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In Ukraine, Russian Mutiny A Source Of Hope, Trepidation, And Mocking Memes

A man holds the Russian flag in front of a Wagner Group military vehicle painted with the word "Rostov" in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24.
A man holds the Russian flag in front of a Wagner Group military vehicle painted with the word "Rostov" in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24.

KYIV -- Along with the summer heat, Russian attacks and the wail of air-raid sirens frequently make for sleepless nights in Ukraine's capital. Overnight into Saturday, June 24, loud blasts rang out as Russia launched more than 20 missiles at Kyiv, and debris from the rockets killed at least five people and wounded several others.

After dawn broke, residents who might otherwise have slept were kept alert all day -- this time by mayhem in Russia, where a mercenary force that has been heavily involved in some of the deadliest fighting in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine turned against Moscow's own military in a stunning mutiny.

As Wagner forces crossed out of Ukraine and into Russia, seizing military facilities in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and heading toward Moscow, many Ukrainians were glued to their phones, following the news with a mixture of hope and trepidation -- and laughter.

On social media, mocking memes proliferated as Ukrainians turned to humor, one of the weapons they have used to blunt the attacks and handle the horrors of an unprovoked full-scale invasion that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched it on February 24, 2022.

One joke played off that date and the events unfolding in Russia on June 24:
"I like this 24th much more than that one before," television journalist Nelli Kovalska wrote on Facebook.

Multiple popcorn memes were posted as Ukrainians watched the dramatic events -- as spectators of Russia, for a change, rather than its targets.

One video showed a man meant to be a camouflage-clad Ukrainian soldier sitting on a military vehicle and munching popcorn overflowing from one of several of what appeared to be ammunition containers.

Another post featured a photo of big bales of popcorn and a caption reading: "NATO prepares to airdrop more popcorn into Ukraine."

Major Ukrainian online retailer Rozetka got into the act, issuing a post that said popcorn sales were surging.

Another meme took aim at the Russian military, suggesting its failure to stop Wagner fighters from entering Rostov and marching toward Moscow was in line with its performance in Ukraine, where it has fared far worse than many analysts expected and has suffered numerous setbacks since February 2022.

"Russian Army: 2021, second best in the world; 2022, second best in Ukraine; 2023, second best in Russia," the Facebook post by creative designer Oleh Postyrnak read.

Several social media posts contrasted the apparently weak resistance Wagner fighters faced as they headed toward Moscow with the way Ukraine stymied the Russian advance toward Kyiv early in the invasion, in which Putin is believed to have expected Russian forces to capture the capital and subjugate the country within days or weeks.

Another made reference to the fact that many Wagner mercenaries are convicted criminal recruited by Prigozhin from prisons across Russia. It asked, "If they jail Prigozhin, who will recruit him into Wagner?"

It looks like Prigozhin won't be jailed, though.

On the morning of June 24, Putin vowed to crush what he called an "armed mutiny" and bring the "traitors" behind it to justice. But late in the evening, after Prigozhin abruptly announced he was ordering Wagner forces to abandon their march to Moscow and return to their camps in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said an agreement had been reached under which the mercenary leader would avoid prosecution and leave Russia for Belarus.

The rebellion, which drew both Wagner forces and Chechen forces away from the front during a nascent Ukrainian counteroffensive, could still have repercussions for the course of the war.

"In the beginning, I thought it was fake, but then I hoped it may be an actual coup," Roman Chulipa, 30, who works in one of the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, told RFE/RL in central Kyiv on June 25.

"I think it shows the fragility of Putin's regime," he added. "The seeds of the crisis have been sown, and we will see the fruit in a few weeks."

In his nightly video address late on June 24, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy suggested the dramatic developments underscored the dangers Russia poses to the region and the planet.

"The world has seen that the owners of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Just complete chaos. The complete absence of any predictability. And this is on Russian territory, which is packed with weapons," he said.

Prigozhin And Wagner Group Leave Rostov-On-Don
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Inside and outside of government, meanwhile, some Ukrainians hope the domestic disarray could weaken Russia's war effort, lead to further setbacks for the invading forces, and bring the war closer to its end.

"This story boosts hopes for a quicker end to the war and the return of our soldiers from the front line back home," said sales manager Andriy Romanovych, 24, who said many of his friends are fighting in Ukraine's south and east.

Kyiv pensioner Natalia Osadcha, meanwhile, suspects the mutiny was staged to obscure Russian setbacks in the war.

"The situation on the front line is not great for Russia, so they decided to divert attention from it," said Osadcha, 72.

"It was a full-blown stage play, but something went wrong," she said. "Someone went a bit too far, and they had to cut the show short."

RFE/RL Ukrainian Service editor Rostyslav Khotin and Steve Gutterman, regional desk editor for Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus at RFE/RL's Central Newsroom, contributed to this report from Prague.
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    Aleksander Palikot

    Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.

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