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IMMINENT WARNING: PMC WAGNER STAGES ARMED REBELLION IN RUSSIA, ENDS IN FIGHTERS HALTING MARCH

June 24, 2023

Gabriel Helupka, Dan Flanagan, Sophia Ritscher, Virginia Martos Blanco, Sonia Savci, Mridul Mahendroo, Emanuela Bulferetti

Cameron Munoz, Senior Editor


Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin[1]


Event: On June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the private military company Wagner, announced his troops would suspend their march to Moscow and return to their camps in Ukraine to avoid spilling Russian blood. Prigozhin stated “he understood the importance of the moment,” shortly after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he negotiated with Prigozhin.[2] The Kremlin's subsequent announcement indicated the dropping of criminal charges against Prigozhin, who will relocate to Belarus, while exempting Wagner Group members from prosecution [3] and revealed plans to offer contracts with the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to Wagner fighters who did not take part in the conflict.[4] On June 23, Russia accused Prigozhin of armed mutiny after he alleged that the military leadership killed many of his fighters in an airstrike, which the Russian defense ministry denied. Prigozhin vowed to topple military leadership, characterizing the operation as a “march for freedom” after ordering his troops to enter Russia, coming within 200 miles of Moscow. Putin expressed his determination to crush the rebellion and punish those who “betrayed” Russia, comparing it to Russia’s 1917 Civil War, as Wagner forces captured key military facilities in Rostov-on-Don without firing a shot, according to Prigozhin.[5] Wagner also allegedly controlled facilities in nearby Voronezh.[6] Rostov-on-Don houses the Southern Military District, serving as a logistical hub for Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. As Wagner forces made their way towards Moscow, Russian military helicopters engaged in gunfire against Wagner convoys, while a declaration of an "anti-terrorist regime" in the Moscow and Voronezh regions enhanced security forces' authority in managing the situation.[7] Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said his forces were ready to assist the Russian military in quashing the rebellion and were “moving toward the zones of tension to preserve Russia’s units and defend its statehood.”[8]


Significance: The rebellion likely arises from a longstanding conflict between the MoD and Prigozhin concerning Wagner's autonomy. This conflict will likely lead to persistent tensions between respective Wagner and MoD leadership and interactions of these troops on the battlefield in the future. The highly publicized rebellion will very likely undermine Putin’s leadership and credibility with Russian political and social elites, likely raising questions about his ability to maintain order over the military, internal affairs, domestic security, and war efforts. Prigozhin’s rebellion will likely result in the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, likely blaming them for leadership failures amid the rebellion. Russia will likely investigate Prigozhin internally to detail him in the future, likely forcing him into exile in Belarus to avoid the perception of impunity to Putin's authority. The MoD will unlikely decrease Wagner’s battlefield autonomy and avoid escalating tensions by offering optional contracts. Prigozhin will likely reduce public criticism of Russian military efforts, likely seeing himself as a threat as unsustainable for himself and Wagner. Putin will almost certainly retaliate against Prigozhin and will unlikely allow an armed rebellion to go unpunished. He will likely appeal to staunch war supporters to undermine Prigozhin’s actions and sabotage Wagner in future conflict losses. Putin will also likely blame Prigozhin for battlefield failures, forcing him out of Wagner and strengthening support for the Russian military. Russian forces will very likely increase attacks against Ukraine throughout the coming days to divert attention from domestic turmoil and project ongoing military success in Ukraine despite recent circumstances. Ukraine will likely exploit the situation while Wagner troops return to Ukraine by launching several counter-offensives to weaken Russian defensive positions, regain ground, and cause disarray before they return.


Recommendations

  • The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends nearby NATO countries such as Poland, Estonia, Finland, and Lithuania issue travel warnings to avoid cross-border travel to Russia amid the current threat environment while uncertainty remains. We also recommend these countries strengthen and maintain defensive postures along shared Russian borders to prevent conflict spillover.

  • CTG recommends that Ukrainian military forces remain on high alert, especially in border areas close to Rostov-on-Don, and avoid lowering their guards towards the now possibly fragmented Wagner group mercenaries.

  • CTG recommends that Ukrainian civilians remain on high alert in areas with a high concentration of Wagner Group and Russian forces and shelter in place amid a possible increase in attacks.

  • CTG recommends that the EU and Western countries closely monitor the situation, prepare to respond to potential issues, and discuss new developments.

  • CTG recommends Western intelligence agencies assess the threat of the situation and identify potential impacts on operations in Ukraine, risks of increasing attacks, domestic implications of the armed rebellion, and global geopolitical impacts.

  • CTG recommends that social media users be wary of statements and media claims by either side, as both may participate in information operations, such as disinformation and cyber-attacks. We also recommend using reliable news sources for updates.

  • CTG recommends social media companies adopt algorithms that can delay the spread and virality of malicious unverified content pertaining to the situation. We also recommend flagging content that might be misleading. We advise open-source researchers covering the rebellion to thoroughly fact-check content before posting or placing disclaimers that the content is unverified.

  • If there is any additional and or critical information please contact us at The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) by Telephone 202-643-2848 or email info@counterterrorismgroup.com

 

[1]Vladimir Putin tours Yevgeny Prigozhin's Concord food catering factory” by Government of the Russian Federation licensed under CC BY 3.0

[2] Wagner chief says he ordered his Russian mercenaries to halt march on Moscow and return to Ukraine, AP, June 2023, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-wagner-prigozhin-9acbdf1eda849692ca0423a4116058d1

[3] Russia mutiny: Rebel boss has criminal charges dropped and will move to Belarus after halting mercenary convoy to Moscow, Sky News, June 2023, https://news.sky.com/story/vladimir-putin-accuses-russian-mercenary-boss-yevgeny-prigozhin-of-treason-12908739

[4] Russia says Wagner Group’s leader will move to Belarus after his rebellious march challenged Putin, AP, June 2023, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-wagner-prigozhin-9acbdf1eda849692ca0423a4116058d1

[5] Russian helicopters battle Wagner mercenaries rolling toward Moscow, Reuters, June 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/wagner-head-suggests-his-mercenaries-headed-moscow-take-army-leadership-2023-06-24/

[6] Wagner fighters in Russian cities defy Putin's charge of mutiny, BBC, June 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66006860

[7] Russian helicopters battle Wagner mercenaries rolling toward Moscow, Reuters, June 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/wagner-head-suggests-his-mercenaries-headed-moscow-take-army-leadership-2023-06-24/

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