June 23, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Mercenary leader Prigozhin launches armed rebellion against Russian government

Institute for the Study of War

Note: Due to rapidly evolving events, the data cutoff for the portion of this update covering Prigozhin’s actions was 6:00pm ET, while the cutoff for the rest of this product was 3:00pm ET on June 23. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, but events will likely have developed further between the drafting and publication of this update.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have launched an armed rebellion on June 23 to force a leadership change within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) which is unlikely to succeed. Prigozhin amplified a video from a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel on June 23 which reportedly shows the aftermath of a missile strike on a rear-area Wagner camp and accused the Russian MoD of conducting that strike.[1] ISW cannot independently verify the veracity of the video, and it may have been manufactured for informational purposes. Prigozhin used the video to then justify his most explicit rhetorical escalation against the Russian MoD to date and a call for action against the Russian MoD. Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner Commanders’ Council made the decision to stop “the evil brought by the military leadership” who neglect and destroy the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers.[2] Prigozhin urged the Russian people not to resist, to remain calm, remain in their homes, and warned that Wagner will “deal” with those who destroyed Russian soldiers before returning to the frontlines in Ukraine after restoring justice for all. Prigozhin also notably accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of personally planning an operation to destroy Wagner and claimed that 25,000 Wagner personnel are prepared to act.[3] Prigozhin later posted an audio message qualifying his previous statements and claiming that there is no “coup,” only a “march for justice.”[4]

Early reports following Prigozhin’s statements suggest that Russian internal security forces are activating in response to Prigozhin’s statements and possible Wagner moves, primarily in Moscow and Rostov, and the Kremlin appears opposed to Prigozhin’s actions. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that security measures have been strengthened in Moscow and that Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) special police (OMON) and special rapid response (SOBR) units have been alerted of the situation.[5] Russian sources posted footage reportedly showing military equipment moving through the streets of Moscow.[6] TASS also reported that Russian military personnel and law enforcement have set up military posts and checkpoints near the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and BBC’s Russia Service reported that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) employees and SOBR units have set up roadblocks along the Moscow-Voronezh-Rostov highway.[7] A Russian milblogger also claimed that the “Grom” special forces detachment of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has additionally activated.[8] The FSB and Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee have both opened cases against Prigozhin.[9] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov notably stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been informed and is aware of the situation.[10] The emergency activation of the domestic security forces and the Kremlin’s direct response suggest that the Kremlin was very likely not aware of, and is explicitly opposed to, Prigozhin’s actions.

Prigozhin has established the informational conditions for this effort earlier in the day by accusing the Russian MoD and unnamed oligarchs of deceiving Putin and the Russian public in order to launch the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin released an interview in which he stated that the Russian MoD intentionally deceived the Russian public and Putin about an impending Ukrainian offensive with NATO support in 2022 and about the increase in Ukrainian aggression before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[11] Prigozhin asserted that the situation in eastern Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was no different than the previous eight years of hostilities.[12] Prigozhin suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was prepared to negotiate with the Kremlin but that the Russian leadership refused to abandon their maximalist positions.[13] Prigozhin accused the Russian miliary leadership of launching the full-scale invasion for self-promotion and claimed that Shoigu advocated for the invasion in order to achieve a higher rank and state awards.[14] Prigozhin accused Russia’s oligarchs of supporting the invasion of Ukraine for similar reasons of personal benefit. Prigozhin claimed that Russia’s oligarchs wanted the Kremlin to install former Ukrainian politician and Kremlin ally Viktor Medvedchuk as the new Ukrainian president after the removal of the Ukrainian government so that Medvedchuk would divide the assets of occupied Ukrainian territories between the oligarchs.[15] Prigozhin’s rejection of the justifications of the war is not a rejection of the war itself, as he argued that the fighting in Ukraine is a “holy war with those who offend the Russian people.”[16] Prigozhin’s attack on the Kremlin’s justifications of the war is likely meant to legitimize the potential removal of the Russian security and business elite from power without directing calling for an end to Putin’s war.

