Russia: Why Wagner chief chose Rostov-on-Don as ground zero for armed rebellion

Strategic city houses the headquarters of Russia's southern military district

russia-wagner-group-afp Members of Wagner group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base, in Rostov-on-Don | AFP

Even before Russia began the war on Ukraine, civilians in Rostov-on-Don knew their city might become a focus or target during the imminent hostilities. As did many Russians in the prelude and early days of the war, those who could, left the area for other parts of the world.

One of them, a man who did not wish to be named as his wife's family still lives in the area, spoke with THE WEEK from his self-imposed exile in South America, and relied recent communications with people in Rostov-on-Don as Wagner Group forces took control of the city on Saturday. He described the mood among civilians last week as a nervous, "cautious curiosity." At first, he said, it appeared to be an increase in state military activity, but rumours were soon confirmed as it became clear these were the Wagner forces.

They were not targeting or threatening civilians as they had done in Ukraine, he said, and people had been able to get pretty close to the troops on the streets. In the residential areas, however, “people were avoiding the trendy cafes and staying close to home.” Many people in the area have relatives and extended families that are Ukrainian, and have been generally uncertain about the Russian military operations against its neighbour but kept quiet, he said.

The mood, according to his Georgian in-laws, was the same mix of anticipation and uncertainty they felt when the KGB and hardline communists attempted a putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, unchaining events that led to his downfall and the end of the Soviet Union.

The city of Rostov-on-Don sits on the serene Don River, Russia's second largest and one of Europe's major waterways, and the equally tranquil brackish water Sea of Azov. As the Don River delta opens to the Azov, herons and white-tailed eagles fly above its reed beds; below, any given day, kingfish can be seen darting across the water. With its clean beaches and shallow waters (an average of 7 metres deep), the inland sea is at the division between Europe and Asia, and between Russia and Russian-occupied Ukraine. On its shores on the east and south are the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk.

Rostov-on-Don holds significant military importance as the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District— a vital military city as Tampa, Florida is to the United States.

The headquarters city for the US Central Command, CENTCOM, Tampa holds units responsible for overseeing military operations and maintaining security over a large international area, coordinating and executing military strategies in the region. As Rostov-on-Don holds strategic operations centres, Tampa is also the base for the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) responsible for organising, training, and equipping US special operations forces, including Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and Air Force Special Tactics personnel.

Rostov-on-Don holds logistic significance in the defense of southern Russia and its regional stability. In today's geopolitical context, it plays a pivotal role in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, working as command-and-control centre and a forward operating base for Russian troops. The Don region's extensive rail and road networks host major transportation hubs, like the Rostov-on-Don airport and the Port of Rostov, used for rapid deployment of military personnel, equipment, and supplies.

As residents of Rostov-on-Don crowded the ways out of the city, and entrances to Moscow were blocked by hundreds of sand-filled dump trucks, videos emerged of people pouring into central Rostov-on-Don to shake hands with Wagner troops, after the mercenary group's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin declared he was turning his troops back “to avoid bloodshed” following a Belarus-brokered accord on Sunday.

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