Turmoil in the Kremlin: Experts weigh in on what comes next after Wagner group uprising in Russia

In this handout photo provided by Photo host Agency RIA Novosti, Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a discussion during a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, June 16, 2023. (Pavel Bednyakov/Photo host Agency RIA Novosti via AP)

An angry Vladimir Putin appeared on state-run television Monday night to reassure the Russian people that the country, government and military were still secure, after an embarrassing, and still simmering, rebellion delivered an unprecedented challenge to his control of the country.

The lightning-fast, betrayal of the Russian military by a small, but powerful mercenary group, according to an eastern European intelligence source “has rattled the Kremlin to the core.”

The Wagner group, a private military contractor group based in southern Ukraine, was fighting for Russia against Ukraine, until it decided that Moscow was its enemy.

Allegedly bent on regime change and revenge, the small but powerful mercenary group embarked on an unimpeded march within 150 miles of Moscow on last Saturday, catching the world — and even Putin — by surprise.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder, financier and leader of Wagner, said the group staged the rebellion to avenge how Russian forces attacked them in southern Ukraine.

The Wagner forces responded by shooting down several Russian military aircraft, killing Russian troops and then setting out in a haze of anger toward Moscow.

But Prigozhin halted the march just as quickly as it started, saying that the about-face was to avoid bloodshed between Russians.

Late Saturday, Prigozhin struck a deal with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that ostensibly gave Prigozhin and his army a new business address and Putin time to think about his next move.

That move appears to be accusing Prighozin of stabbing him in the back and appealing to Wagner forces to rejoin the Russian military, which is in dire need of forces.

Putin, according to the Eastern European intelligence source, “is looking over his shoulder, because during their march to Moscow, the Wagner forces encountered no opposition. In fact, they were cheered.”

In dueling statements on Monday, Putin and Prigozhin appeared to be speaking directly to each other and threatening each other, but they never referred to each other by name.

Many people inside Russia, according to sources there, are stunned at the Kremlin’s handling of the uprising. It is a far cry from business as usual.

Putin is known for his quick, methodical, iron-fisted intolerance of anyone who crosses him. But not this time.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was asked, while speaking to reporters at the White House Monday, whether Putin might be growing desperate after the short-lived rebellion.

“I won’t speak for Vladimir Putin or hypothesize about what next steps he might take or might not take,” Kirby said.

He suggested that regardless of Putin’s problem with Prigozhin, Russia is still at war with Ukraine.

“I think it’s important to take a step back here. And remember that the Russians still have tens of thousands of troops inside Ukraine,” Kirby said.

As far as Prigozhin’s future is concerned, Kirby said, “It’s just too soon to know after the weekend’s events, where Wagner goes as an entity, or where Prigozhin goes in terms of his leadership.”

The city of Kyiv is watching the unfolding events very carefully, but few there are sure about what’s actually happening.

“We were baffled, absolutely knocked out of our minds,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Defense.

“We knew, and we’ve been saying this openly, that sooner or later the amount of lies that Russian propaganda was spreading was going to result in some kind of internal uprising,” Sak said.

Sak said the rebellion has been beneficial to Ukraine.

“Whatever makes our enemy weaker, makes us stronger,” Sak said.

Washington, Kyiv and governments across Europe are waiting for another shoe to drop because there are many unanswered questions about this situation. The most prominent: where is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

He was allegedly given refuge in Belarus. However, when he made his audio release, he did not reveal his location. Belarus is run by one of Putin’s closest and most dependent allies.