Prigozhin marches on Moscow: What we know, and what to watch
Is Russia in the middle of an attempted coup? Top Russian generals say “yes” after Yevgeny Prigozhin – who has openly feuded with Russia’s military leadership even as his Wagner Group mercenaries fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine — claimed Friday he was leading 25,000 of his men from their current positions in eastern Ukraine towards the heart of Moscow.
Prigozhin claims they are already in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, about 600 miles from Moscow. Several videos claiming to show his men entering the city are circulating on Russian social media accounts, but they have not been corroborated yet.
Meanwhile, the FSB, Russia's main security service, has opened a case against Prigozhin for "mutiny" and called on his own men to arrest him. In Moscow, the Kremlin has reportedly deployed military vehicles in the streets.
The background. Prigozhin, an ex-con who once ran a catering business that served Putin, built Wagner into a fearsome private army known initially for advancing Kremlin interests in Africa. In Ukraine, Wagner has helped Putin’s war effort, but Prigozhin has openly criticized the Defense Ministry as incompetent “fat cats” who, he says, are hamstringing the invasion and deliberately starving Wagner of supplies.
Details of what’s happening right now are still patchy, and more will become clear in the coming hours – but here are a few things to bear in mind.
We don't know what precisely Prigozhin wants. After claiming without evidence that Russian troops had killed a number of his men earlier in the day, Prigozhin said he and his men would march to Moscow in the name of "justice" to stop the "evil that the military leadership brings forward." Beyond that, he hasn’t made specific demands.
But there is no turning back for him now. Putin has long tolerated his old friend Prigozhin’s deepening feud with Defense Minister Shoigu, but the move by the FSB suggests that any cover from Putin is likely gone now: Prigozhin is facing down the Russian state and military directly, and risks being jailed or killed.
Prigozhin needs allies, and we don't know if he has them. Whatever his specific aims in Moscow are, Prigozhin and his band of 25,000 lightly armed screwfaces won’t accomplish them alone. As with all coups, Prigozhin has to sow a critical mass of doubt about Shoigu’s – and by extension Putin’s – power that convinces closeted regime-skeptics to jump ship and join him. Can he manage that?
It won’t help that a number of top generals, including some who were once seen as sympathetic to Wagner, have already called on him to stand down. That said, it’s a truism among coup-nerds that the disgruntled mid-ranking officers are usually the key to pulling it off. The next few hours will be critical for determining who’s on his side.
This is probably good for Ukraine. Any unrest and uncertainty of this kind is at very least a distraction for Putin and his generals from the war effort. What’s more, there is the practical matter of Prigozhin leading 25,000 Russian fighters off the battlefield right as Ukraine is trying to make counteroffensive gains.
This is almost certainly bad for Putin. Even if he — or his men — are able to quash Prigozhin, this episode will raise questions about whether the Big Man is firmly in control. For a quarter of a century he has held power over a fractious and deeply corrupted state in part by playing rivals off of one another. But things have clearly slipped out of hand over the past few hours. Both his supporters and his critics will remember that.
Careful what you wish for. This is premature but it’s worth saying: Any significant political or military instability in Russia would carry big risks for the rest of the world too. This is, after all, a sprawling, resource-rich country with a huge arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons.