Mercenary Wagner Group Rebels, Putin Vows Decisive Action

Yevgeny V Prigozhin built the mercenary force Wagner Group as he enriched himself thanks to his ties with President Vladimir Putin which helped him get the Russian government’s lucrative contracts for construction and catering

Mercenary Wagner Group Rebels, Putin Vows Decisive Action

Vladimir Putin has vowed decisive action amid a standoff in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don hours after authorities said the Russian President’s ally-turned-foe, mercenary tycoon Yevgeny V Prigozhin, had launched an armed rebellion.

He called the treasonous rebellion a stab in the back of Russian and Russian people and said Rostov has essentially been blocked, effectively acknowledging a degree of Prigozhin’s success. He referred to the 1917 Russian Revolution when the Russian Empire was fighting in the First World War and pledged to do everything to defend Russia.

The seriousness of the crisis prompted Putin, who is known to operate behind the scenes, to make a rare public address.

Prigozhin earlier claimed control of parts of the Russian Armed Forces’ southern military headquarters. The Wagner Group chief’s forces have threatened to march on Moscow and prompted authorities to limit transit traffic in the Tula region. The main road from Rostov to Moscow passes through the region.

Russian defense ministry issued an appeal telling Wagner Group fighters that they were tricked into joining Prigozhin’s ‘criminal adventure’ and participating in the rebellion. It said many Wagner Group fighters have recognized their mistake and sought help to safely return to their bases. The ministry called on Wagner Group fighters to get in touch while guaranteeing safety for all.

The crisis is seen as a major challenge to the Russian state in recent times. It raised questions over the loyalty of the security forces, particularly the Russian National Guard (RNG). Over 100 RNG men were fired for refusing to fight in Ukraine last year in what appeared to indicate dissent among sections of security forces over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Friday, the Russian military said Prigozhin was trying to mount a coup against Putin following months of quarrel with the Wagner Group chief over tactics in Ukraine in what is a dramatic turn of events.

Prigozhin built the mercenary force Wagner Group as he enriched himself thanks to his ties with President Vladimir Putin. The relationship helped him get the Russian government’s lucrative contracts for construction and catering.

The ranks of Prigozhin’s fighters swelled with prisoner recruits as they joined the fray when the Russians invaded Ukraine. Prigozhin has used social media of late to turn, as The New York Times noted, tough talk and brutality into his personal brand. He has blamed Russia’s military leadership for ignoring the struggles of soldiers and failing in providing his forces with the ammunition they need.

Putin, who has imprisoned and fined critics of the Ukraine war, was seen to be treating Prigozhin with kid gloves until he was accused of mounting the coup. He would spew profanities while claiming loyalty to Putin. Prigozhin has been known as ‘Putin’s chef’ for the catering contracts he got from the Russian government.

The New York Times noted Prigozhin, who acknowledged having founded Wagner only last fall, has become a ‘symbol of wartime Russia: ruthless, shameless and lawless.’ He has recruited prisoners and endorsed extrajudicial executions.

Prigozhin increased the presence of Wagner Group in Ukraine after Russia’s attempts to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv failed in the early days of its invasion. His private military company was until then mostly active in Syria and Africa. It operated there on Russia’s behalf and to protect Prigozhin’s business interests.

An American federal grand jury indicted Prigozhin and 12 other Russians in February 2018 for interfering in the 2016 US Presidential Election via the troll factory Internet Research Agency by supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through information warfare against the United States (US) and by spreading falsehoods.

In December 2016, the US sanctioned Prigozhin, 62. Prigozhin has come a long way since serving his nine-year sentence (1981-1990) for robbery and other crimes. Born in Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) in 1961, he opened a hotdog stand before starting restaurants and convenience stores. His catering business has organized Putin’s state banquets.

Battle-hardened in SyriaLibya, and the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group forces were sent to Ukraine to bolster Russian troops. UN investigators and human rights groups have accused Wagner troops of targeting civilians, mass executions, and looting property.

The private military force emerged in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. It reportedly took its name from its leader Dmitry Utkin’s nom de guerre. Utkin is a retired Russian military officer. In March 2022, The New York Times reported Utkin is said to have chosen Wagner to honor Hitler’s favorite composer Wagner.

Russia has used Wagner Group’s opacity for plausible deniability, to downplay its casualties in Ukraine, and to distance itself from atrocities Wagner fighters have committed. As Russians suffered losses, Putin sent sending battle-hardened reinforcements into Ukraine.

In 2022, the American Department of Defense said some of the fighters appeared to have been recruited from Syria and Libya and that Russia appeared to be turning to them to bolster its troops in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. The group had prior experience of fighting in the region.

Wagner has exerted Russian proxy influence by fighting also in Sudan, Mali, and Mozambique on behalf of authoritarian leaders. It has seized oil and gas fields and often acted like Western military contractors.

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