Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is either already dead or is going to meet a sticky end in Belarus after his mercenary group attempted mutiny in Russia over the weekend, it has been claimed.
Unless Prigozhin has a deep network of support in the upper echelons of Russia’s power structure, then he will be killed in short order, according to Russia expert and political scientist Nicolas Gosset of the Royal Higher Institute for Defence (IRSD).
‘I have not seen any photos suggesting that there were 25,000 Wagner troops on their way to Moscow. If [the attempted coup] failed, then Prigozhin is dead. Either he is already dead or a hot cup of polonium tea awaits him in Minsk,’ Gosset told Belgian outlet La Libre.
‘The other option is that Prigozhin has high-level support from one or more individuals in the very highest echelons of Russian power who disagree with the trajectory of the war. Either because they want more, or because they consider it suicidal and need to stop.’
Gosset claimed that Russian political elites could have ‘instrumentalised’ Prigozhin to shake the foundations of Putin’s grip on power and show that the Kremlin is no longer in total control.
Following clashes with Russia’s regular forces en route to Moscow, Prigozhin abruptly halted his troops’ ‘march for justice’ on Saturday after striking a bargain that he said would prevent bloodshed and a possible civil war in Russia.
Under terms of the agreement – which ended the biggest challenge to president Vladimir Putin’s 20-year rule – Prigozhin will go into exile in Belarus and will not face prosecution, but will no longer lead the powerful Wagner group.
However, despite the deal, Russian news agencies reported on Monday that a criminal case against Prigozhin remains open, while several analysts, including Gosset, said the Wagner chief is likely to be assassinated irrespective of any bargain he struck with the Kremlin.
Putin meanwhile has refused to address the topic since Saturday, when he launched a five minute tirade vowing to ‘punish those who have betrayed Russia’.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
Members of the Wagner Group military company guard an area as other load their tank onto a truck on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023, prior to leaving an area at the headquarters of the Southern Military District
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a live televised address to the nation on Monday, but avoided broaching the subject of the Wagner rebellion
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023
Members of Wagner group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, 2023
He has made no mention of the uprising and blatantly avoided broaching the subject in a video released today in which he discussed Russian efforts to modernise its energy industry.
But the Kremlin chief held phone calls with several international leaders including the Iran’s president and the Emir of Qatar who expressed his support for Russian authorities in quelling the uprising.
In light of Prigozhin’s deal, a former CIA director on Sunday warned the warlord to ‘be very careful around open windows.’
Speaking on CNN’s ‘State of the Union,’ retired US General David Petraeus seemingly was referencing the number of prominent Russians who have died in unclear circumstances, including in falls from windows, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
‘Prigozhin kept his life, but lost his Wagner Group,’ Petraeus said. ‘And he should be very careful around open windows in his new surroundings in Belarus’.
Meanwhile, as Prigozhin was hailed as a hero by some of his supporters, members of Russia’s convict army issued a threat against the Wagner warlord accusing him of a betrayal after he abandoned his coup against the Kremlin.
And on Monday morning footage was broadcast on Russian state TV showing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu inspected Russian troops – his first public appearance since the failed mutiny plunged the country into chaos.
Shoigu’s emergence appeared to be a message from Putin to Prigozhin, signalling the embattled Russian despot would not axe his defence minister from his post despite a demand from the Wagner boss to do so.
In a video posted online, a group of prisoners-turned fighters said Prigozhin’s decision to pull back before reaching Moscow was ‘cowardice’.
They said his supporters now faced retaliation from Russia’s military, and that he had ‘double-crossed them’ by striking an amnesty deal with the Kremlin.
According to The Telegraph, the video came from one of the Russian army’s Storm-Z brigades which are made up of convicts offered pardons in exchange for fighting.
While Wagner has also recruited convicts from prisons under the same terms, Storm-Z units are separate from the mercenary group. Despite this distinction, many fighters in the units consider Prigozhin as an unofficial commander-in-chief.
Prigozhin, who once served jail time himself, toured Russian prisons recruiting fighters – promising them freedom in exchange for six months of service.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (centre) inspected Russian troops in footage broadcast in the country this morning – his first public appearance since a failed mutiny by Wagner forces plunged the country into chaos
Yet Shoigu, 68, who was out of sight on Sunday, was seen in footage released by his ministry early today (pictured) dressed in military fatigues meeting Russia’s Western group of troops and receiving a report from Colonel-General Yevgeny Nikiforov
Wagner fighters bid farewell to supportive crowds in Rostov-on-Don
Members of Russia’s convict army (pictured) issued a threat against the Wagner warlord – accusing him of a betrayal after he abandoned his coup against the Kremlin
In the video, one of the Storm-Z fighters claimed the Wagner boss had ‘leaked’ at the last minute – Russian jail slang to suggest he lost his nerve, The Telegraph reports.
