The Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor organization, has turned against the Russian Defense Ministry and launched an armed rebellion intended to remove Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu from power.
Yevgeny Prigozhin has had a yearslong relationship with the Russian military as the leader of the Wagner Group, and his forces have been crucial to Russian successes in the war against Ukraine, but relations have broken down rapidly over the past few months to the point where Prigozhin and his fighters are taking up arms to try to get Russia to change course.
The tensions began over the Russian military performance, Wagner’s recruitment of convicts and the amount of supplies and ammunition that the Wagner Group received to help the Russian military in Ukraine. Now, the strained relations have expanded to Prigozhin’s accusations that the Russian military is attacking his forces. He’s also denounced Russia’s justification for the war.
Here’s how we got to the point where an armed rebellion is launching in Russia:
Wagner Group begins work with Russian military in 2014
The Wagner Group was first seen fighting in 2014 as a conflict broke out in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. This came after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and annexed in in a referendum internationally denounced as unfair.
Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which make up Donbas, fought the Ukrainian government to declare independence from Ukraine. The Russian government supported the separatists and sent troops and weapons to support them, despite Russia denying it sent aid.
Moscow turned to the Wagner Group as private contractors to help with the fighting in Donbas while allowing the government to maintain a level of deniability about its involvement.
Russia also sent Wagner to Syria as part of the nation’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. The group also fought in multiple African countries. Western countries have accused the group of human rights abuses and “destabilizing activities” in Africa and Ukraine.
Prigozhin criticizes military during siege of Bakhmut
Russia has increasingly relied on the Wagner Group during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine as Russian forces struggled to make gains in Ukrainian territory. Wagner came to focus on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut during a monthslong siege and was critical to Russia taking the city last month.
But Prigozhin lobbed harsh criticism on the effectiveness and management of the war from Russia’s military and Defense Ministry during the siege. He accused Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the commander overseeing the war effort, of failing to manage the war and not providing enough ammunition to soldiers.
He said Russia’s plan to invade Ukraine completely backfired and suggested Russia could lose the war and that the nation change its “top leadership” last month.
Prigozhin did achieve a significant political victory once the Wagner Group successfully captured Bakhmut, making his organization responsible for the only two significant Russian victories since last summer. The group took the town of Soledar near Bakhmut in January.
But Wagner took on heavy casualties to win over Bakhmut, with Prigozhin saying he lost about 20,000 fighters over the months. Half of them were his employees and half were Russian prisoners. Wagner’s recruitment of convicts has also increasingly frustrated the Russian Defense Ministry, as did Prigozhin’s decision to pull his forces out of Bakhmut to regroup from the losses.
Russia requires allied fighters to sign contract to give Moscow more control
As a result of the rising tensions, the Russian government took action to try to rein in the Wagner Group and increase its control over the organization’s actions. The Kremlin began to require all fighters allied with the Russian military to sign a contract that would grant the government greater authority over their activities.
The deadline for the groups to agree to sign the contract is July 1. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov signed the order on behalf of his forces, but Prigozhin refused to sign it.
The declaration from the Kremlin did not specifically name the Wagner Group but was seen as targeted to concern the organization.
Prigozhin argued that Russia is distorting facts about the losses during the war, saying that victory was impossible when his forces joined the fighting last spring.
Prigozhin rejects Russian rationale for war
Prigozhin’s comments grew even more bold and defiant of the Russian military on Friday after he openly rejected what has been one of Russia’s original justifications for going into Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that what he called a “special military operation” was necessary to demilitarize Ukraine and protect ethnic Russians in Russian-speaking parts of the country from persecution by the Ukrainian government. He also said Ukraine was acting on behalf of the West by serving as a “battering ram” against Russia.
But Prigozhin accused the Russian government of lying about the true purpose for the war, which he said was to install a pro-Russian ally of Putin, Viktor Medvedchuk, as president of Ukraine and divide its assets.
He said Russian forces were stealing “loads” in the Donbas region but wanted more. He also blamed Russian oligarchs for starting the war and asserted that they were “practically ruling” Russia.
Prigozhin avoided directly criticizing Putin and his role in the war, but the Russian president is ultimately the one who made the decision to invade Ukraine and who has led the attempted justifications for the war.
Prigozhin also accused the Russian military of attacking Wagner’s camp and killing many of his soldiers. He said Shoigu and Gerasimov met and decided to eliminate Wagner.
Russia pursues criminal case against Prigozhin
The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee opened a criminal investigation into Prigozhin shortly following his comments, looking into allegations that he was inciting an armed rebellion. The committee called for Prigozhin to immediately end all illegal activities.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said after the probe was launched that Putin was aware of the ongoing situation surrounding Prigozhin and necessary measures were being taken.
The Federal Security Services hours later formally charged him with armed rebellion and called on his forces to arrest him and refuse his “criminal and treacherous” orders. It said his statements are a “stab in the back” to Russian troops.
Prigozhin leads forces into Russian territory
Prigozhin said early Saturday local time that his fighters left Ukraine and instead moved into Russian territory to remove Shoigu from power. He vowed that the group would “destroy anyone who stands in our way.”
The forces have reached the town of Rostov-on-Don, the location of Russia’s military headquarters in the southern region, which is overseeing the Ukrainian war effort.
The United Kingdom Defense Ministry reported that Wagner has “almost certainly” occupied key security sites and is aiming to move toward Moscow.
The ministry called the rebellion the “most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”
Prigozhin has said he has 25,000 soldiers under his command and called on the Russian army to not resist.
Putin pledged to put down the “armed mutiny” and accused Prigozhin of treason and betrayal, saying the rebellion is pushing Russia toward anarchy and defeat in Ukraine.
The U.K. ministry said the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, especially the Russian National Guard, will be critical to determining how the situation will play out.
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