In the midst of his chaotic war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now facing an unprecedented power struggle at home. After more than 23 years in power, he speaks of "betrayal" and a "thrust in the back" by the uprising of Yevgeny Prigozhin's private army Wagner. Putin did not name names in a televised address on Saturday. Even so, everyone knows who is meant: the ex-confidant Prigozhin, whose mercenaries once had important successes for the Kremlin in Africa, Syria and also in the Ukraine. Those times may be over.
Armed with a full-fledged army, including tanks and aircraft, Prigozhin has now openly engaged in combat after a long period of sharp criticism of the military leadership. According to his own statements, he and his people occupied military facilities in the city of Rostov-on-Don, including an airfield. His goal is Moscow, he says confidently.
On Saturday evening there was an apparent reversal: Prigozhin says he ordered his forces to stop the advance on Moscow. "Our columns are turning and heading back to the camps in the opposite direction," he said in a voice message published on Telegram. So far, "not a drop of our fighters' blood" has been spilled, said Prigozhin. The decision is now about avoiding bloodshed.
Only shortly before had he publicly broken with Putin for the first time, to whom he recently swore allegiance and called him "my commander-in-chief." The 62-year-old accused the Kremlin boss of a gross misjudgment of the situation. The president is seriously mistaken when he calls Wagner people who give their lives in the fighting "traitors". "We don't want the country to continue to live in corruption, fraud and bureaucracy," says Prigozhin about his motives. However, he himself has benefited from this system for decades and received billions in orders from the Kremlin. Prigozhin was always considered the untouchable - also because of his closeness to Putin.
He recently drew public criticism for his diatribes against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov. All of this had no consequences. Until now. Shoigu currently wants to bring the 40 or so voluntary organizations in Russia under his command. Prigozhin rejects this - and announced resistance. "Wagner is now being dismantled," political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in her Telegram channel on Saturday. "The end of Prigozhin is also the end of Wagner."
Prigozhin himself had repeatedly complained that his fighters did not receive enough ammunition and equipment from the Defense Ministry. He explained it himself by saying that the military leadership was afraid that he would ultimately want to take over power in Moscow. He always denied that. But Putin's speech, the military vehicles in the center of the capital and the declaration of an anti-terrorist emergency in and around Moscow show how great the Kremlin's fear of a coup or a violent takeover is.
The August coup in Moscow in 1991, when parts of the military rebelled, is unforgettable in Moscow. Pictures of then-President Boris Yeltsin on a tank went around the world. It is part of the Kremlin's reflexes not to allow such a threat to happen again. His spokesman Dmitri Peskov said on Saturday that the president was working in the Kremlin.
Despite the army being weakened by the war against Ukraine, political observers see no chance for Prigozhin to wrest power from Putin. Some commentators - including those from Kiev - said that the Russian elite would now have to choose one side or the other. However, according to all that is known, Prigozhin has no influential allies in the power apparatus itself. Most of his initiatives to file criminal charges against representatives of the power apparatus were also ignored.
The deputy chief of staff Sergei Surovikin, whom he greatly admired, also turned away from him in a video message. Above all, Prigozhin enjoys a good reputation in circles of ultra-nationalists and war propagandists. He has good connections to war reporters who, like himself, are always calling for Russia to do more in the war. But he also recently complained that the state media no longer mentioned him. The Kremlin also controls the media in Russia.
The Presidential Office in Moscow and the Ministry of Defense have so far rejected such calls for the imposition of martial law or new mobilizations. The resources for the fight against Ukraine are sufficient, even so. But above all, Putin is now losing one of his most important trump cards in the war, not least because Wagner had conquered larger areas after all. On the African continent, too, the Wagner boss was regarded as Putin's "man for the rough stuff", always at the forefront of power struggles in individual countries.
Many in the power apparatus were increasingly bothered by the fact that Prigozhin kept unpacking internal information, complaining that the Defense Ministry was stealing and that the money was not reaching the soldiers. Putin, too, felt compelled to meet and explain himself to the war reporters who otherwise favored Prigozhin. It became apparent what should have driven the Wagner boss to revolt. The Kremlin chief called for an initiative to legalize the private Russian military companies and thus also Wagner. Prigozhin always rejected that, too – because he thought it was good to move in a legal vacuum.
In his speech on Saturday, Putin followed suit and demanded that the masterminds of the uprising should be brought to their "unavoidable punishment". He gave orders to the armed forces to do this. The state agency Ria Nowosti wrote of an order for "neutralization", i.e. for the elimination of the rebellious Wagner people. But that was an interpretation. Putin himself did not use the word "neutralization".