The Wagner Group halts its march on Moscow
THE THREAT of armed insurrection against Vladimir Putin abated on June 24th as suddenly and dramatically as it had erupted. In the morning Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, sent his armoured columns on a 1,000km race to Moscow, claiming to come within 200km and causing alarm in the Kremlin. But by evening he ordered his war-hardened veterans to turn back, saying he did not want to spill Russian blood. Social-media reports suggest his fighters were starting to pull back. A Kremlin spokesman said Mr Prigozhin would leave for Belarus. Precisely what Mr Prigozhin hoped to achieve through his insurrection, and what he might actually have obtained, remains unclear. On one telling, Mr Prigozhin bowed before the might of the Russian state and is lucky to be alive. On another, given the extraordinary ease with which he rolled towards Moscow, he may have extracted some as-yet-unspecified deal on, say, military leadership. Either way, Mr Putin has shown he can no longer maintain order among his warlords. He has been greatly weakened by the challengeand in his world weakness tends to lead to further instability. Accusing the regular army of attacking its forces, Wagner had revolted a day earlier, on June 23rd. With little or no bloodshed, they took control of the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostova command and logistical hub for the war in Ukraineand rapidly pushed on up the road to Moscow. Social-media video later showed limited fighting with the regular army in the Voronezh region, some 600km to the north. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Wagner shot down several Russian military aircraft. Pushing aside lorries placed on the roads to block their way, Wagner units were reported to have moved on to the region of Lipetsk, where videos showed excavators digging up roads to slow down Wagners convoys. In a hastily arranged address to the nation the rattled president had accused Wagner of planting a knife in the back of troops fighting in Ukraine and vowed a harsh response. Mr Prigozhin retorted that his men were patriots fighting for Russias future. In Moscow, Red Square was closed as the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, announced counter-terrorist operations. The Kremlin denied speculation that Mr Putin had left Moscow, after plane-tracking data suggested the presidential aircraft had flown north before switching off its transponder and going dark. Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war The disarray in Russias ranks has delighted Ukraine. Whether its forces are able to exploit it militarily remains to be seen. Ukraines president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that those who choose the path of evil destroy themselves. Ukraines counter-offensive, launched earlier this month, has been making only slow progress. Russia claimed Ukrainian troops were taking advantage of Prigozhins provocation by concentrating for an attack near Bakhmut, the site of much bloody fighting involving Wagner. Ukrainian commanders say they have yet to commit the bulk of their forces, and are still probing for weaknesses. But, it seems, they have already put enough pressure on Russia to sow chaos among its military commanders. The rivalry between Mr Prigozhin and the military command has been apparent for months. Mr Prigozhin has developed a cult following, especially among nationalist Russians. His forces, originally used for arms-length operations in Africa, Syria and elsewhere, took on a prominent role in Ukraine as Mr Putins invasion stalled. Packed with ex-convicts who were promised future pardons, Wagner recruits have often proved to be better fighters than regular Russian units. In video rants, Mr Prigozhin accused the likes of Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the army chief of staff, of incompetence, cowardice and deliberately starving Wagner of weapons and munitions (he was usually careful not to criticise Mr Putin directly). Tensions markedly worsened after Wagner claimed to have captured Bakhmut in May. The mercenaries withdrew from the front as the army attempted to bring them under its control. Still, Mr Prigozhins video posts on June 23rd were remarkable even by his spittle-flecked standards. He questioned the basis of Mr Putins special military operation, as Russia describes the invasion, saying there had been no real threat from Ukraine. Instead, Russian leaders had led the country to war for reasons of corruption and vainglory. He also asserted that Ukrainian forces were on the advance, contradicting the Russian claims to have repelled the onslaught; and that many more Russians had died than the Kremlin would admit to. His rage took an ominous turn when he stated that thousands of Wagner fighters had been killed by a missile strike launched not by Ukraine at the front, but from the rear, by Russian army units. Vowing that Wagner would respond to this