Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Russian Revolution Redux

To the chagrin of Wagner supporters, and, bizarrely, Ukraine supporters, this revolution will not be televised.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Attends The Saint Petersburg  International Economic Forum
(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, news broke that the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had declared war on the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD). Within a day, what some were calling an attempted coup had failed, which has left some wondering if this was an attempted coup at all, or just really intense negotiations.

On social media, initial reactions of Wagner’s move against Russia ranged from confusion to celebration. Those confused, such as myself, thought that although the Russians seemed to be sustaining heavy losses fending off the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Ukrainians were suffering the same if not more and with little territorial advancement. And after the last 16 months of social media psy-ops (the “Ghost of Kiev,” Snake Island, nuclear meltdown, Nord Stream, etc.), some even questioned the authenticity of early social media reports.


But videos that came out of Rostov of Wagner vehicles rolling up to the MOD headquarters, including snippets of tanks with guns trained on the building, confirmed the authenticity of reports that Wagner was making a move against the Russian government. It was a nerve-racking sight: the prospect of state assets and power falling into the hands of not just a non-state actor or rebel insurgency, but a private company of mercenaries who unabashedly profiteer from war.

The fog of war sits thickly over the Russia–Ukraine war. This is by no means the whole story: For those who experienced these events firsthand, it's likely much longer and much more complicated. Was this actually a coup, an attempt at strong-armed negotiations, or the heaviest-armed temper tantrum of all time?

In Washington, on the morning of June 23, accounts on social media began posting an interview of Prigozhin discussing the war up until this point. In it, the Wagner leader claimed that the war against Ukraine was being waged not on behalf of Russians living in eastern Ukraine or to denazify the Russian border state. Rather, he said, it is a war waged on behalf of Russian oligarchs (Prigozhin, apparently, does not consider himself in this class). These oligarchs, some close to President Vladimir Putin, “plundered” the Donbas for years, and have continued to do so throughout the war: “these people were stealing money from people in [the] Donbas.”

Later, Prigozhin claimed that the “war was needed for a bunch of scumbags to triumph and show how strong of an army they are.” Prigozhin also stated that by March of 2022, Wagner and the Russian military personnel on the front lines were dealt a losing hand. Force capacity was below what was required to meet Russia’s objectives in the invasion. These problems have continued to percolate, according to Prigozhin, who claimed that lines across the expansive front are under immense pressure from the Ukrainian counteroffensive and will likely fail to defend their positions.


Shortly thereafter, Prigozhin solicited an investigation from Russia’s Investigative Committee into Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, claiming their corrupt ambitions are “responsible for genocide and murder of tens of thousands of Russian citizens and giving up the territory to the enemy.”

Into the early afternoon, chatter continued on social media and messaging platforms such as Telegram, with speculation and alleged leaked messages from troops that the Russian military could move on Wagner for Prigozhin’s earlier statements.

Prigozhin then released an audio recording shortly after 2 p.m. EST, claiming that the MOD “carried out a missile strike at Wagner rear camps,” killing a “huge number of Wagner fighters.”

“We will make a decision on how to respond to this,” Prigozhin’s message concluded. “The next step is ours.”

Within minutes, Prigozhin released another audio message, declaring that Wagner was now at war with the Russian MOD:

PMC Wagner Commanders’ Council made a decision: the evil brought by the military leadership of the country must be stopped. They neglect the lives of soldiers. They forgot the word “justice”, and we will bring it back. Those, who destroyed today our guys, who destroyed tens, tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers will be punished. I’m asking: no one resist. Everyone who will try to resist, we will consider them a danger and destroy them immediately, including any checkpoints on our way. And any aviation that we see above our heads. I’m asking everyone to remain calm, do not succumb to provocations, and remain in their houses. Ideally, those along our way, do not go outside. After we finished [sic] what we started, we will return to the frontline to protect our motherland. Presidential authority, Government, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Rosgvardia, and other departments will continue operating as before. We will deal with those who destroy Russian soldiers. And we will return to the frontline. Justice in the Army will be restored. And after this, justice for the whole of Russia.

The MOD released a statement of its own, claiming that Prigozhin was lying about a Russian missile strike against Wagner.

Nevertheless, Prigozhin continued on the warpath, and called for members of the Russian military to join Wagner’s cause: “There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why this chaos is happening in the country. Twenty-five-thousand is a tactical reserve, but the strategic reserve is our whole army and the whole country. Everyone who wants, join us. We must end this disgrace.”

