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Taking Putin Down a Peg
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Taking Putin Down a Peg

Wagner Group head launches mutiny in Russia but calls it off before reaching Moscow.

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

Despite his disdain for Russia’s top brass, Prigozhin is not against the war in Ukraine and never has been. “He runs a private military company,” Dmitri Alperovitch, founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank, tells TMD. “War is literally his business.” In a potential threat to that business, the defense ministry, backed by Putin, moved earlier this month to bring “volunteer formations”—private military companies, Wagner included—operating in Ukraine under the direct authority of the military by July 1. Prigozhin announced he wouldn’t sign such a contract, but carefully separated his contempt for Shoigu from a discussion of Wagner’s allegiance. “Wagner is absolutely completely subordinate to the interests of the Russian Federation and the supreme commander in chief,” he wrote on Telegram, referring to Putin.

But on Friday, the simmering feud between Prigohzin and leaders in Moscow boiled over. In a video posted to the social media site Telegram, he directly contradicted Putin and the defense ministry’s official line on the necessity of the invasion. “The war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” he said. “The war was needed so that a bunch of animals could simply exult in glory.” Then, the mercenary leader accused the defense ministry of launching an air strike on a Wagner encampment, killing a “huge number” of his men—a claim Western media has been unable to verify thus far. 

In what was ostensibly a spontaneous retaliation, Prigozhin ordered his forces to move on Rostov-on-Don—a Russian city near the Ukrainian border that has served as a logistical hub for the invading forces—for what he called a “march for justice” overnight Friday. The Russian security service, the FSB, quickly opened a criminal investigation into Prigozhin Friday, accusing him of “armed mutiny,” and Russian military officials called the threats a coup, even as Prigozhin insisted it wasn’t. 

Coup or not, it may not have been so spontaneous: The United States intelligence community was reportedly aware Prigozhin was planning actions against Russia’s military leaders. CNN reported U.S. intelligence officials going so far as to brief the Gang of Eight—leaders in both the House and the Senate plus the chair and ranking members of the intelligence committees in both chambers—on Wagner troop buildup near the Russian border earlier last week. 

Wagner forces seemed to cross the Russia-Ukraine border unhindered and seized control of the town’s defense ministry installations easily Saturday morning—so easily, in fact, many were photographed walking around the city in full battle fatigues, weapons slung across their body, carrying yellow to-go cups of coffee.

Meanwhile in Moscow, officials began instituting “anti-terrorist” measures and tightening security as Putin addressed the nation late Saturday morning, many hours after Prigozhin launched his mutiny. The president compared the events to the “intrigues” of 1917—otherwise known as the Russian Revolution—that precipitated Russia’s withdrawal from World War I “Extraordinary ambitions and personal interests led to treason,” Putin said of Prigozhin, without naming him. In other words, it’s a slippery slope from hot dog-vending to coup-plotting. He promised those responsible would face “inevitable punishment” and “answer both to the law and to our people.” 

That punishment, it turns out, was something less than inevitable. Columns of Wagner forces continued to make their way up the M4 highway on Saturday, getting within 125 miles of the capital. Before Wagner reached Moscow, though, the Kremlin announced they had struck a deal to avoid bloodshed. 

While there may be terms of the Lukashenko-brokered agreement that have not been publicized, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed Saturday that the criminal case against Prigozhin will be dropped and none of the Wagner fighters who took part in the insurrection-that-wasn’t will be charged. Those mercenaries who did not participate in the mutiny will be allowed to sign contracts with the defense ministry by July 1. And Prigozhin, who left Rostov-on-Don Saturday night to the cheers of locals, will be allowed to “retire” in Belarus in effective exile.

At first blush, the agreement seems like a net loss for Prigozhin, even without a clear picture of his original goals in launching the proto-putsch. His arch-nemeses at the defense ministry are still in place, for now. And he’s potentially headed for exile in a country called the “North Korea of Europe.” The fate of his private military company is still unclear, but it’s possible his misadventures could lead the group to be disbanded. 

