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Wagner Group in Bakhmut. Spring 2023.

‘There’s nobody on earth who can stop them’ What Wagner Group veterans have to say about Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion

Source: Meduza
Wagner Group in Bakhmut. Spring 2023.
Wagner Group in Bakhmut. Spring 2023.

‘They’re sending boys to die’

Yevgeny Prigozhin withdrew nearly all of Wagner Group’s fighters from Ukraine in preparation for his mutiny.

“I was just at the [Wagner] base. They left two cripples to guard the gate,” a soldier serving in the self-proclaimed Luhansk “People’s Republic” who knows numerous Wagner fighters personally told Meduza. “All the rest went to join the motor rally. They didn’t tell them where they were going or why; they just ordered them to assemble quickly. And to take as much gasoline as possible.”

“Motor rally” was Wagner Group’s internal term for the “march of justice” towards Moscow that Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on Friday night, the source continued. According to Prigozhin himself, 25,000 mercenaries are taking part in the march (this number has not been independently verified).

“They’re just sending boys to die,” the “LNR” source told Meduza. “There’s a huge number of prisoners hanging on his every word right now. All he has to do is give the command, ‘Attack!’ And they’ll go.”

Rostov under Wagner’s control

An attempted military coup, in photos Prigozhin’s Wagner Group took control of Rostov-on-Don, but stopped short of Moscow

Rostov under Wagner’s control

An attempted military coup, in photos Prigozhin’s Wagner Group took control of Rostov-on-Don, but stopped short of Moscow

On Friday, Prigozhin called on everyone who wants to “get to the bottom of the lawlessness in this country” to join him: “Our strategic reserve is the entire army and the entire country,” he proclaimed. These statements came as a surprise to many Wagner mercenaries, who hadn’t been informed of Prigozhin’s plans in advance, a former Wagner Group unit commander told Meduza:

One [Wagner Group reservist] from Belgorod is now somewhat bewildered. He can’t figure out who’s on his side and who’s not. He has no strong desire to fight against his own [i.e. against Russian Armed Forces soldiers]. Some people were on leave, and they’re at a loss too.

I’m in shock myself. Prigozhin was in great position: he’d captured Bakhmut and immobilized major [Ukrainian] reserves there. He’s the victor — why would he have needed to start this?

Wagner Group veterans who weren’t with Prigozhin on June 23 but still wanted to join his revolt were ordered to stand by in full combat readiness and wait for a signal, a mercenary who fought with Wagner in Ukraine told the investigative outlet iStories. “We’re waiting on the official order from [Prigozhin],” he said.

Even people with no connection to Wagner Group may be receiving offers to “join the march on Moscow.” Meduza spoke to three residents of the Russian capital who received phone calls with the proposal.

Оne of the residents wrote, cautiously:

I just got a call, purportedly from Wagner Group. They told me that Rostov was under their control, and that they’ll be waiting for me tomorrow at X o’clock at X square to support Muscovites and true Russian patriots against these scoundrels. I’m intentionally redacting the place and time, so as not to be accused of organizing an unauthorized event in case something happens,

The source doesn’t know why the callers chose him specifically.

Moscow residents are getting calls from two numbers, both of which are registered in Kazakhstan. Meduza was unable to determine whether they belong to Wagner Group; both numbers have now been disabled.

One person who did pick up the phone was a longtime Wagner Group recruiter. When Meduza asked whether the mercenaries are accepting absolutely everyone who wants to join, he replied that “everything is working as planned.”

Wagner Group has also called on residents of Rostov-on-Don, which it captured early Saturday morning, for “support.” Their argument went as follows:

Wagner Group has always defended the interests of the Russian state and the Russian people, and has defended the interests of our president — we’ve always been faithful and we’re still faithful today! And we came here not to fight but to find the truth and to get the [ammunition] that they didn’t give us for our combat operations in the special military operation zone.

Some of Meduza’s sources predicted that Russian security agents will join the Wagner fighters’ “march” (and Prigozhin himself has claimed that “half the army” will join the revolt).

“The army has been turned into a pump for constantly draining funds from the budget, and those funds don’t reach the soldiers,” said a Russian army veteran and former mercenary. “They recruit people for contract service who are 50–60 years old and have a bunch of health problems. This is fraud! Currently, the only people with a positive opinion of [Russian Defense Minister Sergey] Shoigu are those sitting on top of the cash flows. Everyone else thinks of him very poorly.”

‘Yevgeny’s gone to another reality’

“Has Yevgeny lost his mind?” one Wagner Group veteran said to Meduza. “It’s like I got a free ticket to a shitty circus.”

Sources familiar with the structure of Wagner Group are confident that the reason for the revolt was Yevgeny Prigozhin’s prolonged conflict with the leadership of Russia’s Defense Ministry — particularly with the defense minister. Prigozhin “initiated this showdown, and hoping until the last moment that his superior [Putin] would make the right choice,” an acquaintance of Prigozhin’s told Meduza. But the president made the “wrong” choice, the speaker adds: “He chose Shoigu and the military establishment.”

