In a new audio message posted on his Telegram channel Monday, Wagner Private Military Corporation leader Yevgeny Prigozhin took yet another swipe at Russian military leadership, saying his mutinous march toward Moscow was a lesson in how to conduct maneuver warfare aimed at preserving his organization. He also expressed regret at “being forced” to shoot down nearly a dozen Russian aircraft in the process.
“The march showed many things demonstrated before,” Prigozhin said, according to a translation by the Wartranslated Twitter handle. “Serious security concerns around the country. All military bases and airfields were blocked. If actions on 24 Feb 2022 were done by forces as trained as Wagner, the special operation could have ended in one day. This shows the level of organization that the Russian Army should be following.”
The message - delivered after more than a day of uncharacteristic silence from the normally loquaciously bellicose Wagner boss - also offered additional explanation as to why he launched the insurrection and why he stopped it. However, it also raised questions about how Prigozhin can continue having such a public presence in the wake after directly challenging the Russian government via an armed insurrection.
The rationale for the “March for Justice,” as Prigozhin described the events that unfolded Friday, actually began when the Kremlin ordered his troops to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, Prigozhin said. He claimed it to be a move so unpopular with his troops that “only 1%-2% decided to join the Russian army.”
However, there was some suggestion that the influential milblogger Semyon Pegov, known as WarGonzo, may have posited the idea to Prigozhin far earlier, after the Wagner leader complained in April about the lack of ammunition being given to him in the fight for Bakhmut.
Interestingly, the fate of WarGonzo remains unclear after video emerged of a Ukrainian special operations forces attack on a Russian trench that may have depicted Pegov being gunned down.
There were also claims that Prigozhin only stopped after his family was threatened.
Russian intelligence agencies made threats to harm the families of Wagner mercenary group leaders as the group marched on Moscow, The Telegraph reported Monday, citing anonymous U.K. security sources.
But on Monday Prigozhin did not address those claims, instead saying that his original plan was to take his troops to Rostov on July 30 and transfer all his vehicles ready for transport to the Russian MoD. Apparently, the idea was that with his troops being turned over to the MoD, there was no need for the vehicles.
Repeating the claim he made on Friday without any real proof - other than a highly inconclusive video which you can see below - Prigozhin reiterated that those plans changed when his troops came under missile and helicopter attack from Russian forces that killed about 30 Wagner personnel.
“This triggered an immediate decision to move out early and respond militarily,” he claimed Monday.
“Throughout the 24-hour march, one column went to Moscow, another to Rostov,” said Prigozhin, adding that his troops came within 200 kilometers of Moscow, according to another translation of his Monday missive. “They made 780 km (about 485 miles) of progress in one day.”
The Wagner troops “regret being forced to attack the army aircraft but the bombs were dropped which caused the response,” he said. This video below purports to show the wreckage of one of those aircraft, an unarmed IL-22 communications relay aircraft with 10 onboard.
The Russian-military-connected Fighterbomber Telegram channel reported at least seven Russian aircraft were shot down by Wagner.
On Monday, Russian lawmaker Andrey Gurulyov - a former commander of the Southern Military District whose headquarters in Rostov-on-Don Prigozhin temporarily seized on Saturday - said Wagner troops must pay for killing Russian pilots.
In his Monday audio address, Prigozhin claimed that despite his troops being fired on, “all military objects on the way were blocked and disarmed. None of the military have died on the ground. The objective was to not allow the destruction of Wagner and take to responsibility for those who with their unprofessional actions made a huge number of mistakes during the SMO [Special Military Operation - Russia's all out invasion of Ukraine].”
Prigozhin claimed that “all the military met along the way supported” his march, which he only stopped “when the advanced storm unit deployed artillery, conducted reconnaissance, and realized a lot of blood would be shed in an upcoming battle. They decided that the demonstration of the protest was enough, and turned around.”
The factors that made Wagner turn around, according to Prigozhin: “first, they didn’t want to shed Russian blood. Secondly, they wanted to demonstrate their protest, not overtake the authority in Russia. [Belarusian dictator Alexander] Lukashenko offered to find solutions for further legal operation of Wagner legally. Columns turned around and went back to field camps.”
As we wrote on Saturday, Lukashenko claimed he brokered the deal leading to Wagner calling off his mutiny, but many questions remain. Among other things, that deal included no charges being levied against Prigozhin or his troops, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday.
But on Monday, Russian official state news agency TASS on reported that despite any such agreement, there is still a criminal case open against Prigozhin on charges of organizing an armed mutiny that could land him in jail for up to 20 years.
There were unconfirmed reports that he was seen at a hotel in Minsk.
The independent Verstka media outlet claimed on Monday there is an effort underway to build Prigozhin a military facility in Belarus.
There are also claims, widely dismissed in Ukraine, that Prigozhin could be building an army to try and attack south to Kyiv akin to the failed initial Russian full-on invasion thrust. And there was discussion about the future of Prigozhin's efforts in Africa, where Wagner remains a key and ever-growing player in the affairs of countries like Mali and the Central African Republic.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said Wagner fighters will not be withdrawn from Africa.