‘You promised everything to our guys, and our Storm unit and others were ready to fight firmly for you,’ the fighter says, speaking directly to camera. ‘Then you turned the steering wheel in the other direction.’
According to some reports, retribution for supporting Prigozhin was already being doled out. According to Radio Liberty, Russian political scientist and publicist Mikhail Serenko was detained in Volgograd on Saturday evening.
His family said he was suspected of aiding Prigozhin’s insurrection attempt.
As some of his previous supporters turned on him, a top pro-Putin military figure demanded Prigozhin should put a bullet through his own head.
His leading Wagner private military company commander Dmitry Uktin must do the same, demanded Putin MP and reservist Lt-Gen Andrey Gurulev on live TV.
If not they should be executed, he made clear as poisonous recriminations begin among Putin’s circle over Saturday’s events.
The hardline general – now a loyalist MP and the most prominent state TV military analyst – said ‘only a bullet to the forehead’ was good enough for the men behind Saturday’s coup. ‘This is the only salvation for Prigozhin, and Utkin,’ he said.
The footage shows Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) listening to a report being presented on the area’s military situation, studying maps and taking a helicopter ride (pictured) to inspect Russian positions
Shoigu (centre) was facing down a demand from coup-plotting Prigozhin that his head should roll along with chief of the army Gen Valery Gerasimov
Shoigu is the first of three powerful Russian leaders whose diverging interests led to the Wagner Group occupying Rostov-on-Don to be seen since the revolt ended.
He is facing down a demand from coup-plotting Prigozhin that his head should roll – along with chief of the army Gen Valery Gerasimov – over Russia’s faltering, 16-month long invasion of Ukraine that has seen hundreds of thousands of casualties.
Prigozhin has repeatedly blamed Shoigu and Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, for his fighters’ deaths and has made clear his disdain for the fact that he has visited the frontlines in Ukraine while the pair have remained in Russia.
Putin and Prigozhin have made no public statements since Wagner retreated.
Yet Shoigu, 68, who was out of sight on Sunday, was seen in footage released by his ministry early today dressed in military fatigues meeting Russia’s Western group of troops and receiving a report from Colonel-General Yevgeny Nikiforov.
A defiant Shoigu – fighting for his job – ‘listened to a report from the commander of the Western group, Col-Gen Nikiforov, on the current situation at the front’ and the ‘nature of enemy actions’ according to reports.
The footage shows the defence minister studying maps and taking a helicopter ride to inspect Russian positions.
It was initially not possible to ascertain when the visit took place.
One picture shows the time on Shoigu’s watch as being shortly before one o’clock.
However it remains unclear if his visit to the war command post was earlier today or yesterday – or if older footage was suddenly released to show him in charge.
Rumours are swirling in Moscow that Putin, 70, has lined up Tula governor and ex-deputy defence minister Alexei Dyumin, 50, to be the next defence minister, replacing Shoigu.
He is a trusted former Putin bodyguard who once saved the Kremlin leader from attack by a vicious brown bear.
He is rumoured to have played a role in the pact which stopped the coup march into Moscow on Saturday. And he is believed to be involved in secret funding channels used by the Kremlin elite.
Putin has not fired any of his top team – many now in their late sixties or early seventies – during the war.
Gerasmov, 67, also remains in post so far despite Prigozhin’s demands for him to be fired and even prosecuted.
Meanwhile on Monday morning, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said he was cancelling a counter-terrorism regime imposed in the Russian capital during the Wagner mutiny.
Sobyanin made the announcement in a statement posted on the Telegram messaging application on Monday.
Russian media cited local Federal Security Service (FSB) offices as saying similar regimes had been cancelled in the Voronezh and Moscow regions.
Separately, Russia’s National Anti-terrorism Committee said the situation in the country was ‘stable’.
The anti-terrorist regimes were imposed in the three regions on Saturday, as a column of the rebellious Wagner mercenaries moved towards Moscow, exchanging fire with security forces and bringing down Russian military aircraft.
