“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
-Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
It’s been more than a year since President Putin declared a special military operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russia’s Ukraine campaign has been full of twists and turns and some serious reality checks for Putin. Currently, on the war front, it’s a stalemate. Both sides are undergoing a series of battle victories and subsequent withdrawals. The last Russian victory was on May 20, 2023, when Russian forces captured Bakhmut. The key force behind Russian advances in Ukraine has been Putin’s private militia, “The Wagner Group”. The Wagner acted as a bulwark against Ukrainian forces on the frontlines. Today, in a sudden turn of events, the same Wagner militia has now pointed its gun towards Moscow. Thousands of battle-ready soldiers are advancing towards Moscow, which appears to be the biggest coup attempt against Putin. In this piece, we’ll dig into the background and future implications of the Wagnar insurgence.
WHAT IS THE WAGNER GROUP?
The Wagner Group (officially called PMC Wagner) is a militia that operates as a private military company. It operates as a network of mercenaries that was formed in 2014 at the behest of Putin himself. The group first popped up in 2014 while backing pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Initially, the Wagner Group was initiated with just 250 members in 2014. Over the years, Wagner recruits have skyrocketed, currently constituting a staggering number of 50.000 soldiers. The idea behind the Wagner Group was to provide an additional push to Russian forces in their military campaigns. Moreover, operating a private militia comes with the added advantage of strategic deniability. These private militia per se act as non-state entities, which allows the nation to claim deniability for their acts. By exploiting this loophole, nations often wage proxy wars against adversaries without owning accountability.
Apart from participating in the Crimean War in 2014, the Wagner Group has operated in several nations as private mercenaries. It has operated in the Syrian civil war, backing the Basshhar al-Asad regime in 2015–16. Wagner provided military training and security during the South Sudanese civil war. It has also participated in the Mali civil war and launched offensive operations along with the Malian armed forces. The Wagnars are infamous for their nasty war tactics and have been charged with grave human rights violations. Wagner was held responsible for the Moura massacre in Mali and the Agbado massacre during the CAR civil war, among several others. Despite its poor human rights record, Wagnar has been very effective in its operations owing to its brutal suppression tactics. That’s precisely the reason Putin relied on it in Ukraine, and rightly so, as it delivered and won major battles like Bakhmut for Russia.
PRIGOZHIN: THE FACE BEHIND WAGNER
Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch, mercenary chief, and former close confidant of President Putin. He was born on June 1, 1961, in Leningrad, Soviet Union (now St. Petersburg, Russia). Prigozhin is often referred to as “Putin’s chef,” as he owns catering companies that provide services for the Kremlin. Once a convict in the Soviet Union, Prigozhin climbed the ladders to the Kremlin. Soon, he controlled a network of influential companies and became a part of Putin’s inner circle. The fact that Putin trusted Prigozhin for what he ate, which earned him the title of Putin’s chef, depicts the trust Putin had in him. He worked hand-in-glove with the Russian agencies and often used his network of companies as part of FSB operations. Prigozhin financed the Internet Research Agency, which was blamed for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Later in 2018, Prigozhin admitted these accusations.
YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN- PUTIN’S CHEF
In 2014, Prigozhin, in collusion with state agencies, founded a private military company (PMC) known as Wagner Group. Despite denying it for years, on September 26, 2022, Prigozhin finally admitted that he founded Wagner. He claimed that he founded Wagner in May 2014 to support Russian forces in the war in Donbas. His admission came through a viral clip in which Prigozhin was recruiting inmates of Mari El prison, promising them freedom if they served six months with the Wagner Group. Initially, the idea behind the Wagner project was to supplement Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. But later, after seeing its success, it was developed into a full-fledged battle-ready force operating under Prigozhin’s direct control. The fact that Wagner received an official sanction from Putin granted it access to top-notch Russian military equipment. Advanced weapons, coupled with motivated criminals and mercenaries as its members, turned Wagnar into a lethal force.
