Taking Putin Down a Peg

Happy Monday! You’d think we’d have learned by now not to tempt fate by planning our Monday newsletter on Friday morning.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Wagner Group—a Russian paramilitary force led by Yevgeny Prigozhin—mounted a short-lived rebellion over the weekend, allegedly in response to Russian airstrikes against Wagner troops. Prigozhin, who has clashed with Russian military leaders for months, led his forces from positions in Ukraine back into Russia, taking control of Rostov-on-Don—a city in southern Russia—and meeting little resistance while proceeding north on a path toward Moscow. As Wagner grew closer to both the capital and a likely battle with Russian security forces, Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a deal—negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko—that halted the rebellion. Prigozhin will reportedly move to Belarus, and the Russian charges facing him and his troops for their rebellion will be dropped.
  • Ukrainian forces claim to have killed nearly 200 Russian soldiers over the weekend while gaining back ground near the much-contested city of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian military says it’s taken eight settlements in the country’s eastern Donetsk and southern Zaporizhzhia regions since launching its counter-offensive three weeks ago. Ukrainian troops have more or less held off Russian advances, but continue to struggle when it comes to gaining significant ground.
  • A judge temporarily blocked a Wyoming law banning abortion pills from taking effect as scheduled next week. A group of health care providers has sued to overturn both the law and the state’s broader abortion ban. Teton County Judge Melissa Owens issued a temporary restraining order while the case is decided. 
  • The Department of Justice announced fentanyl-related charges against four Chinese companies and eight Chinese nationals Friday. At least two of the people in question have been arrested for trafficking chemicals to the U.S. for fentanyl production. China called the arrests “illegal” and “smear attacks,” and demanded the immediate release of the detained Chinese nationals on Friday.
  • The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report Friday on the intelligence community’s assessments of COVID-19’s origins. The report reiterated the divisions among intelligence agencies—the FBI and the Energy Department believe the pandemic stemmed from a lab incident, four unnamed agencies and the National Intelligence Council fault natural transmission, and two other agencies including the CIA remain undecided. “All agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection,” the report states.
  • The Supreme Court ruled Friday against a state challenge to the Biden administration’s policy of prioritizing the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants who have a criminal record, pose a national security threat, or were recently caught at the border. Texas and Louisiana argued the government is required by law to deport all illegal immigrants subject to deportation orders. In an 8-1 decision, the court ruled the states do not have standing to challenge the policy, reversing a lower court decision.
  • The Justice Department requested the trial date in former President Donald Trump’s classified documents case be pushed until December 11 after Judge Aileen Cannon set an initial date of August 14 last week. Special counsel Jack Smith said in a filing on Friday that the delayed start would give Trump’s legal team more time to obtain the security clearances required to review the sensitive evidence in the case.
  • The National Weather Service issued heat alerts to more than 50 million people across the southern United States on Sunday. The heat wave—and the high risk of severe storms accompanying it—is expected to last through early next week with dangerously high temperatures threatening millions of residents in Texas and other states. The extreme heat left a father and his stepson dead while hiking in Big Bend National Park in 119 degree weather Friday.
  • Cleanup crews started testing water in the Yellowstone River Sunday after a freight train carrying hazardous materials fell into the river after a bridge collapse on Saturday. The crews are attempting to remove sodium hydrosulfide, a flammable substance, from the train, which crashed in a sparsely populated area of Montana.

Prigozhin Strikes Back

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin leaving Rostov-on-Don on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin leaving Rostov-on-Don on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

You know what they always say: Keep your friends close and your hot dog vendors closer. Yevgeny Prigozhin—the head of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group—has come a long way from his hot dog stand in St. Petersburg. The man once known as “Putin’s chef” for his catering contracts with the Kremlin seemed to be ready to bite the hand that fed him over the weekend, sending his mercenaries marching towards Moscow in a fast-moving but ultimately short-lived mutiny.

Though a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko turned the advancing Wagner columns around before serious Russian-on-Russian bloodshed, the bizarre episode still shrouded in the fog of war will likely leave a Prigozhin-sized hole in President Putin’s credibility at yet-unknown costs to the paramilitary leader himself and the private military company he operates. 

Prigozhin has long been a vocal critic of the Russian Ministry of Defense, lobbing insults at the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov throughout the war in Ukraine. As we reported last month, Prigozhin threatened to withdraw from the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May, where his men had been engaged in a brutal fight for control of the city. He accused the defense ministry of purposefully withholding ammunition to Wagner forces—a claim he’d made in the past—before being dizzyingly indecisive on whether or not his forces would leave Bakhmut. Ultimately, Prigozhin’s mercenaries remained, seizing the city

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