Rumors have been swarming around the whereabouts of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary force, who halted his troops after vowing to march to Moscow on June 23.
Belarus president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, announced that Prigozhin had accepted a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile in the neighboring state. But on July 6, Lukashenko told reporters that Prigozhin had returned to Russia.
There are unconfirmed reports of Prigozhin exiting a limousine in St. Petersburg, where he was said to have retrieved weapons and $100 million in cash, which had been confiscated after his residence was raided by Russian authorities.
President Vladimir Putin has gained a staunch reputation for his policy of stamping out any competitors. They rarely survive, and those that do end up serving lengthy prison sentences. It’s impossible to imagine him sparing Prigozhin, much less handing over $100 million in confiscated cash.
American officials have given their own opinion on the matter, but it’s nothing more than speculation. Robert Abrams, a retired general, claimed that Prigozhin is likely dead and that if he isn’t, he’s probably in a prison somewhere. Other senior officials claim that he is alive and that he may have made a deal with Putin. It’s also been suggested that he never left Russia at all. Rebekah Koffler, an ex-CIA analyst, stated that she believed the entire incident was orchestrated by Putin himself.
We may never know. The Kremlin has always been a black box, making it impossible to know the truth, and their normally streamlined message has been inconsistent. When it was announced that Prigozhin would be accepting a deal to go into exile, Vladimir Putin took to state television to denounce the insurrection as an act of treason. He vowed to punish those involved, but shortly after his speech, a Kremlin spokesperson announced that the fighters who took part in the rebellion would not be charged for their crimes.
Initially the 25,000 men involved were set to take camp in Belarus, and camps were in fact requisitioned for that purpose. But according to Lukashenko, they were left uninhabited. We’ve also heard from the Kremlin that the fighters would be allowed to join the Russian armed forces, a move Prigozhin vehemently opposed. For now, the Wagner fighters appear to have returned to their usual stations.
To make matters even more confusing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated Monday that Vladimir Putin held a meeting with Prigozhin and three dozen Wagner mercenary force commanders. This meeting was said to have occurred on June 29. These are the same men that Putin denounced as traitorous enemies of the state. They’re often referred to as the greatest threat to the president’s regime in 23 years. Yet he was willing to sit down with them in the seat of the Russia government.
According to Peskov, the meeting was said to have lasted for 3 hours. They discussed the Wagner force’s progress during the Ukraine War. They also went over the reasoning behind the insurrection. Afterwards, Peskov stated, “Putin heard out the commanders and proposed further employment options and further combat options.”
It’s astounding. The prospect of this meeting defies belief, but there are many who accept it as fact. If it is true, and there is a logical motivation for the lack of accountability, it may stem from the existential crises that Russia has faced as a result of their invasion of the Ukraine.
When news of the invasion hit, The New York Times did a series on phone calls intercepted between Russian soldiers and their family members. The Ukraine also released similar recordings from Russians who called home after being taken prisoner. Some men broke down, detailing the horrors and bloodshed. Some claimed they had no knowledge of the war before they were shipped out, and in fact, Russian state media denied the invasion for some time.
Soldiers also spoke about a lack of supplies, food, and ammunition. Many of them starved, and thousands deserted, flooding social media with pictures of abandoned tanks and heavy artillery equipment.
As this was happening, news was trickling back into Russia. People were aware that there had been an invasion, and they knew the government was lying about it. Even worse, they couldn’t verify the safety of their family members. Russia has no death notification system for its troops. Instead, grieving loved ones were forced to scour the internet for photos of dead soldiers posted by the Ukrainians.
It has been difficult to gauge support for the war. Russian state media is not in the habit of asking people how they feel about the government. But there was anger fomenting behind the scenes. It erupted publicly as Putin pushed for stricter conscription laws, pulling in well over 300,000 men. Hundreds of thousands are said to have fled the country, willing to risk 10 years of imprisonment to avoid taking part in the bloodbath. Thousands were also arrested for demonstrating against the measures.