On the other hand, he’s still alive—a low bar, and yet impressive considering he launched an insurrection against a regime responsible for jailing and assassinating plenty of its critics who were guilty of much less. He hasn’t publicly acknowledged his potential exile. Plus, he’s raised his name-I.D. in Russia significantly as “the man that confronted the powers that be in the Kremlin,” Alperovitch tells TMD. Wagner militants retreated without any move by Russian authorities to disarm or demilitarize the group, Alperovitch says, which only adds to the uncertainty around its future. 

And just because Prigozhin didn’t clearly win doesn’t mean his short-lived insurrection hasn’t dealt a blow to Putin. “I think this showed us how little control Putin ultimately has over his military and political establishment,” Alperovitch says. “The fact that for 13 hours, no one came out in support of Putin, the fact that the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Rosgvardia—this National Guard that Putin had sort of built out as a Praetorian Guard—did not lift a finger to stop Wagner from taking over a city of a million people or from taking over a major military base and the headquarters for their war command is just absolutely remarkable.” That “fraying” state of control could embolden other anti-Putin elites. 

While for the rest of the world asking for help is usually a sign of inner strength, not so for a dictator. Lukashenko brokering the deal that ultimately ended the stand-off serves as further evidence Prigozhin’s mini-mutiny wasn’t a zero-sum game. “Putin promised in his speech that those who launched the rebellion will be punished, but was unable to solve this issue on his own and had to request support from a foreign leader,” Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, tells TMD. “Lukashenko’s role in halting the advance on Moscow humiliated Putin.” 

His fellow authoritarians further afield also rallied around Putin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—a fellow failed-coup sufferer—offered Putin his full support. The Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing supported “Russia in safeguarding national stability”—weighing in only after a deal had been struck.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky celebrated the chaos that unfolded in Russia over the weekend. “Russian aggression is gradually returning to its home harbor,” he said Sunday. It didn’t stop Russia from launching missile strikes against Ukraine overnight Saturday, killing at least three in Kyiv. “Obviously, any time there’s instability in Russia that’s not unhelpful, but it’s not a panacea,” Alperovitch says.

Worth Your Time 

  • Hashim Mohammed was only 16 years old when he fled China in an effort to escape the country’s repression of its Uyghur minority. “I had heard of a smugglers’ route out of China, through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and eventually to Malaysia,” Mohammed writes for Coda Story. “From there, I’d be able to fly to Turkey and start a new life. We called it the ‘illegal way.’ It’s very quick once you leave China, it only takes seven days to get to Malaysia.” Mohammed made it out of China, but went on to spend the next four years of his life in detention in different three countries, including three years in a Thai prison—which he eventually broke out of using a spoon and a rusty nail. “After spending another year in detention in Malaysia, I was finally able to leave for Turkey,” he recounts. “After two months in Turkish immigration detention, I walked free. I had spent my best years—from the age of 16 until 21—in a cell. I feel such sorrow when I think of the others who didn’t make it. It’s a helpless feeling, knowing they’re still in there, living under the threat of being sent back to China.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team interviewed Will Hurd about his “dark horse” candidacy, Jonah raged against the “isms,” Nick criticized the RNC’s 2024 loyalty pledge, Chris explained (🔒) why the presidential primary system is broken, and Price and Harvest (🔒) previewed the next congressional battle over spending.
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and David discussed Justice Samuel Alito’s preemptive response to a ProPublica story on Advisory Opinions, while Jonah’s latest Remnant ruminated on the spat between Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene on the House floor. 
  • On the site over the weekend: Peter Gattuso explained the Oakland Athletics’ potential move to Las Vegas, Karlyn Bowman reviewed a new book on today’s six living generations, and Nick Ripatrazone explored Cormac McCarthy’s “God-haunted” writing.
  • On the site today: Chris dives into the dysfunction plaguing Congress and Jacob reports on a new economic agenda picking up support from Republican lawmakers.

Let Us Know 

Is Putin on shakier ground now than he was on Friday? What is your prediction for when and how his reign comes to an end?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Jacob Wendler is an intern for The Dispatch.