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Date: June 30, 2023     Updated: October 7, 2023

Prigozhin's Wagner rebellion that lasted for less than 24 hours

The Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine

On February 24, 2022, the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine started and was soon bogged down in disarray. What was supposed to be a walk in the park turned into a complete disaster and quagmire.

In April 2022, after suffering serious losses, Russia decided to pull back troops attacking from the north and redeploy them to the east.

April 10, 2022 - Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, known as Butcher of Syria, was appointed to lead the war in Ukraine. Kremlin wanted Dvornikov to deliver success by May 9 for the Russian national Victory Day holiday.

June 26, 2022 - Gennady Zhidko replaced Dvornikov as head of Ukraine operation, and Gen Serhiy Surovikin, known as General Armageddon for being totally ruthless, was appointed the head of Russia's Army Group South in its war on Ukraine.

Wagner, the mercenary group, not mentioned erstwhile as part of the war in Ukraine, was now publicly seen leading the fight to capture Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has long denied any association with Wagner, went public in September for the first time as the man behind Wagner.

October 7, 2022 - Surovikin replaced Zhidko as the commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine. This was a blessing windfall for Prigozhin, who had worked with Surovikin in Syria before. That led to the transfer of heavy weapons from the army to Wagner units, expanding its role in the war. Prigozhin was allowed to recruit prisoners to join the group. (Zhidko reportedly died at the age of 58 on August 16, 2023 after a lengthy illness.)

Soon, Russia began its massive campaign to destroy Ukraine's energy infrastructure and electrical grid. But the bombings failed to turn the tide of the war. Facing Ukraine's affluent supply of western weapons, Russia changed tactic and assumed a defensive posture.

Surovikin oversaw Russia's withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson and shored up Russia's defenses along the front lines.

Wagner mercenaries complained about lack of ammunition

December 26, 2022 - The first video of Wagner mercenaries complaining about lack of ammunition on the front lines appeared.

January 11, 2023 - Surovikin was removed as Russia's top commander in Ukraine, just three months after he was installed. Surovikin may have aroused suspicion and concern of the Minister of Defense Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Gerasimov would lead the Ukraine operation, and Surovikin became his deputy.

February 21, 2023 - Prigozhin complained about a "major problem" with ammunition supplies for his troops. He publicly accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of treason, claiming that they were deliberately withholding ammunition and supplies from Wagner to destroy it.

March 6, 2023 - Wagner complained about lack of ammunition again.

April 26, 2023 - Prigozhin said Wagner ran out of resources to advance further as Ukraine was preparing for a looming offensive.

May 5, 2023 - Prigozhin claimed his force was about to capture the entire city of Bakhmut. They planned to seize Bakhmut by May 9 for the Russian Victory Day holiday celebration. But they had been starved of ammunition, and they would leave Bakhmut from May 10, 2023.

In the meantime, President Vladimir Putin tried to detach himself from this internal feud.

May 9, 2023 - Prigozhin was told he and his men would be regarded as traitors if they abandoned their positions in the city of Bakhmut. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) said it was working to ensure all battlefield units have what they need. Later, Prigozhin said there were signs the ammunition problem was being solved, but the size of the shipment had been slashed to only 10% of what they asked for.

May 20, 2023 - Prigozhin declared that his Wagner fighters had completed the capture of Bakhmut. Putin praised the Wagner group for the capture of Bakhmut, the first time he directly credited Wagner for their military accomplishment. Russian commentators lavished positive coverage on the mercenary group.

Now, Wagner was no longer needed to finish off a battle that had been played up by Russian media, which the whole nation's attention was fixated upon.

May 24, 2023 - Prigozhin warned that Russia could face a revolution similar to those of 1917 and lose the conflict in Ukraine unless the MoD got serious about fighting the war.

Putin publicly supported Shoigu

June 10, 2023 - with Putin's approval, the MoD announced that all formations fighting outside the Russian military's formal ranks would need to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry by the end of June.

That means Prigozhin would be subordinated to Shoigu. Prigozhin refused and chafed at the prospect of taking orders from people he considered incompetent.