Another cohort found itself in league with Wagner. Bizarrely, some Ukraine supporters on social media cheered on the chaos, seemingly unaware that the issue between Wagner and the MOD was, in part, fueled by the Putin government’s restraint.

Further audio messages from Prigozhin piled on. He claimed that Shogiu fled Rostov while simultaneously saying, “the Minister of Defence urgently arrived to Rostov in order to conduct an operation to destroy PMC Wagner. He used artillerymen and helicopter pilots covertly to destroy us.” 

About an hour after Wagner had declared war on the Russian MOD, however, Prigozhin claimed, “This is no military coup. This is a march for justice. Our actions do not interfere with the army in any way.” At this point, there was a bevy of unsubstantiated, conflicting claims circulating on social media, particularly from the Wagner leader. Was this some kind of armed protest to get concessions from the Russian government, or did Wagner actually want to wage war against the MOD? It became clear that, whatever Prigozhin and Wagner’s ambitions were, they were throwing any and all narratives at the wall to see what stuck. 

Wagner quickly needed to ally as many as possible to their cause—not only Russian foot soldiers but higher-ups in the Russian military. Given private military companies are banned in Russia, Wagner simultaneously operates beyond the purview of Russian law and within the broader framework of Russia’s military. Wagner receives equipment from the MOD, uses Russian military installations for training, and relies on the Russian military for logistical support. Convincing military officers who could provide such support would be necessary if a coup is what Prigozhin wanted.

But the actors that Prigozhin needed to attract likely revolved around Shogiu’s orbit. Further announcements from high-ranking Russian military officials implied that Wagner would not be receiving the needed support. One example came from Russian General Sergey Surovikin, who made a video imploring Wagner to “obey the supreme commander.”

“I appeal to the leadership, commanders and fighters of PMC Wagner: Together with you, we walked a difficult path. Together with you, we fought, we took risks, we took losses, but overcome together. We are of the same blood. We are warriors. I call on you to stop,” Surovikin said. “The enemy is waiting for our internal political situation to aggravate. We shouldn’t play into the enemy’s hand in this difficult time for the country. It needs to be done before it’s too late: to obey the will and order of the people-elected President of the Russian Federation. Stop the columns, and return them to their permanent positions and places of concentration. To solve all problems with civil means only under the leadership of the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces.”

Getting the Russian military to turn its backs on Shogiu and Putin was a long shot. Surely Prigozhin knew this. Which gives credence to two theories: Either this was an attempt to negotiate with the Russian government for more concessions, or Prigozhin had completely lost it.

Evidence to back up the first theory is that though Wagner relies on the MOD for support, at the end of the day, it remains a private military company. Just as it was able to mount a brief challenge to the Russian MOD without the benefits the MOD provides, it is also capable of assisting state clients in this manner—admittedly in a much more limited fashion, as the failure of Wagner’s efforts against the MOD can attest. It’s a simple sentiment, however: A private military company attempting a bloody coup against its biggest client is bad for business. Hostile negotiations less so.

As for the second theory, if this were just hostile negotiations, why would Prigozhin declare outright war on the MOD? Admittedly, Prigozhin’s declaration of war was quickly walked back. Which seems to give further credence to the theory that Prigozhin was blinded by rage. It was an attempted coup, but a capricious, ill-conceived one. Despite attempts to flounder back across, Prigozhin crossed the Rubicon when he declared war on the MOD. He should have realized it was all or nothing for him and Wagner.

By 3:45 p.m. EST, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, confirmed that the president had been “informed about the situation around Prigozhin.” What that entailed, Peskov did not say. The Russian FSB, however, opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for inciting a rebellion.

Prigozhin claimed that his movement was gaining momentum. “The majority of the military are warmly supporting us,” the Wagner leader claimed. “We get messages: ‘Finally, the justice in the army will come! Finally, you will ensure we will get the ammo and won’t be thrown as meat!’”

Wagner-devoted Telegram channels celebrated Prigozhin’s bold move, repeatedly claiming he is “the most promising politician.”

“All military who do not support the coup will be considered collaborators who sided with Ukrainians,” one Telegram message on the AP Wagner Telegram channel claimed.

