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Russia: Wagner Group Rebels And Claims Control Of Military HQ, Putin Vows To Punish 'Stab In The Back'

Russian private army Wagner Group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has vowed to topple Russia's military leadership, including the military chief and the defence minister. He has said that he would march to Moscow if he has to.

Russian private army Wagner Group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has vowed to topple Russia's military leadership
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In the most serious blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin's authority so far, Wagner Group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on late Friday waged an armed rebellion against the government and vowed to topple the country's defence leadership. 

Putin on Saturday described Prigozhin's rebellion as a "stab in the back" and vowed to punish "those on path of treason". Russian security services have sought Prigozhin's arrest and have announced a state of counter-terrorism emergency in Moscow and Voronezh regions.

Prigozhin has vowed to overthrow Russian Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. 

The Wagner Group, a private army often said to be Kremlin's sword-arm for dirty jobs abroad, has claimed that it has taken control of military facilities in two key Russian cities. Prigozhin has said that his private army is in control of Russian military headquarters, including the air field, in Rostov-on-Don. The Rostov-on-Don HQ is in-charge of the Russian war-efforts in Ukraine.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that videos on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets outside of the HQ.

Besides Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin is also understood to be in control of the city of Voronezh. The CNN reported that 

In a series of messages that began surfacing on late Friday, Prigozhin said he would destroy everyone who comes in his way and he would even march on Russian capital Moscow if needed. The seriousness of the situation could be understood by the fact that security in Moscow has been tightened around government facilities after Prigozhin's rebellion.

"But we will destroy anyone who stands in our way. We are moving forward and will go until the end...This is not a military coup, but a march of justice," said Prigozhin, as per AP.

Two Russia observers tell Outlook that while everything is not yet clear, it's certain that Prigozhin's rebellion will weaken Putin and adversely affect Russian war-efforts in Urkaine. Importantly, the rebellion comes at a time when Ukrainian forces are carrying out a counter-offensive aimed at retaking territories captured by Russia.

Why has Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin rebelled?

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been critical of Russian military leadership for a long time. He has accused the defence ministry of witholding ammunition and adversely affecting Russian war-efforts in Ukraine.

Wagner has been at the forefront of Russian war-efforts in Ukraine and has achieved some of the biggest victories lately, including in the grinding months-long battle of attrition in Bakhmut and in Soledar. 

The war of words has finally turned into an all-out rebellion. Prigozhin has accused the Russian military of carrying out attacks on Wagner personnel and has used it as a pretext of his rebellion. He is framing his revolt as a march to justice by punishing the Russian military chief Gerasimov and Defence Minister Shoigu.

The CNN reported, "Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian private military group Wagner, on Friday accused Russia's military leadership of killing a 'huge amount' of his mercenary forces in a strike on a camp...And he vowed to retaliate. 'Many dozens, tens of thousands of lives, of Russian soldiers will be punished,' Prigozhin said. 'I ask that nobody put up any resistance.'"

Prigozhin further claimed that Russian troops offered no resistance as he marched into Russian cities and seized control. He further claimed that as much as half of the regular Russian army is willing to join Wagner.

Those on path on treason would be punished: Putin

In an address to the nation hours after Prigozhin's rebellion and alleged capture of Russian Ukraine war headquarters, Putin termed it a "stab in the back" and vowed to punish "those on path of treason".

Putin further termed Prigozhin's rebellion as a "mortal threat" to the Russian state, according to CNN.

The CNN reported, "Putin said the country had been 'betrayed by those who are trying to organize a mutiny, pushing the country toward anarchy and fratricide'. He said 'excessive ambition and vested interests have led to treason'. Putin said it was a 'blow to Russia', adding, 'internal turmoil is a mortal threat to our statehood, to us as a nation'."

Big blow to Putin's power, internal collusion possible

Putin also said that necessary orders have been issed to Russian armed forces to take "decisive action" to stabilise the situation. That might be easier to say and hard to do as it's not yet clear if Prigozhin is acting alone or if the rebellion is orchestrated from within Putin's administration. 

Washington DC-based Russia expert Kseniya Kirillova tells Outlook that it does not appear to her that Prigozhin is acting completely independently and it appears that there is some collusion with elements inside Putin's own government. Whatever the case, she says that the situation and the actions that it would force Putin to take would weaken his power.

"I still don’t understand yet how independent Prigozhin is. He could be ordered to behave like this or be used blindly. But if so, we do not fully know who exactly it is planned to 'purge' — Prigozhin or Shoigu. I think we will fully understand this only by how it will end and what decisions Putin will make," says Kirillova, an analyst at Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation.

Prigozhin's rebellion comes at a decisive phase in Ukraine War and it would provide tactical advandage to Ukraine and a blow to Russia, says Nalin Kumar Mohapatra, Assistant Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

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He tells Outlook, "This can also be considered as the move on part of Prigozhin to capture political power and to challenge Putin's leadership. This coup by Prigozhin will definitely have a determinatal impact on the war and geopolitical fronts as this may give a tactical advantage to Ukranian army at this moment."

Kirillova's says that whatever choice Putin makes, his power is set to weaken. 

She tells Outlook, "It seems to me that Prigozhin is not completely independent. Some groups in the special services or the presidential administration may be behind him. In any case, Putin will have to make a choice between Wagner private military company and the Ministry of Defense — a choice he has been trying to avoid all this time. Whatever choice Putin makes, it will weaken his power anyway."

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As for the intention of the rebellion, it's not yet known but it's certain that the illussion of Putin's invincibility is over.

Kirillova says, "I don't know if these groups had a goal to set Putin up or if they are fighting among themselves, but Prigozhin destroyed the cornerstones of Russian propaganda in his speech, and this is sure to hurt the regime. Putin's power and his authority within the elite are weakening."

Mohapatra also said that if reports of Prighozhin capturing Rostov are true, then it can hit the morale of the Russian army as well as Russian leadership.

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Kirillova tells Outlook that such a development was not entirely unexpected. Indeed, in an article dated May 22, Kirillova had predicted that Wagner Group might enter armed confrontation with the Russian state.

Noting the inter-agency conflicts within Russian military and intelligence organisations, and the friction between Wagner and Russian Defence Ministry, Kirillova noted: "Importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin permits confrontations between different agencies so they do not become too powerful...As combat experience is accumulated, the possibility increases that sooner or later these paramilitary groups and the security services behind them will begin to sort things out with weapons rather than with words, which may inevitably turn Russia into a 'failed state'."

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