Prigozhin's growing desperation

Prigozhin's private army was sidelined. His lucrative government catering contracts were under threat. Surovikin, the commander he most admired, had been removed as the top general overseeing Ukraine. And he was blocked from recruiting fighters from Russian prisons. His ammunition supplies were running out. Prigozhin found himself unable to sustain Wagner. He tried to contact Putin but was totally ignored.

Prigozhin began expressing feelings of despair. He lamented that the problems plaguing the Russian military would never be fixed. He talked about a possible national insurgency to exact revenge on incompetent officials. That was probably his clearest indication of a possible mutiny.

A rebellion that lasted for less than 24 hours

Friday, June 23, 2023 - Prigozhin appeared to threaten an armed rebellion against Russia's military leadership. He accused Russian officials of deliberately shelling his forces earlier in the day.

Early Saturday, June 24 - Prigozhin mounted an armed insurrection. His forces crossed the Ukraine-Russia border in an attempt to take control of the military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

He insisted his aim was not at deposing Putin, but at overthrowing the corrupt military leadership.

At around 1 a.m. Putin was briefed on the armed rebellion. A statement from the Kremlin suggested that Wagner's move into Rostov-on-Don was a rebellion, and Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) launched a criminal investigation against Prigozhin.

At around 7:30 a.m. Wagner had taken control of the Southern Military District and all military facilities and airport in Rostov-on-Don. He started to push north towards the Voronezh region on the way to Moscow.

At around 9:30 a.m. Wagner Group started the march towards Moscow.

At 10 a.m. Putin addressed the nation on TV, calling the acts treason. The head of Chechnya said that he would support Putin and that his forces were already moving to the zones of tension.

Prigozhin responded to Putin's address in a video message and said his Wagner forces would not back down.

Shortly after 11:40 am, reports began to surface that Wagner forces had entered the Voronezh region, and the Moscow mayor urged residents to stay indoors and declared Monday a day off from work. Armed police gathered south of the city on the M4 highway, which was being used by Wagner mercenaries to advance.

By 1:30 p.m., Putin's office announced he had held phone conversations with the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan regarding the situation in Russia.

Around 4 p.m., reports surfaced that Russian military helicopters had opened fire on a convoy of Wagner mercenaries that were more than halfway towards Moscow. A high value Russian IL-22M airborne command post aircraft was reportedly shot down outside the town of Bugaevka, Voronezh Region, and at least five Russian helicopters were also destroyed.

Wagner forces continue their march to Moscow. A column of Wagner forces drove through the Voronezh region, about 300 miles south of Moscow. Wagner forces reached an area known as Yelets, roughly 250 miles south of Moscow, and the column later passed through the Lipetsk region, farther north.

Surovikin, who was known to sympathize with Wagner, appeared in a video appealing to Prigozhin to halt his mutiny. He looked exhausted and speaking under duress. (He was later found to be a VIP member of Wagner since 2018.)

Around 4 p.m., President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who has known Prigozhin personally for nearly two decades, claimed he brokered a peace deal.

Around 8:30 p.m. Moscow time, Prigozhin ordered his mercenaries to halt their march on Moscow and return to their field camps. He claimed that within a 24-hour period he got close to 200 km of Moscow without spilling a single drop of blood, and the moment had come when blood could be spilled. In order to avoid shedding Russian blood, he would halt their march on Moscow.

Prigozhin ordered his troops to move out of Rostov. He would leave Russia and move to Belarus. He and Wagner troops who took part in the rebellion will not face charges. Prigozhin said that he wanted to avoid a fratricidal civil war.

Gerasimov and Surovikin has not appeared in public since the aborted rebellion. Surovikin was detained on June 26, 2023 amid suspicion he knew of Yevgeny Prigozhin's coup plans. He was released in early September 2023.

Putin admitted for the first time that Wagner was fully state-funded and had received more than a billion dollars over the year to pay fighters' salaries, incentives and insurance. The Concord company, the owner of Wagner, received about a billion for supplying food to the army.

Lukashenko said he welcomed the battlefield experience that Wagner commanders could bring to Belarus. However, there is concern that Prigozhin could pose a potential domestic security risk for Lukashenko.

Military camps were set up in Belarus and Wagner was supposedly exiled to Belarus, under the sponsorship of Lukashenko.

Wagner is believed to still be active in Libya, Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, and Putin will have to contract another mercenary group to take over the operation there. Putin had already shut down Wagner operations in Syria, but the situation in Africa is more complex.

