Editor’s note: This piece has been updated in light of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s announcement on 24 June that he was halting his advance on the Russian capital and his troops were returning to their camps.
Vladimir Putin knows Russian history. He knows that the October Revolution in 1917 that brought the Bolsheviks to power started with a mutiny among the Russian armed forces while the country was at war. Addressing the nation in a solemn speech earlier today (24 June), the Russian president framed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion in similar terms, calling it a “knife in the back of our country and our people”.
“A blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country was fighting in the First World War,” Putin said. “But the victory was stolen from it: intrigues, squabbles and politicking behind the backs of the army and the nation turned into the greatest turmoil, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state… ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war.”
Putin’s address was clearly intended to signal that he was in full control as he ordered the military to crush the “armed mutiny” and “stabilise the situation” in Rostov-on-Don, where Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries appeared to have seized control of the city. He vowed swift punishment for those who have “chosen the path of betrayal”.
But even as he spoke, Prigozhin’s forces were advancing towards Moscow, reaching Voronezh, around 500km south of the Russian capital by Saturday afternoon. A Reuters journalist reported military helicopters firing on a Wagner convoy outside the city that included troop carriers and a tank.
Prigozhin himself was filmed at the southern military headquarters in Rostov, the main logistical hub for Russia’s war against Ukraine. He was flanked by two senior Russian military officials – deputy defence minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and deputy military intelligence director Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseev – who were surrounded by Wagner soldiers. It was not clear whether the two men, who appeared to criticise Prigozhin’s actions in the video, were being held as hostages.
Despite Putin’s assertion of control, his regime’s actions demonstrated profound uncertainty about what would happen next. Armoured vehicles were ordered onto the streets of Moscow overnight, where a “counterterrorist operation regime” had been declared. When Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russia’s war effort appealed to Wagner fighters overnight to end their rebellion and return to their bases, he did so with one hand resting on the rifle in his lap.
[See also: The Prigozhin mutiny]
With Prigozhin’s troops appearing to encounter little resistance on their approach to the capital, there were questions about whether Russian military units would remain loyal to the Kremlin and follow orders to halt the Wagner advance. “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,” said the UK’s ministry of defence, noting that the limited fighting so far between Wagner and Russian security forces suggested that some units had already acquiesced. “This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”
Then, with nightfall in Moscow came another extraordinary turn of events. Prigozhin announced that his forces were “turning around our columns and returning to field camps according to plan.” Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, claimed that he had negotiated a deal with the Wagner leader to de-escalate the crisis with Putin’s support. Video footage soon appeared on Prigozhin-linked social media channels that showed Wagner fighters celebrating in Rostov as they prepared to depart the city, which was later shared by Russian state media outlets. Prigozhin was then seen leaving the city’s military headquarters in an SUV, waving to the cheering crowds and shaking hands with supporters through the open window.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the earlier charges against Prigozhin for leading an armed uprising had been dropped and that he would leave Russia for Belarus. In a remarkable understatement, he described the day’s events as “fairly difficult”, but insisted that the matter was now closed and Putin would be making no further comment on the issue.
The apparent denouement raised more questions than it answered. What had Prigozhin been promised for him to agree to turn his fighters around? Was Putin really prepared to forgive what he had just told his citizens was an act of national betrayal? Had Wagner’s brinkmanship worked?
As a young official in what is now St Petersburg, Putin witnessed an attempt by Soviet hardliners to overthrow then leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He will remember that while that coup attempt quickly fell apart, Gorbachev emerged from the crisis a diminished figure and by the end of the year his political career was over and the Soviet Union was gone. The last 24 hours have seen a direct challenge to his own authority. If he does not respond with sufficient resolve, the self-styled strongman is in danger of looking decidedly weak.
[See also: Russia’s tipping point]