June 24, 2023

Sitrep for Jun. 23-24, 2023 (as of 11:00 a.m.)

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Armed Rebellion 

An interview with Yevgeny Prigozhin [Russian oligarch, confidant of Vladimir Putin, and the owner of the Wagner Group] was released on the morning of Jun. 23. In that interview, he expressed, amongst other things, his perspective on the causes of the 2014 war with Ukraine. Prigozhin blamed the Russian Ministry of Defense, which had claimed that the aggression came from Ukraine, for attempting to mislead both President Vladimir Putin, and the public. According to him, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu envisaged the war as a pathway to securing the rank of Marshal, whilst oligarchs saw it as an opportunity to financially exploit the Donbas region. Putin alone, in his view, bore no blame (despite evidence suggesting that it was indeed Putin who decided to initiate hostilities using "separatist" forces).

Former separatist commander and military blogger Igor "Strelkov" Girkin weighed in on the interview, stating that Prigozhin had blended lies with truths, insulted high-ranking officers, and therefore should be brought before a tribunal.

On the night of Jun. 23, Prigozhin lodged a complaint with Russia’s Investigative Committee, accusing General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the RuAF, and Sergei Shoigu of incompetent leadership of the Russian Armed Forces, leading to high casualties amongst personnel.

That same evening, a video appeared on the Razgruzka Wagnera [Wagner’s tactical vest] Telegram channel, purporting to show the aftermath of a missile strike conducted by Russia’s Ministry of Defense on a Wagner Group forest camp. The footage shows the body of a mercenary and a severed arm. However, we are skeptical about the video’s authenticity.

Bellingcat’s Aric Toler compared this video with a report by pro-Wagner war correspondent Aleksandr Simonov, who had visited the camp the day before and confirmed that these videos were taken in the same location.

Almost immediately, Prigozhin published a statement saying that the Russian Armed Forces had attacked the Wagner Group's training camp with artillery and missiles from helicopters, allegedly killing dozens of mercenaries. According to Prigozhin, artillerymen and helicopter pilots were used by the leadership of the Russian Armed Forces "blindly."

Soon after, Prigozhin recorded another message, in which he announced that the "council of the Wagner Group commanders" had decided to "stop the evil" and punish those responsible. He called on all soldiers to join the Wagner Group, while threatening to destroy anyone who gets in the way of the mercenaries. Prigozhin also advised civilians to stay in their homes.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense promptly called the statement about the attack on the Wagner Group camp a provocation.

In his next audio message, Prigozhin announced his intent to find out "why lawlessness is happening in the country," and said that he had a group of 25,000 men at his disposal, and that a significant part of the Russian Army was allegedly ready to join him.

Andrey Zakharov, an investigative journalist, reported that sources close to the Wagner Group told him that Prigozhin had learned that a "decision had been made" about him (meaning the extermination of the Wagner Group as such) and decided to act preemptively. Zakharov later added that someone who personally knew Prigozhin had told him that Putin's chef "has an imaginary world in his head. He doesn't live in reality" (we share this opinion).

Besides, Prigozhin said that Shoigu had allegedly come to Rostov-on-Don for a session where he made the decision to eliminate the Wagner Group. On the afternoon of Jun. 23, the pro-Russian Telegram channel Dva Mayora [Two Majors] claimed that 1,500 paratroopers were sent there, but there is still no evidence of their arrival.

The National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAC) informed that the Federal Security Service (FSB) initiated a criminal case in incitement to armed rebellion. The Prosecutor General's Office also confirmed that the case was against Yevgeny Prigozhin (the only time when such charges were brought previously was the case against Vladimir Kvachkov [former Spetsnaz colonel and military intelligence officer, known for being arrested and charged for the attempted assassination of politician and businessman Anatoly Chubais in 2005]).

General Sergey Surovikin came up with an address where he called on everyone to unite against the common enemy and avoid creating disturbances, which the enemy’s commanders could take advantage of.

This was followed by an address by General Vladimir Alekseyev, the First Deputy Executive of the Main Directorate (ex-GRU) of the General Staff, who mentioned that he had worked with the Wagner Group as early as 2014 (this is just another confirmation that the Wagner Group was at least supervised by the GRU).

Late at night, reports appeared that some military units were being alerted; armored vehicles were spotted in Rostov-on-Don (including BTR armored personnel carriers and military police vehicles); and fighters were blocking roads in some places. Vehicles of the Russian National Guards (Rosgvardia) appeared in Moscow (they can be distinguished from vehicles of the Russian Armed Forces by the yellow fluorescent bands on their sides).

Armored vehicles were spotted in Rostov-on-Don.
Vehicles of the Russian National Guards appeared in Moscow.

Channel One [Russian state-owned TV channel] aired breaking news saying that the video of the strike on the Wagner Group’s camp was fake and a provocation and that Prigozhin’s voice messages had allegedly been recorded in advance. Also, a call not to start an armed rebellion and not to follow unlawful orders was articulated. The FSB also came up with a similar statement, calling to arrest Prigozhin (note that Prigozhin has commented on the subject in one of his voice messages, meaning that he recorded them shortly before posting).

Pro-Russian war correspondents, having no guidelines yet, could not decide on the tone of coverage of the events, writing that they were "on neither side" but supported Putin.