July 14, 2023 - Reports emerged that Putin proposed to install Andrey Troshev, a senior mercenary, as Wagner's commander. It was regarded as an attempt to at least created a split within the senior fighters in the Wagner mercenary group. 61-year-old Andrei Troshev was a retired colonel and "Hero of Russia".

July 27, 2023 - Prigozhin has been seen inside Russia, despite being "exiled" to Belarus. He was spotted at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, hosted by President Vladimir Putin. Putin even sent Shoigu away to North Korea during that time frame to avoid the dilemma of the two nemesis running into each other.

August 21, 2023 - The first Prigozhin recruiting video appeared since the mutiny. Wagner is officially sponsored by Belarus. But the actual source of funding is likely from Putin. Now Putin can pretend he has nothing to do with Wagner, while he is still the patriarch of it. On the surface, at least in Africa, everything is back to where it was before Bakhmut, with only minor cosmetic changes.

August 22, 2023 - Putin dispatched Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov and spymaster General Andrei Averyanov to Africa. The purpose was to reassure African leaders that fighters from the Wagner Group would remain in the country and under Moscow's control.

Prigozhin died in a plane crash

August 23, 2023 - A plane crash north of Moscow killed all 10 people on board. Prigozhin and the entire top command of Wagner were aboard the private plane that was downed. The bodies of Prigozhin and his second-in-command Dmitry Utkin have been identified.

The plane was presumably brought down by bombs smuggled in a wine crate, amid reports an anti-air missile struck the plane. His death was full of controversy. Was Ukraine or Russian Secret Service responsible? It was unlikely to be an accident, as the plane had a stellar record of safety in the past.

Some lingering thoughts on the final chapter of Putin's chef

  1. Prigozhin was not a threat to Putin. He was just an emotional, impulsive scoundrel, a gangster capable of extreme violence but lacking in conspiratorial treachery. He was patriotic, though rigorously selfish in pursuing his own interests. He did not have what it takes to be the head of state, and no foreign government would want to deal with him. He knew it, and Putin knew it. He was only a capable enforcer Putin could use effectively.

  2. He made his decisions hastily and changed his mind quickly. His track records in Bakhmut clearly indicated this trait. He did not have a trusted inner circle of advisors and was basically a loner.

  3. Prigozhin started and ended his revolt equally recklessly without much thinking. That's what caused his downfall.

  4. The reasons the rebellion ended in such a dramatic way was a mystery, given that Prigozhin appeared to have the upper hand. But his desire to avoid a Russian fratricide was conceivable.

    Had he continued with the march on Moscow, he might have succeeded in forcing changes on the MoD. The fact that he could march to within 200 km of Moscow without much resistance in a mere 24-hour period tells a lot.

    Quite a few Russians were sympathetic with his war efforts, judging from what happened in Rostov. Muscovite might even welcome him. Prigozhin's fighting records in Bakhmut had earned him a lot of prestige and respect among Russians. His grudges and criticisms against the MoD have been essentially accepted as true.

    While no one expected the Russian military would joint his movement, the soldiers in Moscow might act passively and not offer any substantial resistance. The amount of bloodshed he wanted to avoid might not be too much in comparison to what would happen in a botched defense against the coming Ukraine counteroffensive.

  5. Despite the chaos, Shoigu is safe. Putin considered loyalty the most important trait in his subordinates, regardless of their ability. Shoigu has been with him for a long time and has proven his loyalty. He is a close confidant and ally that Putin can count on to make sure the military is under control. After all, Putin is a secret serviceman, not a soldier.

    Putin knew Shoigu was incompetent. But appreciated and needed his loyalty. He must realize he was misled by the MoD's promise of an easy win in Ukraine. That costed him unheard-of humiliation in the global diplomatic arena.

  6. Putin could have shut Prigozhin down or intervened to rein him in much earlier by cutting off financial support and weapon supplies. But up until the rebellion, Prigozhin demonstrated his loyalty and has proven to be useful for him in Africa and Syria. Putin, as a master manipulator and strategist, rather have competing factions operating underneath him, with none gaining too much power.

  7. African leaders allied with Russia had grown used to dealing with Yevgeny Prigozhin, who propped up strongmen and autocrats with guns and propaganda in return for gold, diamonds, oil and lumber.

