From June 24 to 25, paramilitary militia leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a surprise offensive in Russia, ready to take over Moscow. But less than 24 hours later, Prigozhin finally agreed to turn back after a deal with Putin. This attempted coup d’état was widely reported, both abroad and in Russia: How did the Russian state media and independent press analyze it?
But what was Prigozhin’s real goal with this attack, of which only the material damage is known? To understand the imbroglio, we need to go back to the very origin of Wagner’s creation, back in 2014.
Although it operates to serve “Russia’s interests” in Ukraine and several African countries, the Wagner militia has no legitimacy on paper. In Russia, private military companies are illegal.
Since January 2023, the USA has even considered Wagner a “terrorist organization”. Despite this, Prigozhin continues to operate on behalf of the Kremlin abroad.
But since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2021, relations between the militia and the state have been crumbling. Yevgeny Prigozhin has demanded greater recognition and independence, accusing the authorities of killing his men, drawing the ire of the Russian president.
“An atmosphere of uncertainty” in Russia
Tensions between the two men crystallized over the weekend of June 24-25, when Wagner troops seized the city of Rostov and threatened to take Moscow. Yevhen Fedchenko, Director of the Mohyla School of Journalism at Kiev National University, and co-founder of the “StopFake.org” website, agreed to answer our questions. With some twenty years’ experience in journalism behind him, he now focuses on reporting fake news, particularly Russian and Ukrainian.
According to him, Russian media coverage was “very uncertain” from the beginning to the end of the insurrection. He refers to the coverage of the Wagner rebellion and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “information noise”: a plethora of information flooding Russian social networks (Telegram) as well as the media, without any concrete conclusions being drawn.
Yevhen Fedchenko doesn’t hesitate to speak of “false rebellion” on Prigozhin’s part, who was trying to save Wagner “because he knew he was in a weak position.” If he had really wanted to seize power, “Prigozhin would have succeeded. I think he wanted to break into the international scene, to make himself a new partner for foreign countries that wouldn’t like Vladimir Putin.”
Because before he invaded Ukraine, Putin was seen as a “predictable” and consistent president. Today, his image is no longer the same, and the media “no longer seem so sure to come to his defense”, says Yevhen Fedchenko.
According to the Ukrainian journalist, the Russian media “amplified” this message, in which Russians and the international community must choose “between Putin and Prigozhin in an uncertain future.” For “if mercenaries are able to seize certain cities and power, it means that Putin does not have total control of the country.”
There is, however, a common thread running through Russian media coverage, namely “surprise and uncertainty”: if previously the media emphasized Putin’s total authority, they made a change of attitude with the Wagner incident. First of all, “Russian journalists are always given guidelines for their coverage. But during the Wagner rebellion, the Kremlin didn’t have time to do so, leaving them in the dark.”
State press: Putin sets the tone
“Who should they support? Putin or Prigozhin?”. They chose a form of “neutrality”, giving only general information relayed on Telegram. The words “insurrection, rebellion, mutiny” were not used, but rather “euphemisms” as the founder of “StopFake” notes, including references to “problems” and “tensions” between Putin and Prigozhin.
Mistrust reigned from June 24 to 25: the whole operation “could have been a fake stunt to flush out traitors”, both in Wagner’s ranks and in the country’s media. And if Wagner had succeeded in actually taking power, their defiance could have spelled the end of their newspaper.
Some media outlets, notably Komsomolskaya Pravda, did not hesitate to speak of insurrection as early as Sunday June 25, the day after Vladimir Putin’s first speech. The Russian president promised that “traitors to the nation” would be punished, and described Wagner’s actions as a “stab in the back”.
Today, newspapers no longer hesitate to speak of “mutiny” and “failed rebellion”, like Rossiyskaya Gazeta (state newspaper), after Vladimir Putin’s speech today and once the tone had been set. But this topic remains poorly documented for some dailies, notably Izvestia: only a handful of articles on the rebellion have been written, and Wagner’s name is barely mentioned, with a more lenient discourse.
The daily, for example, refers to the “bravery and courage” of Wagner’s soldiers in Ukraine and Africa, pointing out that the rebellion “did not descend into fratricidal bloodshed” and that civil war was avoided. No criticism, no questions asked, just relief at the resolution of the conflict.
So, is Yevgeny Prigozhin still whispering in Vladimir Putin’s ear? Nothing is less certain. The head of the paramilitary militia arrived in Belarus June 17th afternoon with a few of his men, and gave assurances that Wagner’s operations in Ukraine and Africa would not be interrupted. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s clemency will last forever.
Written by Maud Baheng Daizey. Translated by Andrea Petitjean.