Rumors swirled that Wagner units were en route to Rostov, where Shogiu and advisors allegedly formed and approved plans for attacks on Wagner. The Russian government was reportedly erecting barriers to slow the suspected Wagner column’s route to Rostov. Wagner Telegram channels continued to levy threats against Russia’s military leadership, particularly Shogiu. “Only hohols [Ukrainians] are now mainly worried for the Tuvan degenerate. After all, after his resignation, the war will begin for real.”

Maybe the Ukraine supporters cheering on Wagner would get the message.

By early evening on the east coasts, footage emerged of Wagner vehicles descending on Rostov and received little pushback from Russian units. Some hypothesized that maybe part of the Russian military was in on the alleged coup. What seemed more likely, however, is that Russia wanted to avoid open war with its own side in a city with more than a million inhabitants. On highways outside of Rostov, Russian forces clashed with Wagner mercenaries.

Apparently, the warning that this war would begin “for real” fell on deaf ears. One Ukraine supporter, Igor Sushko, proclaimed on Twitter that “Wagner PMC has liberated Rostov-on-Don from Putin's regime.”

Just hours after Prigozhin’s declaration of war, the Ukrainians doubled their efforts to reclaim territory. “Taking advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation to disorganize the situation, the Kyiv regime in the Bakhmut tactical direction focuses on the starting lines for offensive operations of the unit of the 35th Marine Brigade and the 36th Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” the MOD claimed.

Supposedly, this is what the Ukraine supporters cheering on Wagner were waiting for. The chaos unfolding in Russia, they believed, would provide the Ukrainians the opportunity for the counteroffensive, which has procured only small gains up until this point, the chance to break through. Despite the chaos, the gains made in the showdown between Wagner and the Russian government were meager. If Ukraine can’t break through under these circumstances, then little hope remains for a Ukrainian victory.

Those excitedly proclaiming the potential short-term benefits for Ukraine ought to have considered the consequences of the reported Russian coup they were cheering on: a hyper-nationalist, private military company taking control of a nation with thousands of nuclear warheads. Ukraine supporters should be thankful the coup failed.

Just past 7 p.m. EST, Prigozhin released another audio statement. “As of now, we’ve crossed the state borders in all areas. Border guards came towards us and hugged our fighters,” Prigozhin said. “Now, we’re entering Rostov. Units of the Ministry of Defence, in fact, the conscripts who were thrown to block our path, moved away.”

“If someone stands in our path,” Prigozhin said later in the message, “we will destroy everything in our way.”

Around midnight eastern time, it appeared that Wagner had more or less taken control of the part of the city where the MOD’s Southern Military District headquarters were located. Video of Prigozhin meeting with high-ranking members of the Russian military stationed there surfaced. In the video, Prigozhin threatened to march on Moscow if his demands are not met.

On the morning of June 24, Putin made his first appearance since the tumult began. In a televised address to the nation, the Russian president made an “appeal to the citizens of Russia, to the personnel of the Armed Forces, law enforcement and security services, fighters and commanders currently fighting on their positions, repelling the enemy attacks, doing it heroically.”

“I appeal also to those who were deceptively pulled into the criminal adventure, pushed towards a serious crime of an armed mutiny,” Putin said shortly thereafter. “Russia today is leading the most difficult war for its future, repelling the aggression of neo-nazis and their handlers. Against us, the whole military, economical and information machines of the West are turned.”

He likened what was unfolding to World War I. “Exactly this strike was dealt in 1917,” and “victory was stolen. Intrigues, and arguments behind the army’s back turned out to be the greatest catastrophe, destruction of the army and the state, loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war.”

“We will protect our people and state from any threats, including internal betrayal,” Putin later stated. “What we’re facing is exactly internal betrayal. Extraordinary ambitions and personal interests led to treason. Treason of their own country and people and of the case that fighters of Wagner were dying for alongside our soldiers.”

He added, “As a president of Russia and the supreme commander, as a citizen of Russia, I will do everything to defend the country, protect the constitution, lives and safety, liberty of the citizens. Those who prepared the military mutiny, who raise weapons against combat brothers, have betrayed Russia, and will pay for this. And those who are being pulled into the crime, I’m asking to not make this crucial, tragic, unrepeatable mistake. Do the one right choice—stop participating in criminal actions.”

“I believe that we will defend and preserve what’s sacred for us. And together with the motherland, we will overcome all challenges, and become even stronger,” the Russian president concluded.

