Saturday, May 18, 2024

In L.A.’s Russian-speaking community, Wagner Group rebellion stirs hope, apprehension

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In West Hollywood, home to one of the largest Russian-speaking communities in the United States, residents watched with hope and apprehension Saturday as a mercenary rebellion that threatened to upend the Russian government and undermine its bloody invasion of Ukraine appeared to subside.

Some were buoyed by the news that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian entrepreneur who owns the mercenary army known as the Wagner Group, announced that he was halting his march to Moscow. Others, like Andrei Braginski, dismissed the armed rebellion as an insignificant development in Russia, where the invasion of Ukraine and its mounting casualties have become increasingly unpopular.

“They’re rebels without support,” said Braginski, 58, carrying a bag of groceries filled with cherries, Kefir and tomato juice outside Odessa Grocery on Santa Monica Boulevard. “I don’t think it’s going to change the war. [Prigozhin] won’t win and won’t weaken the Russian army.”

Braginski, who was born in Estonia, has cousins in Russia and said he supports Ukraine and anyone standing on their side.

Inside the market, shoppers strolled past shelves lined with Russian candies and chips as a song from Russian Lithuanian singer Kristina Orbakaite blared through the speakers overhead. Some spoke on condition that they not be identified out of fear of reprisals by those who disagreed with their opinions.

Nina, 67, who was raised in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and declined to give her last name, was optimistic by the news that the Wagner Group had halted its march to Moscow.

“At the end of the day, peace will prevail,” she said as she scoured the frozen food aisle looking for pierogies for her mother.

She noted that her sister and nephew live in Zaporizhia, a city in southeast Ukraine where intense fighting has taken place in recent weeks.

Nina said she isn’t a fan of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but added that she does not support the war in her homeland.

“So many young kids are dying,” she said. “There have been tragedies beyond imagination.”

The Wagner Group operates in multiple countries and has fought alongside Russian forces in Ukraine. The mercenary operation in Ukraine has relied on well-trained Russian military veterans and convicts recruited from prisons and used for indiscriminate “human wave” attacks against Ukrainian forces, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.

Regardless of the outcome of Prigozhin’s mercenary rebellion, he has tapped into popular sentiment across Russia, using social media to call out corruption and ineptitude of Russian generals leading the war in Ukraine, said Robert English, director of Central European Studies at USC.

He said Prigozhin will continue to pose a threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long hold on power.

“Prigozhin is hitting all the right notes,” English said Saturday in a telephone interview from Europe, where he has been monitoring the developments. “His message resonates.”

In West Hollywood, Liana sat at her desk in a notary public office, describing the rebels as criminals but adding that “any means to overthrow Putin is good enough.”

“It’s probably benefiting Ukraine that the mutiny and disruption is happening,” said the 26-year-old, who declined to give her last name out of concern for her mother in Russia. “I believe in the domino effect, that one event will impact another and then another. But no one knows what’s going to happen.”

Liana, who came to the United States nine years ago to attend drama school, called the war “surreal” and had complicated thoughts about the U.S.’s support of Ukraine.

“I don’t think the U.S. is supporting Ukraine out of the pureness of its heart,” she said. “ I think there’s always a political agenda when a country gets involved. Nevertheless, it’s good because Ukraine doesn’t have the same resources as Russia. And now it can fight back.”

But she doesn’t know how, or when, the war will end.

“I really hope for the best,” she said after a long pause. “ I just want people to be safe and continue to live as they were. But so many things have happened that are irreversible. That will never be forgotten.”

Her co-worker Nadia Akarsu, 36, remembers the day a bomb shook her awake in her Kyiv apartment.

It was Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russian troops stormed into her homeland.

“It’s horrible. We Ukrainians didn’t think it was possible in 21st century,” she said.

Although she called the leader of the Wagner group a “criminal,” Akarsu was glad when she heard news of their rebellion against the Russian army.

“When an enemy is divided and there’s conflict between themselves, it’s good,” she said. “I don’t think it will benefit Ukraine yet, but it will spread the attention of Russian forces.”

Akarsu fled the war last year and left behind her father and many friends, and said she’s appreciative of the U.S. support of Ukraine.

“The attack is a danger to world society and to peace,” she said. “The United States is the strongest country in the world and the leader of the world, and I’m glad they are taking responsibility as a leader.”

As for how she thinks the war will end, Akarsu is hopeful.

“I hope and believe that Ukraine will get back all territories occupied by Russia right now, and that we will be more independent and stronger than ever,” she said.

But she thinks it won’t happen anytime soon.

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