s war of imperial conquest against its sovereign neighbour has made Russia a global pariah, with the west enacting harsh sanctions and the international community voting several times to condemn the invasion at the United Nations. The invasion has had a catastrophic effect on Ukraine, with thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians needlessly killed and several cities reduced to rubble.
While Russia doesn’t release accurate statistics on casualties, Ukrainian intelligence agencies have claimed more than 200,000 Russians have been killed or injured since February last year, more than ten times as many as during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Ukraine’s stunning counter offensive last year resulted in Russia losing half of the gains made in the early days of the invasion, encapsulated by the Ukrainian liberation of Kherson last November.
Putin himself has become increasingly isolated. In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, who is accused of war crimes relating to the forced deportation of Ukrainian children. Russian forces have also been accused of targeting and killing civilians, with mass graves unearthed in the town of Bucha and Ukrainian cities pounded by missile strikes.
For Ukraine, the timing couldn’t be better. The uprising comes as Ukraine has launched its long anticipated counteroffensive that reportedly ran into stuff Russian resistance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted this week that the push was going “slower than expected”.
A divided Russia is a godsend to Ukraine, who will likely make the most of Wagner’s absence and Putin’s likely withdrawal of Russian troops to tackle to mutiny. It makes little sense for Russian troops to continue fighting and dying in Ukraine while there is a power struggle at home. This could well be the moment that Ukraine begins to push Russian forces out of its sovereign territory, including Crimea.
This suggests Putin is quickly running out of road.
Prigozhin has fundamentally destroyed the Kremlin’s rationale for its illegal invasion of Ukraine, saying yesterday that reasons for the invasion was “based on lies”. With the invasion already deeply unpopular with the international community, this is surely the beginning of the end for Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Wagner’s control of Rostov is also a fatal blow to Putin’s legitimacy and the Russian military appears to agree. There are reports that Russian troops have surrendered to Wagner forces on their way from Ukraine to Rostov to Moscow.
The stakes have risen substantially for Putin. Prigozhin initially wanted to force changes within the Russian military, which he sees as inept, but has since responded to Putin’s speech stating that the leader has “made the wrong decision” and that “we will have a new president soon”. This appears to be a battle to the death for the former allies.
If this continues, Putin will either be deposed or will be forced to the negotiating table with Prigozhin. The latter would be humiliating for the long-time dictator that would irreversibly damage his standing within Russia. His rule would effectively be over.
Either way, Putin seems finished.