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Mercenary leader launched a failed rebellion against Russia's military leaders

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, declared a rebellion inside Russia over the Kremlin's handling of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin's private army's a key fighting force for Russia in Ukraine. But this weekend, Prigozhin turned his men away from that fight and mobilized them to move toward Moscow. Russia's President Vladimir Putin appeared on television and accused his former ally of treason. And then suddenly it all stopped.

Here to help us make sense of all of this is Sean McFate. He's a professor at National Defense University and author of "The Modern Mercenary." Good morning.

SEAN MCFATE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Sean, I just want to start with whether anyone expected what we saw happen over the weekend to actually happen.

MCFATE: I think most people were surprised. But for those who have been examining private force and mercenaries, it does not come as a shock. There is a long - you know, mercenaries are the second-oldest profession, and there's a long history of mercenaries turning on their masters.

FADEL: So Prigozhin running a mercenary group that's very important in the war in Ukraine suddenly turning on Putin - what do you think he accomplished? Because in the end, the march on Moscow stopped before they got there.

MCFATE: Well, it's unknown what secret deal Putin and Prigozhin made with each other. Remember, these two men go back to knowing each other from the 1990s.

FADEL: Yeah.

MCFATE: But they have - Prigozhin has been increasingly frustrated over the past months with what he sees as the Kremlin's and especially Geramisov's (ph) and Shoigu's ineptitudes. And I think he's - it's a question of him being fed up with it and also being an opportunist because Prigozhin is deeply ambitious himself.

FADEL: But Putin doesn't take any type of criticism lightly, any opposition - people have generally ended up in jail or poisoned. And here you see this rebellion happen. Do you expect Prigozhin to be spared similar consequences?

MCFATE: I do. It's possible. Because unlike those other individuals and victims in Russia, Prigozhin has a powerful army at his back, which makes him extremely political. And remember also that in the last, you know, six months to almost a year, most of the victories we've heard about in Ukraine were not achieved by the Russian army, but by the Wagner Group. They are the second-best military in Ukraine.

FADEL: Let's talk about how they amassed this power - the Wagner Group, especially in recent years and particularly during the war in Ukraine.

MCFATE: Sure. So the Wagner Group came on the scene in 2014 during the last Ukraine-Russian war.

FADEL: Right.

MCFATE: And they became Russia's weapon of choice between 2014 and today. And they did expeditionary operations sort of on behalf of the Kremlin in Africa and in Syria. And the reason why Russia liked them is because they gave the Kremlin great plausible deniability. If things really went south, then Putin could just say, it wasn't us, and disavow the whole thing, which actually happened in 2018 when the Wagner Group, about 300 of them, went up against American Delta Force Green Berets and Marines in eastern Syria.

And the United States annihilated those mercenaries. We killed more Russians that night in February 2018 than any night in the Cold War. And the reason it didn't go to World War III is because both Moscow and Washington invoked the plausible deniability that mercenaries offer. They both said, nothing to see here.

FADEL: OK, so you create this group that's not exactly under your control so that you can deny when it carries things out. But now it becomes a liability for Putin. I mean, where does he go from here?

MCFATE: Well, this is indeed the problem of nation-states hiring mercenaries. The problem of private warfare is control and accountability. And you have very little of it, especially in a conflict zone. So right now, we have the problem - well, Putin has a problem, is he can give amnesty temporarily to Wagner Group and to Prigozhin. But we don't know how this ends, because if he decides to annihilate them, then he's going to have a civil war on his hands.

FADEL: Sean McFate is a professor at National Defense University and author of "The Modern Mercenary." Thank you for your time.

MCFATE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.