When Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, launched his attempted mutiny on the morning of June 24, Vladimir Putin was paralyzed and unable to act decisively, according to Ukrainian and other security officials in Europe. No orders were issued for most of the day, the officials said.
The Russian president had been warned by the Russian security services at least two or three days ahead of time that Prigozhin was preparing a possible rebellion, according to intelligence assessments shared with The Washington Post. Steps were taken to boost security at several strategic facilities, including the Kremlin, where staffing in the presidential guard was increased and more weapons were handed out, but otherwise no actions were taken, these officials said.
“Putin had time to take the decision to liquidate [the rebellion] and arrest the organizers” said one of the European security officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. “Then when it began to happen, there was paralysis on all levels … There was absolute dismay and confusion. For a long time, they did not know how to react.”
This account of the standoff, corroborated by officials in Western governments, provides the most detailed look at the paralysis and disarray inside the Kremlin during the first hours of the severest challenge to Putin’s 23-year presidency. It is consistent with public comments by CIA Director William J. Burns last week that for much of the 36 hours of the mutiny Russian security services, the military and decision-makers “appeared to be adrift.”
It also appears to expose Putin’s fear of directly countering a renegade warlord who’d developed support within Russia’s security establishment over a decade. Prigozhin had become an integral part of the Kremlin global operations by running troll farms disseminating disinformation in the United States and paramilitary operations in the Middle East and Africa, before officially taking a vanguard position in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Post that the intelligence assessments were “nonsense” and shared “by people who have zero information.”
The longtime symbiosis of the two men, who first met in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, has exposed the weaknesses of Putin’s crony system of management, where rival clans are pitted against each other, and which has been stretched to breaking point by the war.
The lack of orders from the Kremlin’s top command left local officials to decide for themselves how to act, according to the European security officials, when Prigozhin’s Wagner troops stunned the world by entering the southern Russian city of Rostov in the early hours of June 24, seizing control of the Russian military’s main command center there, and then moved into the city of Voronezh, before heading further north toward Moscow.
Without any clear orders, local military and security chiefs took the decision not to try to stop the heavily armed Wagner troops, the security officials said.
Many on the local level could not believe the Wagner rebellion could be happening without some degree of agreement with the Kremlin, the security officials said — despite Putin’s emergency televised address to the nation on the morning of the mutiny in which he vowed tough action to stop the rebels, and despite a warrant issued for Prigozhin’s arrest for “incitement to insurrection” on the eve of his march to Moscow.
“The local authorities did not receive any commands from the leadership,” said a senior Ukrainian security official. “From our point of view this is the biggest sign of the unhealthy situation inside Russia. The authoritarian system is formed in such a way that without a very clear command from the leadership, people don’t do anything. When the leadership is in turmoil and disarray, it the same situation at the local level and even worse.”
The intelligence information helps explain what’s been seen as the biggest debacle of Putin’s rule — how Prigozhin’s armed band of fighters, demanding the ouster of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, were able to proceed to within 120 miles of Moscow without facing resistance, before eventually agreeing to turn around after a deal was brokered with the help of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president.
The disarray in the Kremlin also reflects a deepening divide inside Russia’s security and military establishment over the conduct of the war in Ukraine, with many including in the upper reaches of the security services and military supporting Prigozhin’s drive to oust Russia’s top military leadership, the European security officials said.
“Some supported Prigozhin and the idea that the leadership needs to be cleaned up, that the fish is rotting from the head,” one of these officials said.
One senior NATO official said some senior figures in Moscow appeared ready to rally behind Prigozhin had he succeeded in achieving his demands. “There seem to have been important people in the power structures … who seem to have even been sort of waiting for this, as if his attempt had been more successful, they would also” have joined the plot, this official said.
Prigozhin’s increasingly vitriolic tirades blaming corruption and mismanagement by the Russian military command for battlefield setbacks and high casualties in the war against Ukraine had resonated with many sectors of Russian society. Many in the rank and file of the Russian army also wanted Prigozhin to succeed in forcing change at the top of the Russian military, believing that then “it would become easier for them to fight,” this official said.
