Heather Cox Richardson

June 23, 2023 (Friday)

There’s something happening in Russia, but as of midnight tonight EDT, what is going on is not clear.

Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, has been increasingly critical of Russia’s military leaders over the past few months, and today he accused the Russian military of attacking his forces. He announced that he was leading his soldiers from Ukraine into Russia, where he promised to retaliate against the leaders of the Russian Ministry of Defense. In response, Russian generals accused him of “organizing an armed rebellion” against Russian president Vladimir Putin and said there was no basis for his accusations.

Rumors and unsubstantiated videos of tanks have circulated on social media ever since, with Prigozhin saying his forces crossed back into Russia’s Rostov oblast—more than 600 miles from Moscow—without any resistance by border guards. The Kremlin says that it has strengthened security measures in Moscow.

The Institute for the Study of War, which assesses such events, writes that Prigozhin likely intends for the Wagner group to remove the current leadership of the Ministry of Defense in Rostov-on-Don. Since that city houses the command center for the Russian Joint Group of Forces in Ukraine, the ISW writes, such a struggle would have “significant impacts” on the Ukraine war. The city also is home to what former director for European affairs for the U.S. National Security Council Alexander Vindman called “enormous stockpiles” of weapons that could fall into the hands of the Wagner Group.

As of midnight, Putin has not appeared on television to comment on events, which does not bode well for his control of the situation. The Kremlin did release a prerecorded video for young people on Youth Day in which he urged them to “dream bravely.”

There are no good guys in this struggle. Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI for his involvement in the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He funded the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which flooded social media with messages designed to help Trump win the presidency, and his mercenaries have been committing war crimes in Ukraine and African countries, where they often support dictators. And Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

What we can say with certainty is that this internal struggle shows that Putin’s hold over Russia is weak and that there are significant challenges to it before Russia’s next presidential election, which is supposed to be held on March 17, 2024. It is also certain that this internal fighting is a product of the war against Ukraine going badly for Russia and that it will hurt Russia’s war effort going forward.

As Yale professor Timothy Snyder put it: “wars end when the domestic political system is under pressure.”

While all eyes are on Russia tonight, there is news at home, too.

Today, special counsel Jack Smith asked Judge Aileen Cannon, who is overseeing the case against Trump for keeping classified documents and showing them to others, endangering our national security, to set the trial for December 11, 2023. The date is far enough out that it should give defense lawyers time to get security clearances. The government also asked the judge for a pre-trial conference “to consider matters relating to classified information that may arise in connection with the prosecution,” and to prohibit Trump and his co-defendant Waltine Nauta from talking to 84 witnesses about the case.

An exclusive story tonight from CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Sara Murray, Zachary Cohen, and Casey Gannon revealed that special counsel Jack Smith has given limited immunity to at least two of the Republican fake electors who signed false election certificates in late 2020 claiming that Trump, rather than Biden, had won the election. The two have testified before the federal grand jury investigating the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Also, Owen Shroyer, the sidekick of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, is indeed cooperating with prosecutors, as his request on Tuesday to change his plea indicated. Shroyer was at the January 5 meeting in the “war room” in the Willard Hotel and was on an encrypted chat with several of the key players in the attempt to steal the election for Trump. The plea deal says that he will “allow law enforcement agents to review any social media accounts…for statements and postings in and around January 6, 2021, prior to sentencing.”

Today, the Justice Department announced that it has indicted four Chinese companies and eight individuals for selling to Mexican cartels the chemicals they needed to make street fentanyl. The administration is trying to undercut the manufacture of street fentanyl by stopping the flow of “precursor chemicals” from China to manufacturing centers in Latin America. Executives of one of the companies told an undercover agent they could supply three tons of precursor chemicals a month.

And finally, today the broken stretch of I-95 in Philadelphia reopened. “Thanks to the grit and determination of operating engineers, laborers, cement finishers, carpenters, teamsters, and so many other proud union workers doing shifts around the clock,” President Biden said in a statement, “I-95 is reopening. And it’s ahead of schedule.”

He thanked the workers and complimented Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro, other key Pennsylvania lawmakers, and key federal officials, including Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu—who himself tweeted credit to Pennsylvania state officials and the specific labor unions that did the repairs—Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Federal Highway Administration Administrator Shailen Bhatt, and U.S. Department of Transportation officials who were at the site within hours of the accident that caused the closure. Biden pointed out that the emergency repair was “100% federally funded and all approvals were given as quickly as possible.”

“We are proving that when we work together, there is nothing we cannot do.”