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The Wagner crisis, explained

Wagner Group fighters are seen near the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday. (Reuters)

A fast-moving crisis unfolded in Russia on Saturday as Vladimir Putin faced an insurrection from an ally, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and the Russian mercenary fighters he leads.

For the moment, the situation appears to have de-escalated. The forces answering to Prigozhin, the Wagner Group chief, halted their march toward Moscow and turned around, as Prigozhin was offered safe passage to Belarus, where he arrived Tuesday, according to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a state media outlet reported.

Lukashenko brokered an agreement between Prigozhin and Putin, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. Criminal charges against Prigozhin are to be dropped, and preparations were made for Wagner to hand over its heavy military equipment to the Russian military. The deal appears to be holding.

Still, the dispute represents a significant challenge to Putin’s leadership, the potential loss of one of Putin’s most successful field commanders and a possible shift in the course of the war in Ukraine.

Here’s a summary of what we know about the conflict.

Who is Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and why is he so important?

The 62-year-old Prigozhin had been a fervent supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine and is in charge of the Russian private military contractor known as the Wagner Group. Prigozhin had played a central role in the war, first by deploying his mercenaries on the front lines and later by recruiting heavily from prisons to bolster Moscow’s depleted forces. Wagner led the onslaught in Bakhmut, which culminated in Putin declaring the city under Russian control — his first significant territorial gain since last summer.

Americans may remember Prigozhin as the financier of the internet Research Agency — the Russian “troll farm” that the Justice Department named in a 2018 indictment over interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through weaponized social media.

How did the dispute start?

Internal tensions between Prigozhin and Russian military leaders have been simmering for months over what Prigozhin believed were leadership failures within the military. Prigozhin accused Russian generals of stonewalling his ammunition requests and, as a result, blamed them for his fighters dying “in heaps” in Ukraine. The dispute reached a boiling point Friday when Prigozhin accused Russian forces of conducting a strike on his fighters at an encampment in Ukraine.

Who are the other key players here?

Two of Putin’s top military leaders — Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff — have been on the receiving end of Prigozhin’s vitriol. At one point, he called for Shoigu and Gerasimov to face a firing squad.

Shoigu recently decreed that all “volunteer formations” must sign a contract with the Defense Ministry by July 1, which would place Prigozhin’s mercenaries under Shoigu’s control. Prigozhin said Wagner would not sign.

The appointment of Gerasimov as overall commander of the war in Ukraine also was viewed as a blow to Prigozhin, who lost his main source of manpower when the Defense Ministry barred him from recruiting in prisons.

What exactly did Prigozhin do?

Prigozhin said he had taken control of the main Russian military command base in the southern region of Rostov and told two Russian military commanders that he would blockade Rostov and send his forces to Moscow unless he could confront his enemies: Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Prigozhin called for Russians to join Wagner against Shoigu and Gerasimov. He also accused the pair of lying about the war in Ukraine and undercounting casualties. “This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared.

By Saturday, Prigozhin had agreed to turn his forces around and not march to Moscow.

What deal was brokered?

Many analysts predicted that Prigozhin would be killed or arrested as Wagner forces moved toward Moscow. But the sudden about-face of Prigozhin’s troops appeared to have eased the crisis for now.

The agreement for Prigozhin’s forces to turn around was brokered by the Belarusian president, who spoke with Putin before negotiating with Prigozhin, according to the Belarusian state-owned news agency Belta and the Kremlin. With security guarantees for Wagner on the table, Prigozhin reportedly agreed to stop his dash to Moscow.

Russian media outlets reported Wagner forces leaving the city of Rostov-on-Don after the Kremlin said that charges will be dropped against the Wagner chief and that he will be sent to Belarus.

Prigozhin has often been seen as the most credible of Russia’s field commanders. His disappearance from the battlefield will be watched closely.

How is Ukraine responding?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening address Saturday that the events inside Russia show “that the bosses of Russia do not control anything.”

“Nothing at all. Complete chaos,” Zelensky said. “And it is happening on Russian territory, which is fully loaded with weapons.”

The Ukrainian military continued pressing its offensive Saturday, though there were no immediate signs that the rebellion next door had eased the Ukrainian path to victory.

Valeriy Shershen, an armed forces spokesman in eastern Ukraine, said Saturday that Kyiv’s troops had liberated “several positions” in the Donetsk region in the country’s east, recapturing territory that had been under the control of Russian forces and Moscow-backed separatists since hostilities broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Shershen said that the territory was retaken a week ago but that the news was withheld for “certain tactical considerations.”

How are Western officials responding?

The United States and many NATO allies have said they have been closely monitoring the situation in Russia. The U.S. National Security Council said President Biden was briefed Friday night, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke Saturday with allies from Canada, France, Germany, Poland and Britain.

The Pentagon’s top military officer, Gen. Mark A. Milley, canceled a trip to the Middle East in light of the crisis, an official said Saturday. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to leave Washington on Saturday to visit Israel and Jordan, said his spokesman, Col. David Butler. Milley instead spoke Saturday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Butler said in a separate statement.

What do I need to know about the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group is not a single, traditional company, but a shadowy network of organizations providing fighters for hire — with the approval of the Kremlin. According to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the group has probably operated in as many as 30 countries and has two training camps in Russia.

It is ostensibly private, but according to CSIS, “its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community” under Putin.

Prigozhin made billions through government catering contracts. While the Wagner Group appears to be partly bankrolled by Prigozhin’s ties to the Kremlin, it has also used violence and extortion in an effort to corner the extremely lucrative diamond industry in the Central African Republic.

Who are the mercenaries who fight as part of the Wagner Group?

The United States estimated earlier this year that about 50,000 of Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters had deployed to Ukraine, the majority of them recruited from inside Russian prisons.

The United States has imposed rounds of sanctions on the group and designated it a “significant transnational criminal organization.”

The mercenary outfit has been accused of “mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement earlier this year.

This report has been updated.

© Copyright 2023 The Washington Post

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