Prigozhin seems to have been a source of comfort for the Russian people. When he marched on Rostov-on-Don on the day of his insurrection, he was able to take the city with little to no resistance. Civilians flocked to their cavalcade, offering the soldiers food, cigarettes, and water, cheering and giving high fives as they passed. It was more of a parade than a military action. In fact, it was widely reported that civilians came in groups and asked to take selfies with the fighters, including Prigozhin himself.
At that point, Prigozhin had become a public figure. For years he denied any involvement with the mercenary group. That changed in September of 2022 when he was seen in a video with the men. He made an announcement on social media that the time had come for him to tell the truth of who he was. He then created a Telegram channel where he posted regular updates about the progress of the war, often using fiery, defiant rhetoric.
He circumvented state television, something that would never have been allowed under normal circumstances. Russians began sharing his posts en masse, spreading his message, and using his channel as a space to discuss the reality of the war.
Nobody knows if Prigozhin was accurately representing the facts. But he seemed to be uncensored. He even went so far as to criticize the military leadership. On May 4, he posted a video littered with expletives, shining a flashlight on the corpses of fallen Wagner fighters. In it he stated, “You scum sit there in your expensive clubs, your kids all enjoying life, recording their little YouTube videos.”
He acted in true Russian fashion, vulgar and brutish, speaking his mind, and the people responded. That’s how he was able to amass more than 1 million followers, and his reach was well beyond that. Many believe that Putin underestimated his influence, and it’s quite possible that he did.
On June 23, when the insurrection took place, Prigozhin accused the Russian forces of intentionally bombing his men. He then declared his intentions and narrated the entire event, vowing to take down the leaders of the military as he chronicled his progress towards Moscow. People were able to watch in real-time, and they met him with cheers and support. That amounts to true political power.
It is quite possible that Putin feels threatened by Prigozhin. That may be why he agreed to meet with him and why he’s not holding the Wagner forces accountable. Prigozhin has the support of the people, his own personal army, and the resources necessary to overthrow the president’s regime. It’s also been speculated that Putin is giving Prigozhin a pass because he wants to make use of the Wagner mercenary force. They’ve been an extraordinary asset in the past, allowing Russia to make serious gains in conflicts around the world.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that China is watching the entire conflict closely. They have a huge stake in what’s happening. Just weeks before the invasion, President Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin met at the opening of the Olympic Games. They announced that they were creating a “no limits” partnership. It was meant to give them both the economic leverage they would need to fund the invasion of the Ukraine and Taiwan, even in the face of crippling economic sanctions from the West.
China has increased trade with Russia exponentially since the war began, and Russia has become largely dependent on that assistance. So, it was no surprise when the Kremlin sent a deputy foreign minister to Beijing less than 24 hours after the insurrection occurred. With handshakes and smiles, the Chinese dismissed the matter as an internal affair. Beijing has said very little about what happened, but this was a moment of historic significance.
Putin himself used strong language in his speech following the incident stating, “I repeat, any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood, to us as a nation.” He added, “We will protect both our people and our statehood from any threats. Including — from internal betrayal. And what we are faced with is precisely a betrayal. Exorbitant ambitions and personal interests led to treason.”
This is not something that China can sweep under the rug. It’s a true division within the Russian government, backed by a military group. If Russia is a nation divided, it puts China in a weaker position, both domestically and internationally. Their economies are intertwined. They have military partnerships, shared intelligence communities, and security partnerships.
Beijing has held their hand close, refusing to make anything other than short, well-planned announcements. They do not speculate publicly, so there’s no way of understanding what is being said behind closed doors or what their position is on the insurrection.
This has led to many assumptions. There has been speculation as to whether China has decided to put off its plans to invade Taiwan. But Beijing has shown no sign of wavering. Instead, they sent a message to the international community by staging large-scale military drills to the south of the island. They’ve made it clear. They are sticking by Russia, and they are not giving up.