evildoing, he announced a march of justice against Russias army, but was still careful to say it was not a coup against Mr Putin. Instead he singled out Mr Shoigu, claiming he had ordered the alleged air strike on Wagner and then ran away like a bitch to avoid explaining why he sent helicopters to destroy our boys. Mr Prigozhin vowed to march 25,000 of his fighters to deal with his enemies. The evil brought by the countrys military leadership must be stopped. And without saying what precisely he would do, he added: I ask that nobody resist. We will consider everyone who resists to be a threat and destroy them at once. Ukrainian military sources estimate that Mr Prigozhin has about 30,000 fighters under his command, of whom perhaps 5,000 were involved in the revolt. The FSB, Russias main security service, announced it would prosecute Mr Prigozhin over calls for an armed uprising. General Sergey Surovikin, deputy commander of Russias Ukraine campaign (at one point its overall head), sat with an assault rifle on his knee as he pleaded with Wagner units: I urge you to stop. The enemy is waiting precisely for the political situation in our country to worsen. To no avail. Having taken control of the military headquarters in Rostov on June 24th, Mr Prigozhin was filmed berating Russian generals as clowns. He declared they would be allowed to continue prosecuting the war in Ukraine, but demanded that Generals Shoigu and Gerasimov come to speak to him. After a delay of several hours, Mr Putin appeared on his television address. He said he had been in touch with military and security-service commanders, and denounced the betrayal of our people caused by inflated ambitions and personal interests. In a country marked by a history of military revolts and revolutions, Mr Putin evoked the ghosts of the Bolshevik revolution and the years of civil war that followed imperial Russias withdrawal from the first world war. We will not let it happen again, vowed Mr Putin. Mr Prigozhin responded quickly: The president makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it. We dont want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy. As Western leaders monitored the situation, some will have been concerned about the safety of Russias nuclear arsenal, which is controlled by the president, defence minister and chief of general staff. Russias foreign ministry warned the West against any hint of possible use of the domestic Russian situation to achieve their Russophobic goals. By evening, events seemed to be coming to a head. Reports suggested that Chechen fightershitherto loyal to Mr Putinwere entering Rostov. Railway stations in and around the city were crowded with people trying to leave. Outside Moscow, meanwhile, troops hurriedly put up checkpoints and sandbags outside the city. Then the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, a Russian ally who stood to lose power if Mr Putin was overthrown, announced he had brokered a deal to resolve the crisis given the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloody massacre on the territory of Russia. Wagner had agreed to stop its advance and take further steps to de-escalate tensions, he said; Wagner was given an absolutely profitable and acceptable option, and its fighters were offered security guarantees. Mr Prigozhin himself soon issued an audio declaring understanding the responsibility for spilling Russian blood on one of the sides, we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan. What that plan might have been remains a mystery. Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putins spokesman, said the criminal charges against Mr Prigozhin would be dropped, and the Wagner leader would leave for Belarus. No conditions were specified. Wagner fighters who did not take part in the revolt would be absorbed into the army. Mr Prigozhin claims he was not aiming to overthrow Mr Putin but to reform the army leadership. Whether he was able to claim the scalps of Generals Shoigu or Gerasimov as part of a deal under which he turned back remains unclear. Tellingly, they have not been seen through the crisis, and the removal of either would be a success for Mr Prigozhin. Other unanswered questions are whether Wagner will preserve any autonomy, and whether Mr Prigozhin will continue to have a role in it. Mr Putin has hitherto given Mr Prigozhin extraordinary leeway to criticise his campaign even as those who called it a war were being jailed. Now Wagner seems to have been able to stage an armed revolt and being branded a traitor by Mr Putin without consequencesfor the moment, at least. Like a tsar standing over unruly boyars, Mr Putin may have liked to have his lieutenants at each others throats rather than turn on him after the many failures of his military campaign in Ukraine. But the past 24 hours of insubordination is surely not what he imagined. For the first time since becoming Russias ruler in 2000, Mr Putin seemed close to losing his crown.