Battle for Moscow: The key players from Putin to Prigozhin as Wagner group launches all-out rebellion

24 June 2023, 15:08 | Updated: 24 June 2023, 17:07

The key players in Wagner's revolt
The key players in Wagner's revolt. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Russia is on the brink of civil war as Wagner mercenaries descend on Moscow.

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The group has effectively declared war on the Russian military and says it is heading for the capital, with a convoy of trucks and even tanks caught on footage.

Wagner has captured parts of Rostov, in the south, apparently including the regional HQ that coordinates some of the invasion of Ukraine.

They have been struck by helicopters as they also attacked and took over military facilities around Voronezh, well north of Rostov and some 300 miles from Moscow.

Read more: 'Putin is deeply mistaken': Wagner boss taunts Russian leader as his '25,000-strong' mercenary army marches on Moscow

The head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been branded a traitor by Vladimir Putin, while Prigozhin has named two top defence figures as the subjects of his anger.

Here are the key players in this early stage of Russia's internal battle.

Vladimir Putin

Putin's position has never looked weaker
Putin's position has never looked weaker. Picture: Alamy

The Russian leader has cultivated a reputation as a slick and clever figure - someone capable of undermining Western democracy and rebuilding Russian power in the post-Soviet era.

His destruction of Syria saved the hated Assad regime before Russia was suspected of having a hand in bids to disrupt various Western elections and information spaces.

Viciously, his spies tried to murder a former Russian agent who defected to the UK in Salisbury with the brutal Novichok poison, which led to the accidental death of Dawn Sturgess.

Putin has waged a war in Ukraine since 2014, seizing Crimea by force and then sending Russian forces to help militias fight in the rebellion in the eastern Donbas region.

Ex-PM of Ukraine on Putin accusing Wagner Group of 'treason'

In 2022, he launched a full-scale invasion, producing a litany of lies as a pretext. He said he was angry at Nato, claimed Ukraine is run by Nazis - it isn't - and seemed convinced he could largely have the country in his grasp within 10 days.

Since then, he has been forced to retreat from Kyiv and watched Ukraine counterattack to the point of where it even threatens his precious Crimea.

It is thought he is surrounded by yes men and officials producing reports designed to play up to his world view instead of the reality, and he has tried to sell a story to the Russian public that the invasion is failing because he is up against the might of the West. He has not owned up to the spectacular failure of his decision to invade.

Putin denounced the insurrection as a "stab in the back" and vowed to stop it.

There has long been speculation over his health and future, though he has continued to enjoy popularity among the Russian people. That could change with the Wagner insurrection - and a man who is clearly looking for power.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Prigozhin has taken key parts of Rostov
Prigozhin has taken key parts of Rostov. Picture: Social media

The boss of Wagner has declared a war on the Russian military. In a surprise move, he has marched into Rostov and apparently taken over the base there. His forces are also in Voronezh.

This came after he claimed Russia attacked his training camp near Bakhmut - despite the two having fought side by side there.

Read more: 'We'll go all the way': Wagner forces 'seize Russian city' as Putin faces coup and Moscow locks down

He has been a thorn in the Russian side for some time, taking shots at top military figures for their mistakes in a series of frank videos. He rapidly took credit for the bloody seizure of Bakhmut, the only Russian victory for months.

The former hot dog stand owner rose to become a caterer to Putin - he was once known by the moniker "Putin's chef" - and as his businesses expanded he established Wagner as a major presence.

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The mercenaries have been deployed to Ukraine, Syria and Africa in a bid to expand Russian influence without direct Kremlin involvement.

They allegedly keep leaders or warlords safe for payments, including gold and natural resources.

Wagner, which includes convicts recruited with a promise of being freed after their service, seem to have been effective in the war. They have paid a high price - some 20,000 are thought to have been killed in Bakhmut.

That body count led him to take on the military top brass, attacking them in videos where he is clad in military gear - and now he is gunning for them in Russia.

He says he is on a "march for justice" and claims he has 25,000 active fighters who are willing to die to save Wagner and take on the Russian military.

Sergei Shoigu

Shoigu has become a lightning rod for criticism
Shoigu has become a lightning rod for criticism. Picture: Alamy

Russia's defence minister is one of two men to repeatedly get targeted in Prigozhin's videos.

As the man in charge of the Russian Ministry of Defence, he is the frequent target of Prigozhin and military bloggers who say he must take the blame for failures in Ukraine.

A lot of that is likely him taking flak for bloggers and public figures who feel too afraid to include Putin in their criticisms.

He and the president were said to have been close, and have been pictured holidaying with each other in Siberia.

He has never served in the military, but is often seen at official events in military uniform with medals attached.

Shoigu has overseen a defence ministry that runs an armed forces plagued with corruption. It was suspected that part of the failure of the Russian army in Ukraine can be put down to funds and equipment being neglected by troops.

Valery Gerasimov

Gerasimov's military has failed in Ukraine
Gerasimov's military has failed in Ukraine. Picture: Alamy

The head of the armed forces, Gerasimov is the other figure targeted by Prigozhin.

He has been the top soldier in Russia for more than a decade.

Amid the failing invasion, for which he is often criticised for the same reasons as Shoigu, he has now taken full control of the operation in Ukraine.

It was thought he was given direct charge to provide a counterbalance to the increasingly influential Wagner - something that appears to have spectacularly failed.

As top general, his record not only includes the disastrous plan to invade Ukraine, but he can now go down as the man who had to defend an insurrection on Russian soil that was a direct consequence of the failure to beat Kyiv.

It may be that Prigozhin has his eye on both their jobs - but where this road leads is very unclear.

The support cast

Other prominent figures include Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister who is known for speaking bile about Ukraine during his various diplomatic engagements.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former president turned deputy national security chairman, who has found a career spouting nonsense and increasingly bizarre statements on Twitter, has gone totally silent.

And watching this will be anti-Putin Russians who launched a small incursion over the border weeks ago.

Kyiv will also be watching on keenly. Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his generals will wonder if this leads to Russian troops retreating or breaking as Wagner advances, and whether this represents the best chance to recapture its territory and win the war.

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