Prigozhin likely intends to truly conduct an armed rebellion against the Russian MoD, rather than expecting Kremlin support to compel MoD leadership changes or only escalating rhetorically. Prigozhin may have wildly miscalculated and called for an armed rebellion incorrectly thinking that he would have Putin’s backing, considering Putin’s past tenuous relationship with the MoD and Shoigu. This contingency is however extraordinarily unlikely, considering that Putin has recently more firmly aligned himself with the MoD, and the Kremlin’s responses to Prigozhin’s posturing thus far have indicated surprise and a lack of agreement with Prigozhin.[17] Prigozhin’s actions and statements may alternatively be a rhetorical overreach in his ongoing dispute with the MoD and his campaign to retain his wavering influence within the Russian information space following the culmination of Wagner’s Bakhmut effort. However, this contingency is also highly unlikely, as initial indicators of actual Wagner movements are observable and the Kremlin is not responding to Prigozhin’s statements as only rhetoric.

It is therefore most likely that Prigozhin fully intends for Wagner to move against MoD leadership and forcibly remove them from power, more likely against the Southern Military District command in Rostov-on-Don but possibly also against Moscow. ISW is unable to confirm exactly where the bulk of Wagner forces are currently located, but it currently appears more likely that Prigozhin intends for Wagner to move on the MoD assets in Rostov. Following Wagner’s withdrawal from Bakhmut in late May and early June, a large contingent of Wagner forces likely remained in rear areas of Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or else at Wagner’s training facility near Molkino, Krasnodar Krai. Considering the relative proximity of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and Krasnodar Krai to Rostov Oblast, the more likely course of action may be that Prigozhin views the MoD in Rostov as the most viable target of a Wagner armed rebellion. Prigozhin claimed at 0200 local time (1900 EST) that Wagner forces have crossed Russia’s international border into Rostov Oblast and claimed they face no resistance, but ISW has not observed visual confirmed of any Wagner movements as of the time of this publication.[18]

An armed Wagner attack against the Russian military leadership in Rostov-on-Don would have significant impacts on Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Rostov-on-Don houses both the headquarters of the SMD, whose 58th Combined Arms Army is currently decisively engaged in defensive operations against Ukrainian counteroffensives in southern Ukraine, and the command center for the Russian Joint Group of Forces in Ukraine as a whole.[19] Rostov-on-Don is therefore a critical command and control membrane for the Russian army, and any threats to the MoD’s presence are likely to have ramifications on some critical aspects of the war effort.

Prigozhin’s apparent start of an armed rebellion is the culmination of his campaign to retain control over his military forces, and he likely views the rebellion as an existential survival effort. Prigozhin’s largely independent control over Wagner forces has been the cornerstone of his campaign to become the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist movement.[20] Prigozhin has long overstepped existing norms within the Russian information space that limit criticism of Russian leadership because he likely believed the Kremlin’s need for Wagner to fight in Ukraine shielded him from punishment.[21] Prigozhin primarily used Wagner’s responsibility for tactical gains in and around Bakhmut to advocate for more influence and responsibility for himself and Wagner, and the effectiveness of this mode of self-promotion has likely declined since Wagner withdrew to rear areas following the capture of Bakhmut on May 21.[22] The MoD recently ordered Wagner personnel to sign MoD contracts in an effort to fully subordinate Wagner to the MoD, and likely did so to seize on the opportunity of Wagner’s weakened relevance to Russian operations in Ukraine.[23]

The MoD’s recent demands that Wagner fully subordinate itself to the MoD would entail Prigozhin losing control of his parallel military structure, and therefore both his main source of influence and his means for avoiding the consequences of his public self-promotion. The MoD reportedly gave Wagner an ultimatum between subordination to the MoD or the recognition of Wagner’s continued operations on the frontlines as illegal.[24] Prigozhin may have attempted to negotiate continued independence for Wagner with his own contract outlining how Wagner and the MoD would coordinate continued Wagner operations, although the MoD outright rejected this possible attempt at negotiation.[25] Prigozhin likely reached a perceived crucial decision point between surrendering his independent armed forces and actively resisting the MoD, and appears to have chosen the latter. The severe consequences that would result from a failed armed rebellion suggest that Prigozhin viewed his alternatives to be just as threatening.

