Jun 26, 2023

Turmoil in Russia as Wagner Halts its Advance on Moscow Transcript

Turmoil in Russia as Wagner Halts its Advance on Moscow Transcript
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Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his mercenaries to turn around from their advance on Moscow after taking control of a southern Russian city earlier in the day. Read the transcript here.

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John Yang (00:00):

Good evening. I’m John Yang. It has been a tumultuous day in Russia. Late this afternoon, Wagner mercenary group founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ordered an about face in his advance on the capital city of Moscow. His forces were on the move earlier today, after taking control of Rostov-on-Don, a city near the Ukrainian border, that’s a Russian military headquarters.

Speaker 2 (00:23):

Yevgeny Prigozhin said he stopped his forces just hours short of Moscow to save Russian lives. He explained in an audio message.

Interpreter (00:32):

In the last 24 hours, we have got to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. We didn’t spill a single drop of our fighter’s blood. Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility for the chance that Russian blood could possibly be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around.

Speaker 2 (00:53):

Earlier, Russian Army soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries had prepared for a clash. Russians ready to fight Russians. Wagner Group forces had been barreling toward Moscow, hours after they had seized Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin called it retribution for what he claimed were Moscow’s attacks on his fighters in Ukraine.

Interpreter (01:13):

We have taken Rostov’s military objects under our control, including an airfield. There are no issues. So when we are told that Wagner has interfered and that something has collapsed on the front lines, we are not the reason for that collapse.

Speaker 2 (01:28):

Russian helicopters attack Wagner vehicles as they headed north through the city of Voronezh. Prigozhin accused the Russians of firing on civilian targets, including a fuel depot to slow his advance. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, accused Prigozhin of staging a coup.

Interpreter (01:46):

We won’t allow a repeat of a civil war. What we are facing now is treason, unreasonable ambitions, and personal interest lead to treachery, state treason, and betrayal of one’s own people.

Speaker 2 (02:00):

In an audio message, Prigozhin said he and his forces were Russia’s true defenders.

Interpreter (02:06):

As for betraying the motherland, the President is deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our motherland. We have fought and we are fighting everyone from the Wagner private military company.

Speaker 2 (02:18):

Prigozhin has been a vocal critic of Russia’s military leaders, including defense minister Sergei Shoigu, and military chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov.

Interpreter (02:27):

We have a 70% shortage of ammunition. Shoigu, Gerasimov, where is the ammunition? Look at them.

Speaker 2 (02:35):

As tensions between the two Russian factions escalated. Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, posted a taunting tweet. Today the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything.

John Yang (02:49):

Late today, the Kremlin said it will drop all criminal charges against Prigozhin. And that he will move to Belarus. That country’s President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, brokered the deal that defused the rebellion. Candace Rondeaux is the Senior Director for the Future Frontlines program at the Think Tank New America. She’s writing a book on the Wagner Group. Candace, what was it that Yevgeny Prigozhin wanted? And did he achieve any of it?

Candace Rondeaux (03:14):

Well, he certainly achieved attention getting. I think he had the attention of the entire world today with his march for Justice from Rostov-on-Don up to Moscow, or at least toward Moscow. The demand was apparently an explanation for why Putin and Russia’s military leaders were fighting the war so poorly, and why so many men had died on Putin’s watch during these last few days, as the Wagner Group has pressed forward in Ukraine.

John Yang (03:45):

He seemed to be doing so well. He seemed to have planned this and it was going so well. Why do you think he stopped? Why do you think … What was the pressure on him to stop?

Candace Rondeaux (03:58):

Well, this has been just a nonstop drama from the moment that he made his declaration, that apparently Russian forces had attacked a group of Wagner forces near the southern military district area near Ukraine and the border of Rostov-on-Don. And that was some sort of precipitating action. And then we saw him moving north with apparently thousands of troops, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles. I think what he achieved today was insulation from what would’ve been maybe his inevitable downfall. Had the Wagner Group been brought under the control of the Ministry of Defense, which was another precipitating cause. Just last week, Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defense, called for complete unity command, and that is for all Wagner Group and volunteer forces, to be under the control of the Kremlin, of the Ministry of Defense. And Prigozhin immediately raised objections to that very loudly. And so this march seems to have been designed to force stall that. And he seems to have once again slipped the noose, so to speak, and moved to Belarus for safety, as for a safe harbor.

John Yang (05:17):

Tell us a little bit about who Yevgeny Prigozhin is. And is taking a high risk gamble, rolling the dice like he did, is that characteristic of him?

Candace Rondeaux (05:27):

Absolutely. This is a guy who as a young man, trained as a cross country Olympic skier, didn’t luck out because of a couple of different things that happened. He had an injury as a young man, turned to a life of crime, spent 10 years behind bars as well. Most of the rest of his contemporary is actually fought on the front lines in the Soviet War in Afghanistan. So he has that in common with Putin. He did not go to the front lines of Russia’s biggest war, other than of course [inaudible 00:05:58] and this war. And when he got out of jail, out of prison, he turned himself around and became a entrepreneur of upscale food restaurants, big bistros in St. Petersburg.

He was, of course, often connected with Putin because that was … There were a few places at that time in the 1990s in St. Petersburg where you could actually have a good and upscale meal. And Putin became a patron. But there were other patrons that have been operating in the shadows for Prigozhin for many years, that people forget. People close to Putin, like Gennady Timchenko, the head of Volga Group, Sergey Chemezov, the head of Rostec, Russia’s largest arms dealer. That kind of relationship, those sets of relationships, have helped Putin give Prigozhin the path he needs to take the kinds of risks that he did over these last couple days. And as we’ve seen over the last year and a half.

John Yang (06:56):

Prigozhin, as I said, was highly critical of the way this war was being fought. Other critics have been pursued and dealt with. But Putin seemed to allow him to go on. What does this say about his relationship with Putin? And then his turn in the last couple of days seemingly oppose Putin?

Candace Rondeaux (07:17):

Well, it is hard to imagine a situation of this kind unfolding in any other country in the world, other than Russia. The only maybe other comparisons, maybe North Korea, but even that seems a bit of a stretch. I think what we saw today was something nobody would’ve believed. First, Putin threatening to deal brutally with the mutineers, who mounted this rebellion, revolt against his regime, these mercenary fighters. And then suddenly within eight hours, there’s a turnaround. “Doesn’t matter. You’re all good. Just move next door. And wait to see what happens.” I think there is something a little bit strange about this outcome. And I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Mr. Prigozhin. And I don’t think, for Putin, he comes out of this looking good or smelling like roses.

John Yang (08:16):

Candace Rondeaux of the New America Think Tank. Thank you very much.

Candace Rondeaux (08:20):

Thank you.

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