    Convincing African leaders to switch loyalty would not be a big problem, but some of Prigozhin's followers would not be happy to work within Russia's Defense Ministry.

    Wagner is going to disband as no one is able to pick up the tab and pay salaries for the fighters and provide supplies. The members will be absorbed by other mercenary groups. Some local brigade leaders may form their own groups to serve the warlords. Nobody can and dare to take over the whole thing.

    Speculations that Prigozhin's young son, now in his 20s, will take over are far-fetched. He simply lacked the experience and desire to do so. He may be able to retain some of his father's domestic assets, if Putin allowed him.

    Because Russia had no formal or legal presence in Africa, its involvement has to be through some intermediary groups.

    But so far, Putin's efforts to find a replacement to run Wagner have not been too successful.

  8. Russia passed reforms in 2020 allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms. He wanted to keep life as normal as possible in Russia. After all, he still has the presidential election in March 2024 to worry about. And now, after the rebellion, he has unlimited freedom to deploy martial laws to thwart his political opponents.

  9. The future of Russia and indeed the world depends on what will happen in the coming counteroffensive in Ukraine. The prospects are bleak for Russia, now that the capable ones like Prigozhin and Surovikin are gone. Ukraine would not stop without capturing Crimea, while Russia could never accept it. When push comes to shove, Russia will not hesitate to use its tactical nukes deployed in Belarus.

  10. Prigozhin hoped Putin would realize the poor state of the Russian military establishment. He started the mutiny, expecting that Putin would initiate a reorganization of the military complex and remove the incompetent leaders. But it backfired. The end result was that those who initially caused the disastrous adventure remained in power, and all others who criticized the performance of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine were purged. It is a disastrous Russian own goal.

  11. Putin continued to believe Russia was doing fine in Ukraine and is holding back the counter-offensive. The ministry of defense is running in a business as usual manner. When the real Ukraine counter-offensive finally starts, Russian morale will be low and there will not be any capable general to lead the fight. In a sense, it is the most dangerous scenario waiting in the offing.

  12. Calamitous results are awaiting the Russian state and perhaps the world because the greatest danger is, as former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said repeatedly, that Moscow would have to use a nuclear weapon if Kyiv's ongoing counter-offensive was a success. People in the West dismissed the threat as bluffing. They are doing so at their own peril. When time gets rough, the situation will not be under Putin's control.

Who is behind the plot

Prigozhin owed his rise as Putin's chef catering to his needs, and his demise finally closed the final chapter of his colorful life. In the end, it was Putin's loss. He still has use of Prigozhin's service, although he won't trust him anymore.

Prigozhin was a useful tool to carry out the objective of the state while providing deniability. He was a powerful attack dog. He was ruthless, violent and brutal. He would do whatever it takes to get the job done. But in the end, the wild hyena is outmaneuvered by its trickier enemy.

Prigozhin was a straight forward person. He genuinely wished Putin will change his mind about the incompetent generals. He started the mutiny without much thought. When Belarus' Lukashenko reminded him that he was damaging Russia lethally, he stopped it abruptly and swiftly.

In the end, Prigozhin had too many enemies. The specter of assassination was always looming. He could put detectors everywhere in his house. He could select at random which car to ride when traveling. (Remember, North Korean leaders would only ride a train, never a plane.) He could ask someone to try the food in front of him before he ate.

But the enemies could buy out his most trusted bodyguard. They could tinker with the food supply without anyone knowing it. They could plant remote controlled explosives on his means of transportation. There was always one chance the enemies can sneak in, when the conspirators, most likely a state actor, are resolved and resourceful enough.

It was highly unlikely Putin had ordered to take him out. Putin still need him in Africa. He cannot find a replacement to implement a smooth transition. Putin even allowed him to entertain the foreign leaders during his Russia-Africa Summit. Obviously, there were other state actors behind it.

But a wise man's thousand safeguards will always have one miss. In the end, he was put to rest by his enemies before he could get his job done.

Now the world has learned from this incident. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro arrived in China for an unannounced visit from 2023.09.08 to 2023.09.14. The visit was only publicized in Beijing after Maduro's arrival. Venezuela, one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, was clearly worried about its president meeting Prigozhin in the next world prematurely in a similar manner.

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