But others in the security establishment were horrified at the mutiny attempt, and at the Kremlin’s toothless reaction, convinced it was leading Russia toward a period of deep turmoil, officials said.
“There was disarray. You could argue about the depth of it, but there really was lack of agreement,” said a senior member of Russian diplomatic circles. “We heard all these statements. They were not always consistent … For some time, they did not know how to react,” he said. Putin had vowed to crush the rebellion on the morning the rebellion began but by the time he finally emerged in public more than 48 hours later, he said all steps had been taken on his “direct order” to avoid major bloodshed.
Members of the Russian elite said the division over the conduct of the war and its handling by the Russian military leadership, will continue, despite a public relations drive by the Kremlin to demonstrate Putin is in control and the start of a campaign to purge the ranks of the Russian military of critics and Prigozhin’s supporters among Russian ultranationalists.
On Friday Igor Girkin, a controversial former Russian commander in Ukraine who has been vocal in denouncing the Russian military leadership, was arrested. Several high-ranking generals perceived to be close to Prigozhin, including Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was often praised by the Wagner leader, have disappeared from public view.
The lack of direction from the Kremlin during the crisis has left Putin significantly weakened, according to his critics. “Putin showed himself to be a person who is not able to make serious, important and quick decisions in critical situations. He just hid,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former colonel in the Russian security services who is now an opposition politician in exile. “This was not understood by most of the Russian population. But it was very well understood by Putin’s elite. He is no longer the guarantor of their security and the preservation of the system.”
“Russia is a country of mafia rules. And Putin made an unforgivable mistake,” said a senior Moscow financier with ties to the Russian intelligence services. “He lost his reputation as the toughest man in town.”
The conflict between Prigozhin and the Russian military leadership had been building up for months, and the possibility of conflict increased sharply when the Russian Defense Ministry decreed June 10 that Wagner fighters had to sign contracts with the ministry from July 1, essentially ending Prigozhin’s control of the mercenary group — and the billions of dollars in government contracts attached to it.
When the security service warnings appeared that Prigozhin could be mounting some kind of rebellion, some in the security establishment believed the preparations could be no more than a bluff to increase pressure and gain more leverage to secure his control of Wagner, one of the European security officials said.
To some degree, if Prigozhin’s mutiny was an attempt to gain leverage, it worked. Putin was apparently forced into compromise with the renegade leader, allowing him to travel around Russia for days after the mutiny, because Prigozhin’s work for the Kremlin was too deeply intertwined with the interests of Putin’s state, according to several of the security officials, and Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled human rights activist who has interviewed several former Wagner fighters. Instead of prosecuting Prigozhin for leading the armed insurrection, Putin agreed to drop the charges. In exchange, Prigozhin halted the march on Moscow, withdrew his men from key military installations and agreed to decamp to Belarus, keeping at least part of Wagner intact.
Russia has deployed private mercenary groups as a shadow arm of the state to protect Kremlin interests, “where the state is without strength or cannot officially act,” according to a report drawn up for a Russian parliamentary roundtable on legalizing the private paramilitary organizations in 2015. The report was obtained by the Dossier Center, an investigative group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled Putin opponent, and shared with The Post.
“Private paramilitary groups can become effective instruments of state foreign policy,” the report states. “The presence of private military groups in the planet’s ‘hot spots’ will increase Russia’s sphere of influence, win new allies for the country and allow the obtaining of additional interesting intelligence and diplomatic information which ultimately will increase Russia’s weight globally.”
The intertwining of Wagner with the interests of Russian intelligence, with its upper ranks staffed with former members of Russian military intelligence, and its leading role in operations in Syria, Libya and across Africa, where it gained access to extensive mining rights, has meant it was impossible for Putin to swiftly bring the curtain down on Prigozhin’s operations, Osechkin said. Prigozhin “worked for more than 20 years for Putin’s team. He did a lot for their interests in a whole series of countries. He has a huge amount of information” about them, Osechkin said.
“They created a monster for themselves,” one of the European security officials said.