On Friday, Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led his mercenary army out of Ukraine and seized the Russian city of Rostov, the HQ for military operations in Ukraine. From Rostov he launched a “march of justice”, actually an armoured convoy heading for Moscow. Key demands were for Putin to sack his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the head of Russia’s armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov.
Putin responded with accusations of treason, and arrest warrants were issued. 3,000 troops from Chechnya were flown in to defend Moscow, and the world waited for a civil war that never happened. The convoy was 120 miles from Moscow when a deal, brokered by Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, was announced. Both sides agreed that to avoid bloodshed Prigozhin would go into exile in Belarus, his troops would return to barracks, and all charges would be dropped.
The invasion of Ukraine revealed the weakness at the heart of the Russian state, both in military intelligence and readiness for war. Putin turned to Prigozhin for help, effectively outsourcing the war to the Wagner Group. They have sustained heavy casualties and blame the military incompetence of the regular forces under Shoigu and Gerasimov. The rivalry between Prigozhin and the high command was supposed to be resolved next month when all Wagner’s troops were to be brought under the control of the defence ministry. This probably prompted Prigozhin to act. He was relying on the Russian armed forces to remain neutral or join him, and perhaps harboured ambitions to become head of the armed forces himself — but he is first of all a businessman and, when Putin did not back down under pressure, he decided to cut his losses.
Putin has won for now. Most of the Wagner forces will be offered contracts with the defence ministry. Those who marched on Moscow will probably be stood down. Prigozhin will continue his business ventures in exile, including the gold mining concession in Sudan, if that survives Sudan’s continuing civil war. Within Russia, there are other oligarchs and leaders who will have noted that Putin did not crush the revolt but had to compromise. Prigozhin may have overplayed his hand, but he revealed the divisions that plague the state and threaten Putin’s long-term future.
The Moscow elite showed their feelings when all flights out of Moscow sold out in a scramble to reach safety, either in Turkey or Saint Petersburg near the border with Finland. Discontent with the war is growing as more casualties return home. According to BBC world affairs editor, John Simpson, as many as one in five Russians know someone who has lost a family member in the war.
Meanwhile, Zelensky claims that this proves he can beat Russia if only the west comes off the fence and gives him their full support; in other words: air power. This would be a disaster. An isolated and cornered Putin with his finger on the nuclear button is the most dangerous foe of all.