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‘They thought the risk was nil’ Prigozhin’s armed insurrection caught Kremlin officials off guard. Meduza’s sources say that by all appearances, attempts to negotiate have failed.
Vladimir Putin’s administration is pervaded with a fear that, within just a few hours, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group forces might not be far from Moscow, and that combat would then break out near the capital. Two sources close to the administration have shared what’s happening in the Kremlin with Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev.
Update: Just after 8:30 p.m. Moscow time on June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin abruptly announced that Wagner forces would stand down and retreat to their field camps “according to the plan.” This came shortly after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have mediated an agreement with Prigozhin to halt Wagner’s advance and take “further steps to de-escalate tensions.”
Two informed speakers agree that the feeling in the Kremlin last night had been that “Prigozhin’s bluffing” and “trying to haggle” for some kind of concession. But when Wagner Group mercenaries took control of Rostov-on-Don on Saturday morning, it dawned on the President’s Office that things were “getting serious.”
Just a few hours ago, the country’s leadership had been hoping to resolve the situation peacefully. Early in the morning, Alexander Kharichev (a close associate of Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko) and Andrey Yarin (head of the Kremlin’s office for domestic politics) called Russia’s regional governors and establishment politicians, advising everyone to be careful in commenting on the situation, and not to “get personal about Prigozhin.”
One-and-a-half hours later, these guidelines had to be cardinally revised, and the heads of regions were instructed to speak openly of Prigozhin as a “traitor.” This took place even before Vladimir Putin’s address to the nation (even though Putin himself abstained from referring to Prigozhin by name when speaking about the developing armed coup). This timeline was also confirmed by another source in the leadership of one of Russia’s parliamentary parties.
What exactly transpired in those ninety minutes remains unclear. Meduza’s sources have surmised that the behind-the-scenes talks between the country’s leadership and Prigozhin himself had probably come to naught. It’s also uncertain whether Putin took part in those talks personally. Around 10:00 a.m. Moscow time, the president gave his address, unequivocally describing the insurrection as a “betrayal,” ruling out any possibility of a peaceful solution, and promising hardline measures instead.
A source close to the Russian government, as well as a second speaker with connections in the Kremlin, both told Meduza that Prigozhin started “bustling” about two weeks ago, after Putin said that, to continue operating in Ukraine, mercenary companies would have to become government contractors. This appears to have brought Prigozhin’s conflict with the Defense Ministry to a head. He refused to sign any contracts with the ministry, alleging that it had been “privatized” by corrupt individuals, while Wagner Group itself had no interest in “taking part in their crimes.”
Prigozhin then tried to maneuver around Putin’s new requirement, making phone calls and offering his own solutions, like possibly making Wagner subordinate to the National Guard. “He was also persistently asking to take charge of territorial defense in the border regions. But they refused his requests,” says one of Meduza’s informed sources.
According to the same speaker, that was when “some bad foreboding spread in the air, that something was about to happen.” “Prigozhin,” he adds, “has been used to getting his way with histrionics.” Another speaker points out that state security services have “slept through” the buildup:
Maybe they didn’t have the nerve to tell the president that something’s up with Prigozhin. And Prigozhin himself had only limited access to the first body, so tactically, it made more sense to avert their eyes, because if they reported the problem, decisions would have to be made. And how would you make that decision?
One of the sources close to the President’s Office admits that the Kremlin underestimated the problem:
They talked about it in meetings, and came to the conclusion that he is a daring opportunist who doesn’t play by the rules. When it came to the risk of an armed insurrection, they thought it was nil. They thought only a madman would do that. But he does seem to have blown his roof.
The Kremlin is confident that the regular army and the security forces will be able to stop the advancing Wagner formations. At the same time, one of the speakers predicts that at least some of the mercenaries will “break through to Moscow.” Another commentator admits that he’s already evacuated his family from the capital.
The speakers agree that the very fact that the administration would have allowed an armed coup to develop unhampered as far as it did will strike a blow to Putin’s reputation, even if his security apparatus is ultimately able to suppress the insurgents. “Signals like this just before the 2024 presidential campaign are not that great, to be honest,” says one of them.
Another thing the insiders agree on is that, even if contained, the armed insurrection will lead to a new repressive clampdown in the country. “They’ll tighten the screws even if they stop Prigozhin quickly. And if they don’t, then all the more so,” a source predicts.
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