Prigozhin: I didn't agree to transfer Wagner to Kremlin control -- and I showed how weak it is

For the last two days, everyone has wondered what happened to Yevgeny Prigozhin after losing his nerve on the road to Moscow. Reportedly, Vladimir Putin cut a deal via Alexander Lukashenko to end his rebellion by dropping charges against his favorite chef and allowing Prigozhin to go into exile in Belarus. In exchange, Prigozhin agreed to transfer control of his Wagner private military to the Kremlin, at least those who had not participated in the rebellion.

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This supposedly all got settled in a very “masculine” conversation between Lukashenko and Prigozhin:

The conversation between Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Prigozhin was “very difficult,” said Mr. Gigin, who this month became the director of the National Library of Belarus. “They immediately blurted out such vulgar things it would make any mother cry. The conversation was hard, and as I was told, masculine.” …

“Putin lost because he showed how weak his system is, that he can be challenged so easily,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat and analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Prigozhin challenged, he attacked, he was so bold and then he retreated, looking like a loser. Only Lukashenko won points — first in the eyes of Putin, in the eyes of the international community as a mediator or negotiator, and as a possible guarantor of the deal.”

Now, however, it appears that Lukashenko didn’t actually settle anything. Shortly after that, however, Russian media began reporting that Putin hadn’t dropped the criminal charges against Prigozhin:

A Russian criminal case against mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin for mutiny remains open and is still being investigated, the Kommersant newspaper and Russia’s three main news agencies reported on Monday, citing unidentified sources. …

Under a deal mediated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko that defused the crisis late on Saturday, the Kremlin said a criminal case against Prigozhin would be dropped and he would move to Belarus.

His fighters would return to base and would also face no legal action, the Kremlin said.

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And as it turns out, the other part of the deal may not hold either. Prigozhin, who more or less disappeared over the last two days, issued an audio statement this morning strongly suggesting that he never agreed to let the Ministry of Defence take over Wagner PMC:

Mr. Prigozhin said the protest was aimed at a move by the Ministry of Defense to force his mercenaries to sign contracts with the government, which he said would have effectively halted Wagner’s activities as of July 1. The fighters, Mr. Prigozhin said, were planning to give up their heavy weapons to the Russian Army until they were attacked from behind on Friday night, killing more than two dozen Wagner soldiers — a claim for which there has been no independent evidence. …

“The purpose of the campaign was to prevent the destruction of the Wagner PMC and to bring to justice those persons who, by their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes during this process,” he said, obliquely referring to the Defense Ministry leadership.

Does that sound like a man who just agreed to hand over control of his forces to the same defense leadership? In fact, Prigozhin now suggests that Lukashenko offered to let him run Wagner from Belarus:

Reports from Russian media tend to corroborate that:

Belarus is constructing camps for members of the Wagner Group who are being sent to the country as part of a deal to end the brutal mercenary outfit’s short-lived mutiny, according to reports by independent Russian media. …

Russia’s Vertska outlet, an independent news website, reported Belarus’s plans to open several Wagner camps, revealing that they will be constructed in its Mogilev region, just under 125 miles from Ukraine, and that they will have capacity to house 8,000 Wagner members.

Vertska also spoke with the relatives of Wagner members, who said that members of the mercenary group will soon depart for Belarus.

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That would be news to the Putin regime. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced this morning that the Kremlin will keep control of Wagner units, but it will be those nowhere near Russia:

The Wagner mercenary group will continue operations in Mali and the Central African Republic despite its leader’s aborted insurrection over the weekend, Russia’s foreign minister said on Monday.

Wagner members “are working there as instructors. This work, of course, will continue”, Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with the RT outlet.

Prigozhin now claims that he had no intention of seizing power in Moscow, but instead wanted to demonstrate the critical weakness of the security situation in Russia. Take this with a grain of salt from a man who had been bragging about knocking down a few Russian military helicopters along the way, of course:

In an audio statement issued on Monday evening, Prigozhin denied trying to attack the Russian state and said he acted in response to an attack on his force that killed some 30 of his fighters. …

“We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country,” Mr Prigozhin said in an 11-minute audio.

“Our march showed many things we discussed earlier: the serious problems with security in the country.”

He did not offer any details about where he was or what his future plans are.

That might be the first smart thing Prigozhin has done in the last 48 hours. If exposing “serious problems with security in the country” was all Prigozhin intended, well, it was a recklessly stupid and probably fatal strategy in the long run. As the Washington Post’s Mary Ilyushina reported yesterday, Prigozhin’s lucky to be alive in the short term, and exile in Belarus may leave Prigozhin wishing he’d died at the head of a column into Moscow:

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Still, whatever Prigozhin was trying to accomplish with the short-lived rebellion, he probably did not intend to get exiled to Belarus, a dictatorship even more isolated than Russia, often called the North Korea of Europe, where he is now supposed to go following a deal to avoid arrest and prosecution. …

Intentionally or not, Prigozhin showed that Russia is not only at war with Ukraine but on many levels is also at war with itself. Thousands have left the country because they disagreed with the invasion or fled for fear of being conscripted to fight. Others are in jail, or living in exile, because they voiced opposition to the war, or to Putin. And still others, like Prigozhin, supported the war but not the military commanders who often seemed to botch things — a frustration that briefly raised the prospect of civil war in Russia.

Still, Prigozhin might have won some of his other battles. At the very least, he did not completely lose his private mercenary army, with the Kremlin saying the troops that took part in the rebellion would be pardoned. And despite his profanity, brutality and criminal background — he spent most of the 1980s in prison for robbery and other crimes — Prigozhin won some Russian hearts.

That ought to comfort Prigozhin on his way down through a sixth-story window in Minsk.

The big question in the short term, as Olivier Knox asks in the Post, is what this means for Wagner in Ukraine. And the short answer is: who knows? If the reported strength of Wagner PMC was accurate, the Russian army lost 25,000 of its most effective troops and which has acted as a kind of gap-plugging force. Supposedly the deal between Putin and Prigozhin via Lukashenko left most of that force intact and available to the Ministry of Defence, but with the deal seemingly falling apart, one has to wonder how many of those forces will sign contracts, if any. The MoD has to wonder how many of those will respond to regular-army leadership, especially when the Wagner units were loyal to Prigozhin and weren’t exactly known for their battlefield discipline anyway.

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Whatever the answer is, the Russians had better settle it quickly. Those forces were not just the more effective units in Ukraine but made up a significant percentage of their overall forces there. With Ukraine kicking its counteroffensive into gear, the Russians can’t afford to lose any of its troops from the line. If there are no other reserves to plug gaps, the potential for collapses of their defensive lines start looking more realistic. And if Putin is worried about his own reckless disregard for internal security, he may need those forces back in Russia more than he needs them in the Donbas.

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David Strom 4:30 PM | May 28, 2024
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