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Russian Mercenary Leader’s March On Moscow Rattles Putin’s Command

Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion exposes fragility within Putin's leadership, with potential impacts on war efforts.

Over the weekend, Russia’s leadership experienced one of its worst shocks since the start of the war on Ukraine.

The blow came from within, as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russian mercenary group Wagner, marched with his army toward Moscow with several demands, including the removal of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

On Monday, Prigozhin said the march to Moscow was not a coup attempt and was meant as a protest against Russia’s military leadership. Prigozhin said  Russia’s army killed 30 of his men in an attack.

Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum SPIEF2016 on June 17, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (MIKHAIL SVETLOV/Getty Images) 

“We started our march because of an injustice,” said Prigozhin in his first public message since calling off the march on Moscow on Saturday.

Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District’s headquarters and return to their base on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (StringerSTRINGER/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) 

The march on Moscow was halted and Prigozhin was offered safe haven in Belarus, but the event marked one of the most significant signs of destabilization within Russia since fighting in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, with one expert stating the event will have “short, medium, and longer-term impacts” on the country’s war efforts.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin made an effort to appear strong in the face of his challenger, saying publicly that those who took part in the insurrection “will suffer inevitable punishment,” the rebellion came on the verge of plunging Russia into a civil war, and is now showing a new fragility within Putin’s command.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the final act,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday.

Prigozhin’s mercenaries were granted general amnesty in a deal reportedly achieved with the help of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in exchange for Prigozhin’s voluntary exile to the Eastern European country, which has declared itself in favor of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko seen during the 2nd Eurasian Economic Forum, on May 24, 2023 in Moscow, Russia. (CONTRIBUTOR/Getty Images) 

Defense Minister Shoigu appeared in a video published Monday by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, in which he’s seen working. The video has been interpreted as a sign that Shoigu will retain his position for the time being, as per the WSJ.

As of Monday, it is still not clear whether Prigozhin is still facing criminal charges for his role in the mutiny or, as Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said, he’ll have his charges dropped.

The fate of the Wagner group and its 25,000-man militia has also not been clarified. On Monday, Russian news agency TASS said Wagner recruitment centers in the cities of Tyumen and in Novosibirsk had resumed activity.

Putin has not given a public speech since his vow to crush Wagner’s insurrection on Saturday.

In the meantime, official press agencies have made several efforts to showcase that it’s business as usual in the country’s capital, where temporary checkpoints set up on the city’s outskirts have been dismantled.

“To the extent that the Russians are distracted and divided it may make their prosecution of aggression against Ukraine more difficult,” Blinken said. 

Produced in association with Benzinga

Edited by Jessi Rexroad Shull and Kyana Jeanin Rubinfeld

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