Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is autonomous from Russia’s armed forces, privately recruiting who it wants as guns for hire. But the organisation is a creature of the Russian state, dependent upon it for funding, materiel and missions. In Africa and the Middle East, it has been an instrument of Russian foreign policy. Vladimir Putin has long benefited from being able to call on a force that could shield the Kremlin from the costs of dubious, and often lucrative, foreign adventures. Until now.
In Ukraine, Wagner provided additional men and took a prominent military role in the war. Prigozhin had once preferred to operate in the shadows: now he has stepped into the light as a buccaneering commander. He pioneered the idea that convicts might do more good fighting battles than languishing in prison – a crude but often effective tactic that exploited these men’s dispensability. Drafted into the Russian war effort in March 2022, Wagner demonstrated its value to the Kremlin with sustained offensives against the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, while conventional Russian forces commanded by the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, floundered in the mud.
But Ukraine’s defences are stubborn. Frustrated, Prigozhin complained that he was being starved of ammunition by the ministry of defence. His men were dying in large numbers (some of his video diaries were staged in front of rows of cadavers). He threatened to abandon the battle unless his needs were met. As the last streets of Bakhmut were retaken by Ukrainian forces, he complained that weaknesses among Russia’s regular forces were allowing the opposition to recapture territory on the city’s flanks.
This developed into a wider critique of the Russian high command for being out of touch with the realities of the war, minimising both casualties and the struggling war effort. These criticisms became too much for defence minister Sergei Shoigu, who demanded that the Wagner group and other private military companies be placed under his control. The deadline set was 1 July. This was a threat to Prigozhin’s whole business model as well as the source of his power.
On 23 June Prigozhin challenged not only the conduct of the war but the whole basis upon which it was launched. He debunked the official line that Ukraine was mounting a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas, justifying the invasion to safeguard the victims and to remove this hateful neo-Nazi regime.
Prigozhin explained there was no extraordinary threat to the Donbas: the whole business was a put-up affair by Shoigu and other corrupt officers, backed by oligarchs making money out of the military build-up. So damning was Prigozhin’s charge that on 24 June, when the mutiny began, the security agencies opened a criminal investigation against him.
Prigozhin was soon on air again, showing images of the aftermath of an apparent attack by Russian missiles and helicopters on a Wagner camp. “The evil carried by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he declared. He launched his “march of justice”, a manoeuvre that had been plotted months in advance.
The objective was to get Shoigu, and possibly Gerasimov, removed from office, and the challenge to Wagner’s commercial and strategic autonomy dropped. This was mutinous behaviour but not an attempted coup.
Without hindrance, a column of his men crossed into Russia and entered Rostov-on-Don, a Russian port town and a vital command centre and logistics hub for the war. They engaged amicably with the residents. Putin finally saw the danger. On the morning of 24 June, in a pre-recorded speech, he denounced those stabbing Russia in the back at a time of war, insisted that they would be punished, and confirmed that a “counter-terrorism” regime was now in place in Moscow.
It was not clear that the Wagner column could be stopped. But any confrontation was not shaping up to be a great battle, with around 10,000 National Guardsmen versus a few thousand – admittedly better armed and more determined – Wagner troops. In the only serious fighting in Rostov and in the advance to Moscow, Prigozhin’s men had suffered a few casualties but had shot down helicopters and one IL-18 command aircraft, killing 13 pilots.
It is not clear at what point the Kremlin eventually determined that negotiations, not force, would be the best way to end the crisis. A Kremlin team engaged with Wagner. At Prigozhin’s insistence, the Belarusian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, was given a lead role in the negotiations because the Wagner leader wanted someone with political standing involved whom he trusted and could help him save face. Lukashenko was happy for the publicity. He could appear as Russia’s saviour.
Once a deal was agreed, the Wagner column, 200km from Moscow, returned to its bases. Prigozhin was promised he could leave for Belarus and would not be prosecuted for treason. Those of his men who had not mutinied could sign the new contracts as required with the ministry of defence.
A deal was struck because both sides were unsure about what might happen next. Prigozhin had never wanted to mount a coup and had no idea what to do should he break through into Moscow. Putin could see that if he did not offer Prigozhin a way out, then the mercenary leader might press on.
But for both men the unnerving aspect was the prospect of an apathetic Russian population watching them fight it out without taking sides. The masses were not on the streets. Many in the military were sympathetic to Prigozhin’s criticisms about the way the war had been waged, but they were largely stuck in Ukraine.
[See also: The paralysis of power]
In their post-crisis statements on 26 June, Prigozhin showed no contrition and Putin no forgiveness, promising to bring perpetrators to justice. The charge brought against Wagner for treason is still being investigated. At the time of writing, Shoigu remains the minister of defence. The future of the Wagner Group remains uncertain. Few will join the regular army, where they will be a poor fit and vulnerable to retribution. They are more likely to regroup in Belarus but without their heavy equipment. But who will pay them and tell them what to do?
If this whole episode concludes with Belarus hosting Prigozhin and his troops, what will that do for Lukashenko’s relations with Putin? In his own comments, the Belarusian strongman, who is no doubt enjoying Putin’s discomfort, stuck to the line that somehow the aborted mutiny was a Western plot.
Putin’s inability to punish treachery will weaken him and feed his paranoia. Who can he trust? The FSB – the civilian spies – have been inept once more, while the GRU – the military spies – were Prigozhin’s patrons. Rumours are circulating about who in the military was in cahoots with Wagner, but how many can be purged given the poor state of the war? At the end of May, far-right anti-Putin Russian militias, who are sponsored by Kyiv, staged an attack on settlements close to Belgorod, declaring their aim to “liberate Russia”. The incursion throws further doubt on Putin’s decision to commit so much of the Russian army to the steppes of Ukraine.
Shoigu and Gerasimov are bereft of ideas about how to win the war other than holding on to what they have in the hope that the US and Europe tire and reduce their military and financial support. But with Putin having faced the first serious challenge to his authority since he came to power, that strategy now looks less credible as the stress of the conflict starts to tell on the Russian political system.
The Russian president can rely on the popular fear of a return to chaos, and the lack of an obvious successor, to keep him in power, but the last few months have shown how the war has caused great instability. Prigozhin’s allegations about the fabricated rationale, as well as his denouncements of “meat-grinder” tactics and hidden military failures, will not be forgotten. There is declining confidence that Russia can secure its claimed chunk of Ukrainian territory for the Russian Federation.
A lot of thinking about the course of the war assumed Putin’s intransigence even in the face of setbacks. Ukraine’s counter-offensive is progressing, if slowly. Should it break through, the Russian elite will wonder whether Putin’s resolution will falter once again. And then what do they do?
[See also: How Ramzan Kadyrov became Putin’s white knight]
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia