A powerful mercenary military leader brought in by Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin to help salvage his faltering invasion of Ukraine turned his guns on the Russian army this weekend, and his tanks prowled the streets of his own country.
What just happened?
With Putin’s regular forces bogged down in what a Russian general once predicted would be a “walking-by” invasion, the president last year turned to a former political ally, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of a notoriously brutal private organization for help. . army named Wagner.
Wagner did indeed score victories in the Ukraine, but it soon became clear that Prigozhin, a tycoon with an ego to match the Russian president, was not content to limit his fight to one front. Mr. Prigozhin lashed out bitterly at Russian military leaders, accusing them of incompetence and undermining their fighters.
Then the words became action.
On Saturday, Wagner’s forces seized control of key military installations in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don and threatened to push into Moscow. Later that day, Prigozhin appeared to back down, announcing that Wagner was “turning our columns around and returning to the camps according to plan.”
But for Putin, it is the most serious challenge to his hold on power since he assumed the presidency in 1999.
The Russian president had held his tongue in recent months as his former ally spoke up more and more, perhaps because Prigozhin was always careful to profess his personal loyalty.
That ended on Saturday.
“A stab in the back for our country and our people,” Putin declared to the Russian people, promising “decisive action.”
This is what we know.
How big is the Wagner group?
Prigozhin’s shadowy private military company first emerged before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when the country seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Since then, it has grown a lot in size and scope.
By some estimates, Wagner has perhaps 50,000 fighters at his disposal in total, although Prigozhin spoke this weekend of deploying a force half that size in his new battle against the Russian Defense Ministry.
Last year, when Wagner was called back to help in the Ukraine, Prigozhin set out to expand his ranks. Freed from the restraints of the Russian bureaucracy and isolated by his ties to Putin, he turned heads by recruiting in Russian prisons.
Mr. Prigozhin offered the inmates a deal: fight for Wagner and win their freedom. But the reward for many was not freedom but death. The soldiers were barely trained before being sent to the front lines, and those who tried to desert were executed.
Part of a charmed circle of Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin, Prigozhin has long found him useful both at home and abroad. The Kremlin has used Wagner to exert its influence in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique.
Mr. Prigozhin was even implicated in an American political scandal. In 2018, he was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury for interfering in the 2016 US election.
Is this a coup attempt?
No, Prigozhin said, even as his fighters seized Russian facilities.
Yes, the Russian generals said, as Russian authorities opened an investigation into leader Wagner for “organizing an armed rebellion.”
Mr. Prigozhin, who has repeatedly professed his loyalty to the Russian president, said his target was the Defense Ministry. “The evil that the country’s military leadership transmits must be stopped,” he said in one of a series of voice recordings posted on the Telegram social network late Friday.
Whatever Prigozhin’s goal, his decision to deploy his forces in his own country had immediate repercussions.
On Saturday Putin mobilized Russian troops to put down the attack. There were signs of active fighting along a major highway where armored convoys were traveling, and regional governors urged residents to stay away from the corridor.
Putin said military and civilian functions had been “basically blocked” at a major military center for the war in Ukraine, an implicit acknowledgment of some success on Prigozhin’s part.
A Russian general urged Prigozhin’s fighters not to “play into the game” of an enemy he said was waiting for Russia’s internal political situation to worsen.
As events in Russia unfolded, the Ukrainian armed forces posted three words on Twitter: “We are watching.”
What triggered the fight?
For months, when he has not boasted of his force’s successes in Ukraine, even after a long and bloody battle at Bakhmut, Prigozhin has complained about military leaders.
He has accused Russian generals of not providing their forces with enough ammunition and of ignoring the soldiers’ struggles. And he has been scathing about his prosecution of the war.
Then, on Friday night, Prigozhin took it to a new level, accusing the military of attacking the camps of its fighters, a claim that could not be immediately verified. Calling his fighters “patriots of our homeland,” he vowed to retaliate.
Mr. Prigozhin also described the invasion of Ukraine as a “racket” perpetrated by a corrupt Russian elite.