Wagner boss Prigozhin planned to KIDNAP arch-nemesis Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Putin’s chief of staff in doomed ‘mutiny’
- Western officials said Prigozhin sought to seize archrivals Shoigu and Gerasimov
- But they discovered Prigozhin’s planned rebellion early and avoided capture
Wagner army chief Yevgeny Prigozhin planned to kidnap the heads of the Russian military in last week’s short-lived mutiny, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
The newspaper cited Western officials saying that Prigozhin sought to seize archrivals Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, and chief of staff General Valery Gerasimov while they were on a visit to the south.
But Russia’s FSB security service learned of the plan and Shoigu and Gerasimov changed their travel to avoid capture, the Journal said, citing unnamed officials.
That forced Prigozhin to move early, and on Friday his Wagner forces seized control of the headquarters of the Russian Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, a key logistics and command center for the war on Ukraine.
US officials have told media that they knew days ahead about the planned uprising, in which Prigozhin sent a column of forces from his privately-run army toward Moscow before giving up as President Vladimir Putin branded the group ‘traitors.’
Prigozhin was forced to move early, and on Friday his Wagner forces seized control of the headquarters of the Russian Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, pictured May 5, 2023
Russia’s FSB security service learned of the plan and Shoigu (pictured) and Gerasimov changed their travel to avoid capture, it was reported. He is pictured in an unknown location visiting Russian forces in Ukraine, June 26, 2023
Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov (left) learned of Prigozhin’s plan and evaded capture with Shoigu. He is pictured speaking with Vladimir Putin during the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow, January 11, 2023
Also citing unnamed US officials, the New York Times reported that senior Russian General Sergei Surovikin knew in advance of Prigozhin’s mutiny plans.
The advance knowledge by top military officials could have prevented potential allies of Prigozhin and Wagner from joining the revolt, contributing to its failure.
READ MORE: Russia’s General ‘Armageddon’ vanishes amid suspicion he is being interrogated about prior knowledge of Wagner’s mutiny in first sign Putin’s purge has begun
Russian National Guard Commander Viktor Zolotov said Tuesday that there were leaks from Wagner about the revolt, and alleged that Western agents could have been behind it, according to Russian state media.
It comes after a US intelligence chief claimed Prigozhin has been holed up in a windowless hotel room in Minsk, Belarus, to avoid assassination following his aborted uprising.
Prigozhin arrived in Belarus yesterday to begin life in exile under a deal that ended his short-lived mutiny against the Russian military by his Wagner fighters, Belarusian state news agency Belta said.
Asked about Prigozhin’s predicament, chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Walker said he’d received reports the Wagner chief was taking every measure to avoid meeting a sticky end.
‘There have been a number of Russian entity individuals who have run afoul of Putin over the last year and a half, who have mysteriously fallen out of fifth, sixth or seventh floor windows,’ Walker said.
It comes as Flightradar data appeared to show Prigozhin’s jet leaving the Belarusian capital late last night on a flight path to Moscow, sparking speculation that the Wagner chief is now headed for in-person talks with Vladimir Putin.
Embraer Legacy 600 business jet with the tail number RA-02795, a jet which is thought to belong to the Wagner chief, departed the Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk and has since landed in the Russian capital.
It comes as Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko painted himself as a master negotiator, taking the credit for mediating discussions between Prigozhin and an enraged Putin, talking the latter out of killing the former in retribution for the revolt.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
Flightradar data appeared to show Prigozhin’s jet leaving the Belarusian capital late last night on a flight path to Moscow
Prigozhin’s jet headed for Moscow sparked speculation the Wagner chief is on his way to in-person talks with Vladimir Putin
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko painted himself as a master negotiator, taking the credit for mediating discussions between Prigozhin and an enraged Putin
Speaking to top brass in Minsk, Lukashenko said he told Prigozhin that he would be ‘squashed like a bug’ if he tried to attack Moscow, and warned that the Kremlin would never fulfill his demand to oust Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov.
Lukashenko asserted that he spoke with Putin over the phone on Saturday after Wagner forces set up a base in the Russian city of Rostov to march on towards the capital.
READ MORE: Putin sends plane to Washington DC to fly ‘key diplomats’ back to Moscow just days after Wagner’s attempted coup
He claimed he talked the Russian president out of killing Prigozhin and urged him to negotiate a peaceful end to the revolt.
‘I realised there was a harsh decision taken — to destroy [Prigozhin and Wagner],’ Lukashenko said.
‘I suggested Putin not to hurry. Let’s talk with Prigozhin, with his commanders,’ he added.
Lukashenko claimed that Prigozhin did not answer calls from Putin, so they set up three communication channels with Rostov to negotiate with Wagner.
Lukashenko said he was able to connect with Prigozhin during the first hour of his call with Putin and claimed the former sounded elated at the opportunity to negotiate.
The conversations were initially fiery, with the first half an hour spent by the Wagner chief issuing a number of oaths over the phone.
After things quietened, Lukashenko said, he managed to negotiate an end to the coup attempt by offering Prigozhin and his troops immunity in exchange for the Wagner leader agreeing to self-exile in Belarus.
Earlier on Tuesday, Russia’s FSB security service dropped charges against participants in the brief uprising, and Lukashenko said Prigozhin and some of his troops are welcome to stay in Belarus ‘for some time’ at their own expense.
Putin also spoke of the offer on Tuesday, telling the mercenaries that they can either choose to join the Russian army or follow their leader to Belarus.
Later, at a brief ceremony in Moscow, Putin praised Russia’s national guard for ‘preventing a civil war’ as he sought to reassert his authority after the crisis.
And in a further show of continuity and business-as-usual, Russian media on Tuesday showed Shoigu, in his military uniform, greeting Cuba’s visiting defence minister in a pomp-heavy ceremony.
In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023
Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District’s headquarters and return to their base in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023
PMC Wagner Group servicemen are seen pulling out of downtown Rostov-on-Don and returning to their bases on June 24, 2023
According to flight tracking website Flight Radar24, the Embraer Legacy 600 business jet with the number RA-02795 belonging to Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Minsk at 7.40am local time on Tuesday, suggesting that he has begun his exile
Prigozhin said on Monday that his troops remain loyal to him despite admitting that a small percentage of them have accepted the Kremlin’s offer to join the Russian military.
READ MORE: Putin tells Russian troops they ‘stopped civil war’ and holds minute’s silence for those killed during Wagner ‘mutiny’ as mercenary chief Prigozhin begins life in exile in Belarus
Meanwhile, preparations were underway for Wagner’s troops, who numbered 25,000 according to Prigozhin, to hand over their heavy weapons to the Russian military, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said.
Prigozhin had said those moves were being taken ahead of a July 1 deadline for his fighters to sign contracts – which he opposed – to serve under the Russian military’s command.
The series of events in recent days constitutes the gravest threat so far to Putin’s grip on power amid the 16-month war in Ukraine, and he again acknowledged the threat on Tuesday in saying the result could have been a civil war.
Prigozhin has said his goal had been to oust Shoigu and other military brass, not stage a coup against Putin.
In addresses this week, Putin has sought to project stability and demonstrate authority.
Lukashenko meanwhile, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 29 years while relying on Russian subsidies and support, portrayed the uprising as merely the latest development in the clash between Prigozhin and Shoigu.
While the mutiny unfolded, he said, he put Belarus’ armed forces on a combat footing and urged Putin not to be hasty in his response, so that the conflict with Wagner did not spiral out of control.
Like Putin, Lukashenko portrayed the war in Ukraine as an existential threat, saying: ‘If Russia collapses, we all will perish under the debris.’
Prigozhin has long expressed hatred and distrust of Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu (centre)
READ MORE: Who are the members of Putin’s inner circle…and just how loyal are they? From warlords to ministers, the select few Vladimir still trusts following Wagner ‘mutiny’ – but for how much longer?
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not disclose details about the Kremlin’s deal with the Wagner chief.
He said only that Putin had provided Prigozhin with ‘certain guarantees,’ with the aim of avoiding a ‘worst-case scenario’.
Asked why the rebels were allowed to get as close as about 200 kilometres from Moscow without facing serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov told reporters: ‘We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow. If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter.’
Zolotov, a former Putin bodyguard, also said the National Guard would get the battle tanks and other heavy weapons which it had been lacking.
The mercenaries shot down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane as they advanced on Moscow, killing at least a dozen airmen, according to Russian news reports.
The Defence Ministry didn’t release information about casualties, but Putin mentioned them on Tuesday and honoured them with a moment of silence.
‘Pilots, our combat comrades, died while confronting the mutiny,’ he said. ‘They didn’t waver and fulfilled the orders and their military duty with dignity.’
In a televised address on Monday night, Putin said rebellion organisers had played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies.
Although critical of their leaders, he praised the rank-and-file mutineers who ‘didn’t engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink’.
A Washington-based think tank said that was ‘likely in an effort to retain them’ in the fight in Ukraine because Moscow needs ‘trained and effective manpower’ as it faces a counter-offensive.
The Institute for the Study of War also said the break between Putin and Prigozhin is likely beyond repair, and that providing the Wagner chief and his loyalists with Belarus as an apparent safe haven could be a trap.
Prigozhin said, without elaborating, that the Belarusian leadership proposed solutions that would allow Wagner to operate ‘in a legal jurisdiction’.
Lukashenko said there is no reason to fear Wagner’s presence in his country, though in Russia, Wagner-recruited convicts have been suspected of violent crimes.
The Wagner troops have ‘priceless’ military knowledge and experience to share with Belarus, he said during a meeting with his defence minister.
But exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely seen as fraudulent and triggered mass protests, said Wagner troops will threaten the country and its neighbours.
‘Belarusians don’t welcome war criminal Prigozhin,’ she told The Associated Press. ‘If Wagner sets up military bases on our territory, it will pose a new threat to our sovereignty and our neighbours.’
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