Unsurprisingly, Lavrov also said Russian authorities are investigating whether the U.S. or allies had any connection to the mutiny attempt, according to TASS.
"I work in a government ministry that is not engaged in gathering evidence of unlawful acts being committed, but we do have such agencies and, I assure you, they are already looking into it," Lavrov said, when asked if there was evidence indicating that either Ukrainian intelligence services or their Western counterparts were in any way involved in the mutiny attempt.
Lavrov told TASS that his concerns about outside agitation were raised in part by a CNN report on Sunday saying that an unnamed U.S. official said Washington was expecting things to work out far worse than they did.
“I do know that we assessed it was going to be a great deal more violent and bloody,” the official told CNN.
Meanwhile, rumors are swirling about the main object of Prigozhin’s ire - Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The MoD on Monday released video purporting to show Shoigu inspecting troops in the Donbas.
But Russian Telegram channels cast doubt on the MoD's claim about the timing of Shoigu's visit.
"...the video of the working trip of the Minister of Defense to the West group of troops is 'canned,'" the influential Two Major Telegram channel said Monday.
Reacting to the time seen on a watch on Shoigu’s left wrist, the Kremlin-connected Rybar Telegram channel further challenged the MoD claim by pointing to the time indicated on the watch, the image of which appears to have been subsequently blurred.
“The watch of Shoigu himself is clearly visible on the video of the Ministry of Defense.,” according to Rybar. “Only time can be distinguished on [it: it shows] 12.48... This means that at least the footage published by the Russian military department was not taken today.
As for Valery Gerasimov, the Army chief of staff that Prigozhin also blamed for what he termed on Friday an invasion launched on false pretenses that needlessly killed tens of thousands of Russians, nothing has been heard. What that means is unclear, though rumors are running rampant that one or both of those leaders will be eventually cashiered given the failures not just in Ukraine, but the inability to prevent Prigozhin’s march.
Igor Girkin, an influential former military leader in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic who is also known by the name Igor Strelkov, claimed on his Telegram channel that both Russian leaders remain widely unpopular among the troops.
"Everyone, especially officers, hates Shoigu and Gerasimov," Girkin wrote. "Their authority in the troops is absent and even minus. Their very presence is a demoralizing factor."
Girkin also suggested that despite what happened, Prigozhin will make a formidable candidate in the upcoming Russian presidential election, scheduled for next year.
"In this case, we will soon see [Prigozhin] as one of the likely candidates in the presidential election," he said. "With the 'rhetoric of justice' supplemented by the 'halo of a persecuted martyr' and 'an extremely successful commander who easily captured a million-strong city in a couple of hours.'"
On Sunday, Girkin apparently suggested that Putin resign.
But as the events unfolded, the Russian milbloggers and propagandists seemed as riven as the political-military infrastructure. The Institute for the Study of War on Sunday reported that some want to move on while others are demanding answers for how Prigozhin was able to make it as far as he did.
President Joe Biden on Monday said the U.S. had no part in the events.
"We made clear, that we are not involved," Biden said. "We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system."
Kyiv meanwhile is watching all these developments with a wary eye.
As Prigozhin’s forces were driving to Moscow, a Ukrainian official told us hopes were buoyed that a successful mutiny would “raise the level of success and shorten the way to overall victory.” But as the news came that he was calling it off, there was a sense of resigned disappointment in Kyiv.
“To some extent, yes,” the official said about the mood of disappointment. “I wanted to have more devastating results for the Russian leadership and military. But, honestly, I did have doubts from the beginning.”
However, with the situation surrounding Prigozhin still unclear, Putin clearly challenged and the status of Shoigu and Gerasimov at the moment unknown, there still remains hope that all this drama will work to Ukraine’s benefit, the official told us.
“We will continue our work to liberate all Ukrainian territories, no doubts,” the official said. “I hope this situation should change stability and unity of efforts of the Russian side and give more flexibility to our side.”
Late Monday night Moscow time, Putin addressed the situation, saying without naming Prigozhin that the "insurgents" had "betrayed their country, their people, those they had dragged into the crime," according to a translation of his speech.
Putin also said that Russian forces would have stopped Wagner had they kept marching.
“Any attempts to start a mutiny will fail,” said Putin, according to a translation of the speech. “An armed mutiny would have been suppressed anyway.”
There are major doubts among national security analysts if this would have been the actual outcome.
Russia's enemies wanted to see the mutiny continue, Putin said.
“All the enemies abroad and national traitors wanted us to fight each other,” said Putin. “They failed.”
Putin did say that he would keep his word regarding Wagner rank-and-file troops, possibly about future prosecutions and saying they had the choice to go to Belarus or sign up with the MoD.
But he gave no real indication of what concrete steps he will take in the wake of the mutiny.
Putin also held a meeting with senior military and law enforcement leaders - including Shoigu, who made an appearance in civilian clothes.
After another day of speeches by Prigozhin and Putin, there are still more questions than answers about the way forward. What happens next is unknown, but we will be watching closely and update this story with any new developments.
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