For the first time, Wagner Telegram channels issued direct threats to Putin himself: “Pypa (Putin) made the wrong choice. That’s worse for him. Soon we will have a new president.”

"The trigger of the Civil War was pulled by Pypa [Putin],” a message posted on AP Wagner claimed. “Instead of sending one or two degenerates into retirement, he gave the order to neutralize the most combat-ready unit in Russia. The life of one or two traitors was placed above 25,000 heroes. Who is evil in this conflict is already obvious. The victory will be for PMC ‘Wagner.’”

Prigozhin had his own message for Putin: 

Regarding the betrayal of the Motherland, the President is deeply mistaken. We’re patriots of our Motherland. We fought and we are fighting, all fighters of PMC Wagner. And no one is going to surrender to the demands of the President, FSB, or anyone else. Because we don’t want the country to live further in corruption lies, and bureaucracy.

In the hours that followed, videos posted on social media and reports claimed that Russian attacks on Wagner units involved in the mutiny had escalated. A Russian helicopter, according to Prigozhin, attacked a Wagner column and was shot down near Rostov. Videos from alleged Wagner fighters boasted that the mercenaries had shot down several helicopters and at least one plane. A large Wagner column was reportedly hurtling towards Moscow, and the Russian military had blown up roads and placed barriers to slow Wagner's advance.

”If you're wondering how things are going, everything is going just great,” the AP Wagner Telegram channel claimed. ”What is needed for success? Success needs eggs. And the most promising politician has them.” I leave it to you, dear reader, to deduce what “eggs” is a euphemism for.

At around 1 p.m. EST on June 24, about 24 hours since Prigozhin had declared war on the MOD, the Belarusian press service claimed that Prigozhin had accepted a proposal from Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko to negotiate an end to the hostilities between Wagner and the Russian government.

As quickly as it began, it was over. "They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner. We came out on June 23 to the March of Justice,” Prigozhin declared in an audio message. “We are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan."

A few hours later, videos posted to social media apparently showed Prigozhin leaving the MOD headquarters in Rostov. The investigation opened against Prigozhin by the Russian government for inciting rebellion was closed. The Wagner telegram channels that celebrated Prigozhin quickly turned on him. “Prigozhin … is a dirty word” one message on the AP Wagner Telegram read. “A nominal example of how you can screw up everything because of your own cowardice and insignificance.”

Nevertheless, speculation on pro-Wagner Telegram channels about the deal brokered by Lukashenko continued, claiming that Prigozhin received guarantees that Shoigu would be fired, Wagner troops would receive amnesty, and that Prigozhin would receive safe passage to Africa where Wagner maintains operations via contracts brokered by the Russian government, such as training and security assistance in Mali.

Many of the details of the Lukashenko-brokered end to the alleged coup remain uncertain. What is known, however, is rather than finding safe passage to Africa, it appears that Prigozhin will live in exile in Belarus, granted in exchange for the end of Wagner’s march on Moscow and avoiding criminal prosecution by the Russian government, according to Peskov.

On Monday, Prigozhin delivered an address regarding Wagner’s so-called war against the Russian government. “The purpose of the march was to prevent the destruction of PMC Wagner and to bring to justice those who, through their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes during the special military operation,” Prigozhin stated. Prigozhin said that the purpose all along was not to overthrow the government, but to protest the government’s handling of the conflict thus far, which is why Prigozhin accepted Lukashenko’s request to negotiate.

For the time being, it appears that Prigozhin will remain atop Wagner leadership. Prigozhin, in part, agreed to the deal the Belarusian president brokered because it would allow Wagner operations to continue. Whether or not Prigozhin will remain the head of the Wagner group, much less if he’ll manage to keep his head at all, remains uncertain.

Can Prigozhin sleep soundly at night when he knows Belarus is a reliable Russian satellite state? Beyond Belarus’s relationship with Russia, allowing a mercenary leader who just attempted to wage war on its biggest client raises security concerns of its own. Prigozhin is more likely to go the way of Trotsky than Lenin.

For a moment, Wagner supporters and Ukraine supporters thought Gil Scott-Heron would be proven wrong. They spoke too quickly. This revolution will not be televised. What was televised, however, was Putin, still in command of his country and armed forces, declaring victory over the "insurgents."


Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here