In subsequent messages, Prigozhin talked about an attempt to attack the Wagner Group’s armored column with helicopters by the Russian Aerospace Forces and mentioned that several helicopters were shot down in return fire. This information was confirmed by the pro-Russian Telegram channel FighterBomber [associated with the Russian Aerospace Forces]. In addition, FighterBomber reported that the pilots survived. As evidence, photos of a destroyed pickup truck and a truck belonging to the Wagner Group, as well as a video of a helicopter burning on the ground in the Voronezh region near Pavlovsk, were published.

The long columns of armored vehicles that we saw obviously do not consist of the 25,000 men claimed by Prigozhin (presumably, it was not expected that all 25,000 mercenaries would travel to Moscow in a single column).

On the morning of Jun. 24, Russian defense and law enforcement agencies conducted searches at the "PMC Wagner Center" in Saint Petersburg.

At dawn on Jun. 24, photos and videos began to appear from Rostov-on-Don showing Wagner Group and Russian Ministry of Defense armored vehicles (military police vehicles can be seen in the photos) near the headquarters of the Southern Military District, where the "special military operation" headquarters is also located.

Subsequently, a video emerged in which Prigozhin is seen speaking with General Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the Deputy Minister of Defense for Combat Training, and General Vladimir Alekseyev, who was mentioned earlier, at the Southern Military District headquarters. Prigozhin reiterates that the Wagner Group shot down Russian MOD helicopters because they attacked civilians, and expresses a desire to meet with Shoigu and Gerasimov, threatening to block key military facilities in Rostov-on-Don and move towards Moscow if this does not happen.

At 7:30 a.m., an address by Prigozhin was released from the Southern Military District headquarters, in which he stated that the military facilities in Rostov-on-Don, including the airfield, were controlled by the Wagner Group, but there were no issues, and everything was functioning normally. He also claimed that Russian forces had lost control over significant territories in Ukraine, while seriously underestimating personnel losses.

The Ministry of Defense released an appeal to Wagner Group mercenaries, who were allegedly criminally involved in the armed rebellion. They were offered the opportunity to surrender and safety was promised for those who established contact with representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defense and refrained from further participation in the armed rebellion.

The Razgruzka Wagnera Telegram channel published photographs illustrating how 180 Russian military personnel and security forces at the Bugaevka border crossing refused to obstruct the actions of the Wagner Group and laid down their weapons.

Reuters sources within the FSB reported military facilities in Voronezh had been seized by the Wagner Group.

A video recording of a column of Wagner Group armored vehicles advancing through the Voronezh region had also been published (at 0:46, a Ural-mounted Shchuka MRAP can be identified, which is exclusively used by Wagner Group fighters).

An anti-terrorist operation regime was introduced in Moscow city, and the Moscow, Voronezh, and Rostov regions.

Putin made an address in which, without mentioning Yevgeny Prigozhin's name, he said that what was happening amounted to a betrayal and a rebellion, and that it was necessary to unite and defend Russia’s statehood, and that all participants of the rebellion would be punished.

In many regions such as Moscow, Vladimir, and Petrozavodsk (as well as Omsk, Nizhny Novgorod, and Saint Petersburg, by the time of preparing this sitrep, more examples have emerged), banners promoting joining the Wagner Group are being removed.

The reaction of Western countries has become known: US representatives say they consider the situation serious, and British intelligence stated that it is a direct challenge to Russian sovereignty.

Strikes on Ukrainian Territory

In Kyiv, as a result of a missile strike on a residential building several floors collapsed. At the moment, three people are known to have been killed, and 11 more injured. On Saturday morning, emergency workers were sifting through debris at the scene.

Head of the Kherson Regional Military Administration Oleksandr Prokudin reports that the RuAF have hit a transport utility company in Kherson. As a result, two employees were killed, and four more were taken to the hospital with injuries.

Commander of the Air Force of the AFU Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk acknowledged the missile attack on temporarily occupied Henichesk on Jun. 23, calling it a response to the "Russian missile terror."

Frontline Situation Update

On the night of Jun. 23-24, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that the AFU had taken advantage of the situation and began to concentrate forces of the 35th Marine Brigade and the 36th Mechanized Brigade in the Bakhmut direction.

As expected, a pontoon crossing was promptly built next to the Chonhar bridge.

Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces General Oleksandr Syrskyi said that the main Ukrainian forces had not yet been involved in the offensive. According to the Guardian, only three of the twelve brigades formed for this purpose have been participating in the offensive so far.

The bodies of 51 KIAs of the AFU were returned to Ukraine.

Videos of Nepali citizens who signed contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense appeared on TikTok. BBC journalists managed to track one of them down and talk to him. The Nepali said that he came to Russia on a student visa, but during his studies realized that he did not have enough money. For foreign students, a contract with the Ministry of Defense is one of the few opportunities to earn money, as well as a path to obtaining Russian citizenship. We believe that these are isolated cases. Such military personnel are most likely deployed in the rear, away from the frontlines.

The FSB published footage of the detention of men who allegedly tried to purchase caesium-137. It is reported that one of them is a citizen of Ukraine, "DPR", and Russia. The FSB is possibly attempting to demonstrate that the detainees were SBU (the Security Service of Ukraine) agents and wanted to buy radioactive materials in order to orchestrate a provocation in Ukraine and thereby "prove" the use of dirty bombs by Russia. Unlike earlier FSB videos, the published materials do not look staged.

Regardless of what happens next with Prigozhin, the degradation of the Russian Army will continue. Prigozhin created a large media empire, and with its help he successfully earned a reputation among the military, and many in the Russian Army respect him. Therefore, any outcome of the current confrontation will not please this part of the Russian Army.