Prigozhin used false pretext to lead Wagner Group's armed insurrection against Russia: US official

The plot was executed in the hopes of reversing Prigozhin's waning power.

June 27, 2023, 12:00 PM

Yevgeny Prigozhin used a false pretext to lead his Wagner Group forces in an armed insurrection against the Russian state, according to a senior U.S. official.

Prigozhin had been plotting ways to reverse his fortunes in the face of waning power and came up with a plan to claim his forces had been bombed, which he would then use to justify actions against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian defense leaders, the senior official said.

The precipitating factor for Prigozhin’s military march was the directive that his forces be increasingly incorporated into the Russian military, the official said. Prigozhin did not know for certain whether it was Shoigu or President Vladimir Putin behind it but felt he was being leveraged and undermined, leaving him angry and determined, according to the official.

In this image taken from video and released by the press service of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military contractor, May 20, 2023, he speaks while holding a Russian flag in front of his forces in Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Prigozhin Press Service via AP

The plan came to fruition on Friday when Prigozhin said in a video that Wagner fighters had been killed by Russian missile strikes and vowed to punish Shoigu and Russia's chief of general staff. The claim was "basically a hoax," according to the senior official.

"There are 25,000 of us and we are coming to sort things out ... Those who want to join us, it's time to finish with this mess," Prigozhin said.

His forces moved rapidly north in what he termed a "march of justice," cutting through inexperienced Russian troops and units hollowed out by the war in Ukraine. The senior official said the convoy made it further than widely reported, coming within about 100 miles of Moscow.

"We will destroy anyone who stands in our way," Prigozhin said on social media Saturday.

As the mercenaries got closer, Putin was deeply worried about his ability to stop Prigozhin, according to the official. But then key agencies like the ministry of interior and federal security service came out in support of the Russian president, making clear to Prigozhin that the battle for Moscow would be brutal. This led him to accept the idea of exile in Belarus when President Alexander Lukashenko urged him to give up the fight, the official said.

On Tuesday, Lukashenko confirmed Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, though the senior official does not believe he will stay long.

Despite the Kremlin closing its criminal mutiny case against him, and despite still wielding a body of supporters, Prigozhin's fate is unclear.

"His long-term survivability is hard to calculate," the official said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with service members at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 27, 2023.
Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik via Reuters

Putin's position has also become more precarious, his aura of invincibility pierced and the weakness of his internal security made apparent. The official says the United States expects to see Putin try to bolster his strength in the coming weeks, noting that he is “quite vulnerable” after Prigozhin's rebellious display.

Putin's war effort might also suffer as front-line soldiers fighting in Ukraine learn what happened back home. Ukraine has also taken note of Russia's internal scuffle, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying Saturday that Russia appeared to be suffering "full-scale weakness."

"How do you motivate these guys who don’t want to be the last guy to die for a losing cause?” the senior U.S. official said.

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