The top Russian military commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, attend the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner mutiny leads to questions about Russia’s military leadership

Last week, mercenaries from the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, seized a major Russian city. Fighters eventually stopped their march toward Moscow, but the mutiny put Putin’s leadership — and the military — into question.

Last week, in the early hours of a mutiny led by the Wagner Private Military Company, their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, posted a message on social media.

“Evil perpetrated by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he wrote. 

The Wagner fighters seized the city of Rostov-on-Don, but eventually stopped their march toward Moscow. Still, the mutiny put the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin — and the military — into question.

To be clear, Prigozhin was not speaking out against the war in Ukraine, but he claimed that Russia’s military leaders were incompetent, failing the war effort and now trying to get rid of him.

In the hours that followed, high-ranking Russian generals spoke out against the Wagner mutiny.

In a video circulated online, Russian Gen. Sergey Surovikin called on Wagner to stop what they were doing.

“We can’t play into the hands of our enemies in this difficult moment,” he said. 

Andrei Soldatov, a London-based investigative reporter who specializes in Russian security services, said Surovikin and Prigozhin have known each other for a long time.

“The paths of Surovikin and Wagner crossed in several regions, not only in Ukraine,” he said, adding that Surovikin played a key role in managing the relationship between Wagner and the Kremlin.

“Surovikin was assigned to be a sort of go-between Wagner and the Russian army. His official position was to help Wagner to get ammunition for fighting in Bakhmut,” Soldatov said. 

Surovikin speaking out against Wagner meant that the Kremlin had lost its patience.

Later, Putin doubled down, stating that anyone involved in this betrayal, “will be punished.”

Soldatov said that Putin’s message was aimed at Wagner, but perhaps more importantly, at his own armed forces, letting them know that Prigozhin, in his eyes, is a traitor that cannot be supported. 

“After that, it was just a matter of time when Prigozhin would give up because he didn’t get any support from the military,” Soldatov said. 

And that’s exactly what happened.

Wagner fighters stopped their march on Moscow and no Russian troops dared to support Prigozhin.  

Yet many questions remain unanswered.

“There’s so much intrigue going on at this exact moment. It really is like the game of thrones," said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, where she studies the Russian military.

President Putin has signaled that Wagner’s days as a fighting force in Ukraine are over.

“We know that they are dismantling Wagner, that’s pretty clear. They are not going to be a player in Ukraine, in terms of being a heavily armed force, that’s no longer acceptable, they’re stripping them of their heavy equipment,” Massicot said. 

On top of Wagner losing its standing as a reliable fighting force in Ukraine, there’s also a lot of speculation about the state of Russia’s military leadership, including Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Gen. Staff Valery Gerasimov.

“[They] disappeared from public view during this event, in the moment where they should’ve been visible, they were gone,” she said. 

Their absence was especially significant since the goal of Prigozhin’s mutiny was to remove them from their jobs.

Massicot said that even before the events of last week, Gerasimov wasn’t seen as a particularly popular figure in the military.

“He has not been an effective wartime leader in Ukraine. And I have not ever seen in the last 16 months or more any real enthusiasm for him among the military,” she said. 

Prigozhin’s insurrection has led to speculation that perhaps there will be a shakeup among the Russian military command.

As of now though, Massicot is skeptical that Putin will make any big changes. 

In recent days, there have been reports that Gen. Surovikin was detained and brought in for questioning by Russian officials.

But it’s unclear if he’s under investigation.

“Maybe they just try to cover this up, pin the blame on Prigozhin, and say everything else is fine…That’s probably the quickest and easiest pathway back to the status quo, and Putin is signaling that desperately wants to return to the status quo,” Massicot said.

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