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Prigozhin after the end of the rebellion. June 24, 2023.

‘Putin was nowhere to be found’ An inside look into the Kremlin’s attempted negotiations with Prigozhin and why it took Lukashenko to put an end to the rebellion

Source: Meduza
Prigozhin after the end of the rebellion. June 24, 2023.
Prigozhin after the end of the rebellion. June 24, 2023.
Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On the evening of June 24, as Wagner forces were just a few hundred kilometers outside of Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that they would stop their advance and “retreat to their field camps according to the plan.” The Wagner Group founder explained that his “march” had reached a point “where bloodshed was possible.” This claim was not only vague, but also untrue — 13 Russian pilots had already been killed throughout the course of the rebellion.

The night before Prigozhin’s insurrection, the Wagner founder blamed Russia’s Defense Ministry for attacking his fighters, though he didn’t present any evidence to back up these claims. Prigozhin singled out Russia’s defense minister Sergey Shoigu specifically, calling him a “coward” and a “creature” that needed “to be stopped.”

Just before Prigozhin turned his forces around, it was suddenly revealed that Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, was leading negotiations. He was apparently the one who finally convinced Prigozhin to stand down, according to Minsk’s official representatives. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also confirmed this, though Prigozhin himself has not yet commented. According to Peskov, Prigozhin “will leave for Belarus,” and Russia will drop the criminal case against him. It’s not yet clear what exactly awaits Prigozhin once he arrives in Belarus.

According to one of Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin, the Russian authorities began negotiations with Prigozhin on the evening of June 23, when he announced the start of his “march of justice.”

The military leadership, the Kremlin’s employees, and government officials attempted to negotiate with Prigozhin — though it was challenging to know exactly what should even be negotiated, given his actions.

Prigozhin’s demands were vague and strange. He wanted Shoigu gone, autonomy over Wagner’s affairs, and more funding. After an armed rebellion, however, there was no longer a place in the system [for Prigozhin.] In any case, he would end up worse off, even if they guaranteed that he’d be safe and [that Wagner Group] would be preserved in some capacity. He didn’t want to lose anything.

Meduza previously reported that the Kremlin first hoped to resolve the situation “relatively peacefully,” but was unable to reach an agreement with Prigozhin. The Kremlin then ordered Russian governors and politicians to publicly condemn Prigozhin’s actions and declare him a “traitor.” Around 10:00 a.m. Moscow time, Putin made a national televised address, calling Prigozhin a “traitor” and denouncing what he called a “stab in the back.” This seemed to rule out the possibility of a peaceful solution.

Prigozhin responded by saying that the “president is deeply mistaken.” He added that, “no one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the Federal Security Service, or anyone else.” At that point, Wagner fighters already controlled Rostov-on-Don and were well on their way to Moscow.

According to Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin, by mid-day on June 24, Prigozhin attempted to contact the Kremlin himself. He reportedly even “tried to call Putin, but the president didn’t want to speak with him.”

Meduza’s sources believe that Prigozhin probably realized that “he’d gone too far” and “prospects for his column to continue to advance were dim.” At that point, his fighters were already approaching the Oka River, where the Russian army and the National Guard had set up their first line of defense. Despite Prigozhin’s claims that “half the army” was ready to join him, Wagner received no additional support from soldiers in the first hours of the uprising.

The Kremlin most likely realized that Prigozhin’s calculations had changed, and then decided to avoid a “bloody confrontation” with Wagner. The final round of negotiations reportedly included the Kremlin’s chief of staff Anton Vaino, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, and the Russian ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov — while Lukashenko took the lead role. According to one source close to the Kremlin, Prigozhin insisted that negotiations include top officials. Given Putin’s reluctance to engage with Prigozhin, negotiators were left with few options.

“Prigozhin needed a trusted third party to exit and save face. That’s where Lukashenko came in. He enjoys publicity — that’s why he agreed,” said Meduza’s source. It clearly benefits Lukashenko, who knows how to benefit from the publicity of becoming the one “saving Russia from bloodshed, or worse — a potential civil war,” said the source.

Meduza’s sources add that Prigozhin ultimately ended up losing out from the rebellion. “He’s been expelled from Russia. The president won’t forgive this,” one source explained. While the exact details of Prigozhin’s future still have to be worked out, he “won’t have the same kind of influences and resources as he did before.” There may also be changes to personnel in the Russia’s defense ministry, “though this would be due to the ministry’s internal issues, rather than Prigozhin’s demands.”

At the start of the rebellion, Russian general Sergey Surovikin posted a video calling on Wagner fighters to stand down and “resolve the issue peacefully.” Lieutenant-General Vladimir Alekseev also called Prigzohin’s actions “a stab in the back” and “an attempted coup.”

In the course of a few hours, Prigozhin met with Alekseev and the deputy defense minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov at the Southern Military District’s headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin told them he would head toward Moscow and was going after Chief of the General Staff [Valery Gerasimov] and [Defense Ministry Sergey] Shoigu. Neither Shoigu, nor Gerasimov have commented on Prigozhin’s rebellion. It’s also unclear where exactly they were while the events were unfolding.

Another one of Meduza’s source close to the Russian leadership doubts that there would be personnel changes in the defense ministry anytime soon, stating that “Putin almost never bends under pressure.”

Meduza’s sources added that the rebellion weakens Putin’s position: “He was unable to get down to Prigozhin’s level, but he was nowhere to be found after yesterday’s national address. He’s the first in command, and takes control when necessary. He shouldn’t make Lukashenko the public face and allow Russia’s security officials [siloviki] to lead negotiations.”

While Prigozhin was leading his army toward Moscow, Putin was, according to his spokesman Peskov, dealing with documents in the Kremlin. Putin’s plane, equipped to control the army, also reportedly departed Moscow on the afternoon of June 24, disappearing from radar near the city of Tver, reported iStories, referencing flight data pulled from Flightradar.

One of Meduza’s sources believes that Putin will now try to consolidate power, and that the number of attempts by Russia’s elites to “restructure the hierarchy” will only increase.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sasha Slobodov

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