On the evening of June 23, the head of the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced that his mercenaries intended to eliminate the Russian military leadership. Prigozhin’s military units then headed to the cities of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh in southern Russia, to then mount an offensive on Moscow. Here’s a recap of the key developments of the first half of June 24.
What are Prigozhin and the Wagner PMC doing?
In an interview released on the morning of June 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner PMC, said that Ukraine did not intend to attack Russia in 2022, adding that the invasion was unleashed by an “oligarchic clan” in power and the Russian General Staff. Closer to the evening, he accused the Russian Defense Ministry of striking the Wagner Group’s camps and called for a halt to “the evil of the country's military leadership.”
Throughout the evening and night, Prigozhin made numerous statements in his press service’s channel, eventually announcing that Wagner PMC forces had crossed the Russian border with the occupied territories of Ukraine and were moving towards Rostov-on-Don. Scattered reports on multi-kilometer columns of Wagner mercenaries on the border and strengthening of security measures in the southern regions of Russia made their way to social media.
The situation began to become clearer only by the morning of June 24 — Prigozhin's forces had indeed entered Rostov-on-Don and had taken control of several administrative buildings and the headquarters of the Southern Military District (which also houses the headquarters of the Russia’s United Group of Forces, which is in charge of the war in Ukraine) and were also moving towards Voronezh, meeting little resistance until a certain point. Small arms battles broke out on the outskirts of Voronezh. Later reports said that Wagner had seized military facilities in the city, but this information has not yet been confirmed. Reports also claimed that the PMC took control of a military airfield in the town of Millerovo, close to the border with Ukraine.
Prigozhin's factions purportedly made an appeal to the military, urging them to join their cause, and alleged that several security force members either responded positively or refused to engage in combat against the Wagner PMC forces.
Closer to noon, Prigozhin, who previously only made complaints about the military leadership of the country, accused President Vladimir Putin of being “deeply mistaken” in his assessment of the situation. He said that the Wagner PMC units will not lay down their weapons, as they do not want “the country to continue to live in corruption, lies and bureaucracy.” Prigozhin also made it clear that the group was going to attempt to advance to Moscow.
Prior to making the statement, Prigozhin met with Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, and berated the official off for addressing him in an informal manner. The Wagner chief also said that he would shoot down the Defense Ministry’s helicopters, and accused the military of organizing “meat grinders” in Ukraine. The talks did not lead to any result. Their conversation took place at a building where Generals Alekseev and Surovikin had apparently recorded their appeals calling on the mercenaries to stop the mutiny a few hours earlier.
In an interview with The Insider, Retired Russian aviation colonel Viktor Alksnis expressed doubts that Prigozhin could hold Russia’s capital, Moscow, even if his units manage to reach the city:
“I doubt that he has any chance of reaching Moscow if Putin and his entourage start putting into practice the words that the president said today in his address. If everything is again limited to loud statements, but nothing is done, then Prigozhin will be able to enter Moscow. Although, he will be able to hold his position with the strength of four thousand people.
The Russian army has hundreds of thousands of men, and not all of them are at the front in Ukraine. Given that Wagner has no artillery and a couple of tanks, it is easy enough to put and use artillery and aviation on a convoy that is moving without serious air defenses. This is where the political will is needed to stop this column.
The internal troops are not designed for combat operations with the professional military. I wouldn't get too excited about news of a mass defection of Russian troops to Wagner’s ranks. It seems to me that these are exaggerated expectations, but the situation will show what will happen next.”
How the Russian government reacted
After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s initial statements, reports confirmed the blocking of highways and the entry of equipment and personnel of government security services into Russian cities — including Moscow. Administrative buildings were surrounded by security forces, and checks were carried out on roads.
Sergei Surovikin, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces and Deputy Commander of the Russian Group of Forces in Ukraine, and Vladimir Alekseev, Deputy Head of Russia’s Military Intelligence (GRU), both made appeals to Prigozhin. They said that the mercenaries should not go against those with whom they had recently fought shoulder to shoulder, and urged them not to take part in the coup d'etat.
Russia’s main government-run television channel, Channel One, broadcast several breaking news bulletins during the night. Anchor Ekaterina Andreeva read out a selection of messages from Telegram channels and official statements from news agency feeds, trying to present the situation as being under control.
In the morning, a “counter-terrorist operation” regime was imposed in Moscow, as well as the Moscow and Voronezh regions. Graduation ceremonies at schools in Moscow were postponed by a week, and public events in other regions of Russia also began to be canceled.
Vladimir Putin issued a statement around 10 a.m. on June 24, calling the actions of Prigozhin (without actually naming him) a “betrayal” and “treason” of Russia. He promised “inevitable punishment” for those who organized “internal turmoil”. “The armed forces have received appropriate orders,” the Russian president said, adding that “decisive measures” would be taken to “stabilize the situation in Rostov-on-Don.” Prigozhin responded with a speech about “Putin's mistake.”
The Russian president also had talks with Alexander Lukashenko, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Kazakhstan President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, as reported by Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, also spoke out on the situation, repeating the main tenets of Putin's speech and called on everyone to rally around the head of state. He also announced that Chechen units were “on their way to the conflict zone” in order to “suppress the mutiny.” According to Chechen human rights activist Abubakar Yangulbayev, Kadyrov's security forces are indeed gradually relocating their contingent, which was stationed in Belgorod, to other regions of Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, made a statement that was also very reminiscent of Putin's, ending with the words: “Victory will be ours.” Leaders of Russia’s parliamentary factions all declared the necessity of rallying around Putin.
The reaction of the West
In its daily update, British military intelligence said that the Wagner PMC is “almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow.” According to the report, the Wagner Group has crossed the Russian border with the occupied territories of Ukraine in at least two locations. Russia’s military and other security forces put up close to no resistance to Prigozhin's forces, said the update. The UK’s Defense Intelligence said that “the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out.”
US President Joe Biden has been briefed about Prigozhin's mutiny. According to the White House, the Biden administration is closely monitoring the situation and is consulting with its allies about what is happening in Russia.
A spokesman for the European Commission said the EU is also monitoring what is happening in Russia and considers the unfolding events the country’s “internal matter.” Representatives of the German Chancellor and French President responded similarly, saying that support for Ukraine was more important to both countries.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has held consultations relating to the situation with the prime minister and the head of the Polish Defense Ministry. Polish authorities also claimed to be “watching” the situation unfold. Somewhat later, however, Duda put Poland’s army on high alert.
Mikhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to the Head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, called Prigozhin’s mutiny the beginning of a civil war in Russia. He then wrote that “Prigozhin's counterterrorist operation on Russian territory has already led to the seizure of Rostov, several federal highways, and [military] headquarters. Podolyak stressed that a split among Russia’s elites is becoming clear.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Russia's weakness, which Putin has long masked with propaganda, “obvious.” “Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself,” he tweeted.
What's happening on the front line?
Despite the mutiny, the Russian military launched a large-scale missile attack on Ukraine with 50 Kh-101/Kh-555, Kalibr and Kh-22 cruisem issiles during the night. Forty-one of them (as well as two kamikaze drones of the «Shahed» (aka «Geranium») family) were successfully shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. Debris from a downed missile was confirmed to have hit a residential apartment building in Kyiv. Destroyed buildings and casualties were also reported in other regions of the country.
All significant events on the front line are currently out of the media’s attention, as all eyes are focused on the unfolding situation in Russia, hinted a well-known Ukrainian UAV operator with the call sign “Madyar” in a recent ironic video.