Prigozhin has let the genie out of the bottle | Russia-Ukraine war

“Bomb Voronezh” is a Russian idiom that means to hurt yourself while trying to cause damage to others. On June 24, the language met reality when Russian forces bombed the southern city of Voronezh in an attempt to slow the advance of the Wagner Group’s mercenary convoy toward Moscow.

Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, dubbed “Putin’s Chef” for making a fortune from food supply contracts to the Kremlin, the Wagner Group fighters conducted a “march to demand justice” to bring down the leadership of the defense and military ministries, but the results were just as abrupt. like it started.

The private military company was set up in 2014 to cover for President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy adventures by providing a reasonable denial of the Kremlin’s involvement in conflicts. outbreak abroad. Over the next decade, the team and founder became more and more powerful and better equipped.

Last year, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner fighters became the Kremlin’s most effective shock force on the battlefield, leading the eight-month war. siege of the strategic city of Bakhmut and capture it.

But over the weekend, the group morphed from a loyal militia into Moscow’s top security threat, as Prigozhin openly rebelled against the Russian military.

His “march” to the Russian capital to try to overthrow military leaders – whom he has accused of corruption, incompetence and sabotage of his mercenaries – has exposed revealed a profound weakness in the Russian state. By creating this unusual force, the Kremlin actually “bombed Voronezh”.

Prigozhin’s forces seized military installations in southwestern Russia and advanced toward Moscow without major resistance. Soon after, footage emerged of locals delivering food and supplies to Wagner mercenaries and cheering them on.

Wagner’s permissive actions caused a panic in Moscow. Flights out of the country are sold out and there are real fears that violence and even war is approaching. For the first time since Putin came to power in 2000, the specter of violent upheavals that could threaten his regime has emerged.

Moscow declared a state of emergency and made some feeble attempts to halt the advance of Prigozhin’s fighters, tearing roads and sending helicopters (at least six of which were destroyed). Wagner fighters destroyed) to bomb the convoy.

Wagner’s forces were said to have reached within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the Russian capital before their leader suddenly announced they would return to avoid “spilling Russian blood”. Later, it was reported that he had agreed to a deal made by Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, to resign and live in exile in Belarus. Other details of the deal remain murky.

What is clear, however, is that Putin seems greatly weakened after the mutiny, losing his monopoly on the use of force in Russia and the illusion that he can bring security and stability to the Russian people.

Prigozhin has released the genie out of the bottle, and if these events continue to seriously challenge the power of the Russian presidency, it will not be without precedent in Russian history.

IN his speech Before the nation on June 24, Putin himself mentioned such an episode: “Actions that divide our unity are a betrayal to our people, to our brothers. children in our battle who are currently fighting on the front lines. It is a knife in the back of our country and people. It was a blow to Russia in 1917 when it was fighting in World War I, but its victory was stolen.”

In February 1917, civil unrest broke out in Russia in part due to the disastrous performance of the Russian military in Eastern Europe during World War I and the growing public dissatisfaction with the way it was run. country. The perception of the decline in power of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II also played a role.

As public anger grew, a garrison stationed in St Petersburg, the imperial capital, rebelled. Having lost control of the city, the emperor was approached by an army commander and several members of parliament and pressured to abdicate. Power was vested in a provisional government led by liberal forces.

Seeing Prigozhin’s popularity among Russians, some also drew parallels with another episode of the eventful 1917. In August of that year, as the provisional government struggled to control the country’s internal affairs, Lavr Kornilov, an infantry general had just been appointed commander-in-chief of the army due to his popularity in the army. team, refused to carry out the orders of Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky.

Kornilov then tried to march to St Petersburg and take power but was unsuccessful. This further weakened the government amid the raging economic crisis, social upheaval and defeat in war. It paved the way for the Bolsheviks to ride a wave of unrest among workers and soldiers and seize power in what became known as the October Revolution – a historic event that Putin lamented long ago.

Indeed, the Russian President has reason to fear the parallels with 1917. The war against Ukraine that he launched last year did not go “as planned”, as he has claimed in the past. Last year, his blitzkrieg on Kyiv and his attempt to capture all of Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper and along the Black Sea coast failed. This year, his forces have been unable to control all of the Donetsk or Luhansk regions, which he declared part of Russia in October.

Meanwhile, Putin has lost one of his most effective military commanders in Prigozhin, and no matter how hard he tries to rebuild the Wagner Corporation, it is unlikely to maintain the same powerful force it once had. . This may help Ukraine, which has recently launched a counter-offensive and is liberating territories to the east and south. Following the Prigozhin uprising, Kiev is said to have established a bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region and also won the Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions.

The Russian economy has also been hit hard by the war and the ever-expanding list of sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States and their allies. It has become more dependent on exports to China, for its part still unwilling to provide Russia with substantial new financing. Beijing has also delayed the deal to build the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline, which Putin desperately needs to replace lost European gas sales.

A week before the unrest, Russian media reported that Chinese banks had restricted the transfer of renminbi from Russian banks to third countries and that Beijing would have little incentive to stick around. than on Putin now.

Of course, the Kremlin has not yet fallen into a crisis of the same scale as that of 1917, but we also do not know how Prigozhin’s mutiny will end. He actually withdrew his warriors from Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, but what will happen to him next is still unclear. The treason charges against Prigozhin, which should have been dropped under the agreement he made with Lukashenko, are said to remain in force.

There have been reports that he is in Minsk, although Belarusian officials have denied that they knew of his arrival and it is difficult to know how they were able to provide a refuge for him due to the unknowns. past dispute between Prigozhin and Lukashenko. Putin is known to consider betrayal unforgivable, but further action against Prigozhin could further destabilize the situation. Once the genie has been released from the bottle, it is difficult to put it back.

It’s also unclear what will happen to Wagner’s lucrative operations in Africa, where it is believed to be directly involved in the mining of gold and other precious minerals. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said these would remain in place, but that the units Wagner participated were believed to have served Prigozhin the longest and were likely to be most loyal to him. So whether they accept a new leadership or resist remains to be seen.

On June 26, Prigozhin finally broke his silence, Swear that Wagner will continue to act and declare that he has no intention of overthrowing Putin. Those words would have been unthinkable just four days ago, and while Putin managed to survive his rebellion, the truce between the two sides may be fleeting. The wheels of change have begun to move and it is difficult to predict where they will take Russia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.


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