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Russia’s Wagner Mercenary Army Seemingly Engaged in Coup as Leader Declares ‘March for Justice’

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 24, 2023
A tank sits in downtown Rostov during an apparent military takeover by mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin in the early hours of June 24, 2023. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

Troops of the Wagner private military company, which is known for its outsized role in the Ukraine War, have apparently turned on the Russian government and seized the important port of Rostov-on-Don, while the paramilitary group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin accused commanders of the regular Russian army as being treacherous and incompetent.

Prigozhin, who is regarded as a confidante of Russian president Vladimir Putin since the 1990s, made fresh criticisms of the Russian army’s top brass on Friday (May 23), claiming in a scathing statement that they not only were wasting Russian soldiers’ lives on the Ukrainian battlefield, but that they had misled Putin into invading Ukraine in the first place.

Several pieces of video footage from Rostov, a large city near the Ukrainian border and where a large number of Russian military installations and supply routes are located, show what seem to be Wagner personnel, tanks, and other vehicles marching through and taking up positions in downtown.

“Rostov-on-Don houses both the headquarters of the SMD [Southern Military District], whose 58th Combined Arms Army is currently decisively engaged in defensive operations against Ukrainian counteroffensives in southern Ukraine,” a tweet by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) notes.

Unconfirmed reports at the time of writing claim that the Wagner forces are encountering little resistance from the local authorities, including OMON riot police, and that the mercenaries are in other regions as well.

One video from the night of June 23 purports to show fighting in or near Rostov between Wagner forces and the Russian army.

Military protest

Prigozhin on Friday claimed that over 2,000 of his troops had been massacred by the regular Russian forces in a rocket attack, and that he was leading a “march for justice” with 25,000 soldiers to punish the high-ranking officers responsible.

Some of the videos from Rostov show OMON police carrying assault rifles staying put as heavily armed troops and tanks pass by. One woman, apparently a journalist, said that she received confirmation from the troops that they were Wagner personnel.

The Wagner leader has a history of criticizing the Russian military leadership, accusing them of corruption, infighting, and serious battlefield mistakes, while avoiding attacks on Putin.

Wagner, which has somewhere upwards of 50,000 personnel, was the main force behind the Russian victory at Bakhmut, a strategically significant city in eastern Ukraine that fell in late May following a nearly one-year battle.

Prigozhin said that his efforts to take Bakhmut were hampered by a lack of ammunition due to non-cooperation from the regular army, and that he took inordinately heavy casualties as a result of the supply issues and other failures on the part of the Russian military leadership.

Central in Prigozhin’s complaints is Sergey Shoigu, the Russian minister of defense whose headquarters was in Rostov. In a video address posted to Telegram, General Sergey Surovikin, the deputy-commander of the Russian campaign in Ukraine, called upon Wagner troops to disobey Prigozhin and submit to the will and order” of Putin.

Gen. Sergey Surovikin calls upon Wagner troops not to take orders from Prigozhin. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

The FSB, Russia’s main intelligence service, said it opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for treason.

The ISW in analyzing the situation suggested that Wagner could attempt to move on Moscow in a serious effort to not merely protest with words, but forcibly attack the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Rostov is a 13-hour drive from Moscow.

According to ChrisO_Wiki, the Twitter account of an “Independent military history author and researcher” with 153,000 followers, “an emergency security plan is reported to have been activated in Moscow in response to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s ‘rebellion’, according to a Telegram channel with apparent links to the Russian security forces.”

Much of the Russian army is currently defending the southern Ukrainian front against an ongoing offensive by the Ukrainian forces, which have thus far made little progress. Kiev says that most of its troops have yet to be committed to the front, though they have conducted probing attacks to determine Russian weak points.