Prigozhin’s likely intention was to gain the allegiance of senior Russian officers and military personnel, but he is unlikely to secure sufficient military support considering that Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin denounced Prigozhin’s call for armed rebellion. Prigozhin explicitly called for the entire Russian military and all of Russia to join Wagner in its effort to remove the Russian military leadership.[26] Prigozhin’s longstanding calls for supplies and ammunition for Wagner indicate that Wagner likely does not have the necessary level of independent access to the materiel required to militarily depose the MoD leadership, and therefore MoD elements with their own supplies will need to support Wagner’s armed rebellion if it has any real chance at lasting success.[27] The desired outcome of Prigozhin’s armed rebellion also relies on senior Russian officers and military personnel recognizing the legitimacy of the supposedly new Russian military command that would follow any attempt at an armed rebellion. Prigozhin likely sought to rally military support for the effort earlier in the day by seizing on longstanding grievances about high Russian losses in Ukraine, accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of sending tens of thousands of Russian personnel unnecessarily to their death and calling on Russia to hold Shoigu and Gerasimov responsible for the claimed deliberate “genocide” of Russian citizens.[28] Prigozhin has likely miscalculated the level of support for Wagner, as one of Wagner’s most high-profile alleged allies, Surovikin, called on Wagner personnel to not follow Prigozhin’s orders.[29] Wagner likely previously relied on its relationship with high-profile allies like Surovikin to retain access to supplies and its responsibility for operations in the Bakhmut area.[30] Surovikin’s rejection represents a major blow to Wagner’s ability to rally elements of the MoD to its cause, and other high-ranking officers with Wagner affiliations and sympathies are less likely to support Wagner given the public statement from a high-profile senior officer like Surovikin.

Even if the Wagner Group can credibly threaten the MoD, Putin is incredibly unlikely to acquiesce to a successful effort by Prigozhin to topple the MoD. Should Wagner be able to tangibly attack the MoD in Rostov, Moscow, or elsewhere, and actually force a change in the military leadership (which is as of this time highly unlikely due to the apparent lack of backing for Wagner amongst senior officers and military personnel), it is unlikely that Putin would accept this at outcome. ISW has not observed any indications that Putin will accept such a change in MoD leadership. The violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would cause irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s perceived hold on power, and Putin would be highly unlikely to accept any armed rebellion even if he supported the figures conducting it. 

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on June 23. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces continued limited attacks in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area and made marginal gains southwest of Velyka Novosilka.[31] The Ukrainian General Staff additionally reported that Ukrainian forces made gains in western Zaporizhia south of Orikhiv on the Novodanylivka-Robotyne line and southeast of Orikhiv on the Mala Tokmachka-Novofedorivka line.[32] Milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces broke through Russian defenses north of Robotyne and advanced to positions within 1.5km north of the settlement.[33]

Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on June 23, primarily targeting a Ukrainian airfield in Khmelnytskyi Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 14 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from strategic aviation over the Caspian Sea, targeting Khmelnystkyi Oblast and the Khmelnystki airfield, and reported that Ukrainian forces shot down all of the missiles.[34] Satellite imagery published on June 22 shows that Russian forces deployed strategic aviation to an airfield near Mozdok, North Ossetia as of May 24, and Radio Liberty reported that Russian strategic bombers that targeted Khmelnystkyi Oblast took off from this airfield.[35]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have launched an armed rebellion on June 23 to force a leadership change within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) which is unlikely to succeed.
  • Early reports following Prigozhin’s statements suggest that Russian internal security forces are activating in response to Prigozhin’s statements and possible Wagner moves, primarily in Moscow and Rostov, and the Kremlin appears opposed to Prigozhin’s actions.
  • Prigozhin set informational conditions for this effort earlier in the day by accusing the Russian MoD and unnamed oligarchs of deceiving Putin and the Russian public in order to launch the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Prigozhin likely intends to truly conduct an armed rebellion against the Russian MoD, rather than expecting Kremlin support to compel MoD leadership changes or only escalating rhetorically.
  • It is therefore most likely that Prigozhin fully intends for Wagner to move against MoD leadership and forcibly remove them from power, more likely against the Southern Military District command in Rostov-on-Don but possibly also against Moscow.
  • An armed Wagner attack against the Russian military leadership in Rostov-on-Don would have significant impacts on Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
  • Prigozhin’s apparent start of an armed rebellion is the culmination of his campaign to retain control over his military forces, and he likely views the rebellion as an existential survival effort.
  • Prigozhin’s likely intention was to gain the allegiance of senior Russian officers and military personnel, but he is unlikely to secure sufficient military support considering that Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin denounced Prigozhin’s call for armed rebellion.
  • Even if the Wagner Group can credibly threaten the MoD, Putin is incredibly unlikely to acquiesce to a successful effort by Prigozhin to topple the MoD.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on June 23.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on June 23, primarily targeting a Ukrainian airfield in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited ground attacks in the Kupyansk area, and Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to skirmish south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks in the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian federal subjects and the Wagner Group continue efforts to conceal the true scale of Russian and Wagner losses in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian and occupation administrations continue to disregard the lives of Ukrainian civilians in occupied territories.
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