Prigozhin “started to get restless” about two weeks ago, sources close to the Kremlin and the Russian government told Meduza, right after Putin said that mercenary groups would be required to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry if they wanted to continue serving in Ukraine.

Putin himself explained that the change was necessary so that Wagner mercenaries could be “covered by social guarantees.” But Prigozhin categorically refused to sign an agreement with the agency and made unofficial attempts to bypass Putin’s order. “He understood that his influence would be greatly undermined. He made phone calls, offering alternative solutions like subordinating Wagner Group to the National Guard. Plus, he was pressing for control over the preparation of territorial defense forces in the border regions. And he was denied,” said a source close to the Kremlin.

Another reason Prigozhin resisted the idea of giving the regular military control over Wagner Group personnel was that it would jeopardize his business interests in Africa, explained a veteran of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who is familiar with the catering tycoon’s enterprises there. “When Shoigu wanted to put [Wagner Group fighters] in uniform, he was trying to take over all the lucrative African ventures, meaning all the mines, all the stuff that would fall under the Defense Ministry. That was the final straw,” said the source.

Still, people who knew Prigozhin a year ago described him as someone fully immersed in the “heroic routine” of Russia’s war in Ukraine. “He was really active there, he saw himself as a military commander,” said one source. “He got caught up in that drive; he saw how he could increase his own influence. When you wake up and go to bed hearing whispers about how great you are, your self-control mechanisms weaken.”

According to the source, Prigozhin gradually began attributing all of the failures he encountered to the “general decay” of the Defense Ministry (which was struggling to provide Wagner Group with ammunition) and the mercenaries’ “strange position” in the war. (This source is confident that Prigozhin was referring to Vladimir Putin when talking about a “happy grandpa” who doesn’t know what’s going on, in a tirade he posted online in May, though Prigozhin himself denied this.)

According to a former FSB officer who spoke to Meduza, six months ago Prigozhin got a “promise” from the country’s top leadership that if he provided evidence that the Russian Defense Ministry was in fact intentionally and illegally obstructing Wagner Group’s work, the generals would be “brought to trial.”

Prigozhin was sure he had supplied that evidence (Meduza does not know what the evidence in question might be) and allegedly even reported Sergey Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov to the Investigative Committee. “He was counting on the St. Petersburg team [in the government] to fulfill their obligations,” said the source.

But no legal proceedings ensued against the generals. Meanwhile, Russia’s leaders began distancing themselves from Prigozhin, as did members of Putin’s inner circle like the Kovalchuk brothers, who previously supported the mercenary leader in his feud against St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov.

One source who spoke to Meduza said that Prigozhin went from being a “useful tool” to a “potential source of problems.” “Yevgeny has gone to another reality,” he concluded. 

‘He has nowhere to escape to’

“He’s a traitor and a son of a bitch! His only motherland is money, and money is his motherland! Mercenaries will never be loyal to their country — never!” one Russian Defense Ministry official told Meduza on the morning of June 24.

As Wagner mercenaries advanced towards Moscow on Saturday, they continued to clash with the Russian army. According to the research project Oryx, the Russian Defense Ministry has lost three helicopters and one aircraft.

The military is now “trying to come up with dirty tricks to play on Prigozhin,” says a source close to the Defense Ministry. “But there’s a coordination problem: the task of bringing Prigozhin down now falls to the FSB [which initiated a case against him for ‘armed insurrection’], while the task of creating the conditions to make that possible — to neutralize them along their route — still falls on the Defense Ministry. Coordination plays a crucial role here. Whether it’s achievable is a big question,” said the source.

Another source close to the military, as well as a speaker close to the Kremlin, said that among other things, the mercenaries could be accused of “launching drones over Moscow,” most likely referring to the drone attacks that occurred in May 2023.

A former Wagner Group fighter told Meduza that he doesn’t foresee any significant obstacles to Prigozhin reaching Moscow (though in the hours since the interview occurred, Prigozhin announced that Wagner forces would stand down and retreat to their field camps “according to the plan”). “Along the way to Moscow, they won’t encounter a layered Ukrainian military defense [like in Bakhmut]. There are only rear units there,” he said.

A source from the private military contracting market agreed. “There’s nobody on earth who can stop them. Those police cordons are nothing,” he said. “Subconsciously, all the law enforcement officers absolutely agree with everything Prigozhin says. After all, he speaks the truth.”

But a source close to the Defense Ministry told Meduza he doubts the situation will escalate into real battles for control over Moscow. “They’ll take Belgorod and Krasnodar — and declare some kind of Southern Russian Republic,” he speculated. 

Prigozhin’s acquaintances who spoke to Meduza are bracing for a drawn-out conflict. “I’m currently in the woods, but I asked my friends to bring me machine guns,” said one of them. “It’s clear that after all this, Prigozhin has nowhere to escape to. He can only hope that the power structure of his former idol [Putin] will crumble. That, just like in 1917, a group of delegates will invite the emperor to retire.”

Lilia Yapparova with assistance from Svetlana Reiter and Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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