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The backstory: At this point, 16 months into the war in Ukraine, Russia has had a lot of different developments with its domestic military. Along with conscription efforts for its own forces, Russia has also depended on the Wagner group, a mercenary squad commanded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime ally of Russian President Putin. Wagner has been really helpful to Russia so far, being heavily involved in capturing Bakhmut a couple of months ago.
More recently: Lately, Wagner and the Russian military haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye, though. Prigozhin has expressed that he doesn’t really think Russian military officials actually know what they’re doing. He’s complained about how the war has been managed so far, saying that there have been a lot of unnecessary Russian deaths. Early this month, Prigozhin refused an order to bring Wagner under state control, telling his troops not to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. But that’s not where Prigozhin’s show of rebellion ends. He’s also accused the Russian military of striking on his own troops.
The development: This weekend, Prigozhin took his troops out of Ukraine to march toward Moscow after publicly questioning Russia’s motives for invading Ukraine in the first place. In the armed rebellion, they captured the Russian city and key military outpost Rostov-on-Don. Quickly moving on, Wagner made it within 200 kilometers of the city without meeting much resistance. Prigozhin continued to say the rebellion wasn’t a “coup” but a “march of justice” aimed at taking out the main two leaders in the Defense Ministry. Putin addressed the nation, calling the move a “betrayal,” and an arrest warrant was issued for Prigozhin.
Then, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko made the unexpected announcement that he had brokered some kind of agreement between Russia and Wagner, and Prigozhin sent his troops back to the Ukrainian frontlines, ending the advance toward Moscow. Now, it looks like Prigozhin himself is headed to exile in Belarus in return for not being prosecuted. As this chaos unfolded, Ukraine took advantage of new opportunities to try and reclaim some of its occupied lands.
“Those who destroyed today our guys, who destroyed tens, tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I’m asking: no one resist,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in one of several recordings on Friday.
“It is a stab in the back of our country and our people,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin in an address to the nation about the Wagner rebellion.
“They wanted to disband the Wagner military company,” Prigozhin said Saturday. “We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. Now, the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned.”
“Clearly, Prigozhin lost his nerve,” retired US Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.