June 28, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Where’s Prigozhin? What’s in the exile deal? Who’s in charge?

Institute for the Study of War

Continued reporting about the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion suggests that involved parties may still be negotiating the specifics of the agreement. Independent Belarusian monitoring group The Hajun Project cited flight tracking data on June 27 suggesting that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s jet took off from the Machulishchy airfield in Belarus towards Russia, flew to Moscow, and then immediately took off for St. Petersburg. Former Russian officer and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin claimed that Prigozhin returned to Russia to negotiate with unspecified Russian officials and the Wagner Commander’s Council. ISW cannot independently confirm if Prigozhin did in fact return to Russia, nor the details of the purported visit, but Prigozhin may have returned briefly to work out further details of the deal negotiated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Russian sources continued to speculate on the specifics of this deal on June 28. A Wagner-affiliated Russian milblogger posted an interview with a Belarusian Wagner fighter wherein the fighter claimed that Wagner has opened a “new combat direction” in Belarus and that some Wagner fighters will “work in Russia” while some “work in Belarus.” Russian opposition outlet Meduza, citing a source within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that only 1,000 Wagner fighters went to Belarus with Prigozhin, however. Belarusian opposition channel Belamova additionally claimed that satellite imagery from June 27 shows the construction of a new military object in the Osipovichi raion that was not visible as of June 13, suggesting that the imagery could show the construction of a Wagner training camp in Belarus. It is unclear if construction of the military object appeared before the announcement of the Prigozhin-Lukashenko deal on June 24, and ISW cannot independently confirm if the object is in any way related to Wagner. However, the pervasive speculation surrounding Wagner’s position in Belarus suggests that certain aspects of the deal are still being worked out.

Russian sources speculated that Wagner’s rebellion is already having widespread impacts on the Russian command structure. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Wagner’s rebellion has prompted “large-scale purges” among the command cadre of the Russian armed forces and that the Russian MoD is currently undergoing a “crash-test” for loyalty. The milblogger claimed that the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) is conducting a review of the Russian military leadership as well as the individual unit commanders. The milblogger claimed that Russian officials are using the MoD’s “indecisiveness” in suppressing the rebellion and “support for paramilitary companies (PMCs)” as pretexts to remove “objectionable” personnel from their positions. The milblogger notably claimed that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) commander and rumored deputy theater commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky assumed responsibilities as overall theater commander in Ukraine from Chief of the General Staff and current overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov on an unspecified date, but likely after the rebellion. The milblogger emphasized that Gerasimov will retain his post as Chief of the General Staff but will no longer have responsibilities for Russian operations in Ukraine. Another Russian source claimed that an “atmosphere of suspicion has enveloped the General Staff” and that affiliates of Gerasimov are accused of indecision and failure while the affiliates of deputy commander of the joint grouping of forces in Ukraine Army General Sergei Surovikin are accused of complicity in the rebellion. The sources publishing these speculations have largely been accurate in previous reporting on Russian command changes, although the ongoing disruption to human networks and the severe potential consequences related to Prigozhin’s armed rebellion may affect these sources’ accuracy. ISW cannot confirm any of these speculations about the command changes at this time, but it is evident that the armed rebellion is continuing to have substantial ramifications in the information space.

Russian authorities reportedly arrested Army General Sergei Surovikin on June 28, possibly indicating that the Kremlin intends to purge the MoD of figures viewed as disloyal. Russian opposition source The Moscow Times reported on June 28 that two sources close to the MoD confirmed that the Russian authorities had arrested Surovikin because he chose to side with Prigozhin during the rebellion. The New York Times reported on June 28 that US officials briefed on US intelligence stated that Surovikin had advance knowledge of the rebellion, but that US intelligence is still trying to ascertain if Surovikin directly supported Prigozhin’s effort. It is unclear what transpired that would have forced Surovikin to call on Prigozhin to end the rebellion only several hours after its start, although it is possible that he did so under duress instead of out of support for the Russian military leadership. If Russian authorities did arrest Surovikin then the Kremlin will likely use Surovikin and his affiliates as scapegoats to publicly explain why the Russian military and Russian internal security apparatuses responded poorly to the rebellion and to justify a potential overhaul of the Russian military leadership. ISW has previously reported on Surovikin‘s notable Wagner affiliations and alleged support for Wagner, and Surovikin is a prime candidate for a scapegoat regardless of the actual level of support he gave to the rebellion.

Key Takeaways

  • Continued reporting about the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion suggests that involved parties may still be negotiating the specifics of the agreement.
  • Russian sources speculated that Wagner’s rebellion is already having widespread impacts on the Russian command structure.
  • Russian authorities reportedly arrested Army General Sergei Surovikin on June 28, possibly indicating that the Kremlin intends to purge the MoD of figures viewed as disloyal.
  • The Kremlin will likely attempt to balance a desire to mitigate the widespread disdain for MoD establishment figures that fueled Wagner’s rebellion while also trying to disempower those who may have sympathized with the rebellion.
  • The Russian Duma is considering additional measures to increase control over the information space and promote self-censorship within broad internet communities.
  • Belarus formally ratified an agreement on the establishment of joint Russian-Belarusian training centers in Belarus on June 28.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a phone conversation with the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Major General Mohammad Bagheri on June 28.
  • Unconfirmed reports claim that Russian military police allegedly detained Wagner Group commanders in Syria.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least four sectors of the front.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted a strike on civilian infrastructure in Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast on the night of June 27.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and conducted limited probing attacks on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River near the Antonivsky Bridge in Kherson Oblast on June 27 and 28.
  • Russian sources reported on continued Russian efforts to clarify terms and conditions for military service.
  • Russian and occupation officials continue efforts to deconflict legal discrepancies as part of the incorporation of occupied territories
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