Prigozhin was last seen late Saturday in an SUV leaving Rostov-on-Don, where his fighters had seized a military headquarters, to the cheers of some local people.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) the owner of the Wagner Group military company, sits inside a military vehicle posing for a selfie with a local civilian after retreating to the group’s base in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Saturday
Members of Wagner group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base in Rostov-on-Don late on Saturday
This was after agreeing a deal to turn back his coup forces marching on Moscow.
Some shook his hand through the car window. Trucks carrying armoured vehicles with fighters on them followed his car.
Within hours of Prigozhin’s announcement that his forces would return to base to avoid ‘spilling Russian blood’, the Kremlin said he would leave for Belarus.
In exchange, Russia will drop the ‘armed rebellion’ charges against Prigozhin and not prosecute Wagner troops, it added.
However, the criminal case against Prigozhin remains open, Russian media has said.
Putin on Saturday vowed to crush what he called a treasonous mutiny, before it was reported that the Kremlin had struck the Belarus deal with the Wagner leader.
Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported on Monday that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was continuing its investigation as part of the case. It cited an unidentified source as saying there had not been enough time to close the case.
Russia’s three main news agencies – TASS, RIA and Interfax – also reported that the criminal case against Prigozhin remained open and that the investigation was continuing.
‘The criminal case against Prigozhin has not stopped,’ TASS cited a source close to the prosecutor’s office as saying. ‘The investigation is ongoing.’
The Belarus deal removes Prigozhin’s control of Wagner, but it’s unclear whether any of his fighters would follow him to Belarus, either out of a sense of loyalty or due to dismay with being absorbed into the Russian military as contract soldiers.
‘These personnel could potentially sign contracts with the MoD on an individual basis, demobilize in Russia – (or) travel to Belarus in some capacity,’ the Institute for the Study of War think tank said in its report on the failed rebellion.
If in Belarus, there would be concerns about whether they could get access to the Russian battlefield nuclear weapons.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, was worried about them gaining control of Russian weapons as the uprising roiled on Saturday.
‘The world will be put on the brink of destruction’ if Wagnerites obtain nuclear weapons, Medvedev warned.
Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District’s headquarters and return to their base in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24
Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District’s headquarters and return to their base in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24
In their lightning advance, Prigozhin’s forces on Saturday took control of two military hubs in southern Russia and got within 120 miles of Moscow before retreating.
The mutiny was the culmination of Prigozhin’s long-standing feud with the Russian military’s top brass over the conduct of the Russian operation in Ukraine.
People in Rostov-on-Don cheered Wagner troops as they departed late Saturday, a scene that played into Putin’s fear of a popular uprising. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin as he drove away in an SUV.
Yet the rebellion fizzled quickly, in part because Prigozhin did not have the backing he apparently expected from Russian security services. The Federal Security Services immediately called for his arrest.
Putin had on Saturday denounced the revolt as treason, vowing to punish the perpetrators. He accused them of pushing Russia to the brink of civil war.
Later the same day, however, he had accepted an agreement brokered by Belarus to avert Moscow’s most serious security crisis in decades.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated the truce with Prigozhin. Moscow thanked him, but observers noted that an intervention by Lukashenko, usually seen as Putin’s junior partner, was itself an embarrassment.
Ukraine revelled in the chaos, stepping up its own counter-offensive against Russian forces, while analysts also said the deal had exposed weakness in the Russian president’s grip on power.
Zelensky’s senior aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that ‘Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence’.
Russia insisted the rebellion had no impact on its faltering Ukraine campaign, and said Sunday that it had repelled new offensive attacks by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian soldiers leaving the front line Sunday said the revolt had not noticeably affected fighting around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
‘Most people, most military, understand very well that the circus from Russia is still here,’ said Nazar, a 26-year-old bearded soldier, parked at a service station on a road leading out of the Bakhmut area.
Kyiv, however, said the unrest offered a ‘window of opportunity’ for its long-awaited counter-offensive.
Wagner’s fighters, made up of volunteers and ex-security officers but also thousands of convicts, were often thrown into the front of Russia’s advance in Ukraine.
The outfit also conducts several operations in the Middle East and Africa, largely seen as having Moscow’s blessing.
A man sits atop an armored vehicle in southern Russia as residents in the street talk with military personnel on Saturday, while awaiting news of Wagner’s march on the capital
Residents of the southern Russian city of Rostov take photos of an armoured vehicle in the street as they talk with military personnel on Saturday, June 24
The US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time.
That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military that he said killed a large number of his men.
The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
US Rep. Mike Turner, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said Prigozhin’s march on Moscow appeared to have been planned in advance.