THE UKRAINE FIASCO: MUTINY IN MAKING
Logistics disruption, corruption, and poor decision-making plagued Russia’s Ukraine campaign from day one. Revolt within the fold seemed imminent; it was just a matter of when, not why, as the frustration grew. Prigozhin blamed two military officials for the Ukraine botch-up: Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the overall commander for the Russian operation in Ukraine. He accused them of willful criminal negligence and treason for derailing Russian war efforts. Prigozhin held them responsible for withholding essential supplies like ammunition from reaching the frontlines. Later in February, he called the military bureaucracy “monstrous” and said that the slow-progressing Russian military was attempting to “steal” Wagner’s victories. In May, Prigozhin expressed his frustration with the rising death toll of comrades and said that the Wagnar was soon going to cease to exist. He called the military leaders “scumbags” for not providing them with ammunition.
GEN. VALERY GERASIMOV (LEFT) WITH DEFENSE MINISTER SERGEI SHOGU (RIGHT).
In a clip, Prigozhin called Shoigu and Gerasimov “fat cats” sitting in their luxury offices, responsible for young lads dying on the frontlines. With the passage of time and surging failures on multiple fronts, the difference widened. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when Prigozhin blamed military leadership in the Kremlin for attacking Wagnar troops. He stated that the Russian military leadership conducted missile strikes at Wagnar’s rear camps. The alleged attack on Wagner came just after Prigozhin lashed out at military elites for deceiving Putin about the Ukraine campaign. Following the attack, Prigozhin said that the “evil” of the Russian leadership must be stopped. Soon after, he declared he was carrying out a march for “justice” to Moscow along with his 25000 soldiers in retaliation against the Russian military leadership.
KNIVES OUT: WAGNER MARCH TO MOSCOW
After a series of warnings and rebukes towards the Russian military leadership, Prigozhin marched towards Moscow on June 23, 2023. He chastised Shoigu for “poorly planning” and “embarrassing” the Russian military in his messages, which questioned the invasion of Ukraine. The military brass, specifically Shoigu and Gerasimov, were his aim, according to Prigozhin, who insisted his military march was “not a military coup” and did not “interfere with the troops in any way.” He also blamed Putin for not punishing but instead promoting such corrupt officers. Instead, to an extent, aiding them in their acts against Wagnar, including the alleged Russian military strike carried out against Wagnar forces. In response to Prigozhin’s threats, Moscow’s security was stepped up, and Russia was placed on high alert. In Moscow and Voronezh, a state of counterterrorism emergency was declared.
WAGNER FORCES MUTINY EVENTS – 24 JUNE, 2023.
Prigozhin was charged with mutiny by the FSB, which initiated a criminal case against him carrying a 12- to 20-year sentence. Now, the showdown has begun. On June 24, around 7:30 a.m., Prigozhin claimed control of the city of Rostov-on-Don and the Russian military headquarters there, which oversees the Ukraine war operations. Russia’s defence ministry issued a statement appealing to Wagner fighters to abandon Prigozhin, saying they had been “deceived and dragged into a criminal adventure”. Around 10:00 a.m., Putin gave his first address since Wagnar’s revolt began. Putin said the country had been ‘betrayed by those who are trying to organise a mutiny, pushing the country towards anarchy and fratricide’. He said ‘excessive ambition and vested interests have led to treason’. Putin said it was a ‘blow to Russia’, adding, Internal turmoil is a mortal threat to our statehood and us as a nation.”
PUTIN’S ADDRESS TO THE PUBLIC POST-MUTINY.
Wagner was marching in the direction of Moscow at this time. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya and a close supporter of Putin, claimed to have sent his forces to stop Wagner’s march on Moscow. Kadyrov referred to the Wagner mutiny as a “hideous betrayal” and vowed to stand for Putin. The Wagner group had travelled 480 kilometres closer to Moscow by 5 p.m. On the other hand, Putin also strengthened Moscow to withstand Wagnar’s frontal assault. By 8 p.m., to everyone’s surprise, Prigozhin announced that he had ordered the Wagner personnel to halt their march to Moscow. The Wagner convoy had travelled 200 km or less towards Moscow by this point. Prigozhin said that he ordered his soldiers to halt and turn around to stop “shedding Russian blood”. After 24 hours of action-packed, nail-biting drama, the revolt finally came to an abrupt end.
WARNING ALARM FOR PUTIN
The most significant challenge to Putin’s rule, who has been in charge of Russia for 23 years, was Prigozhin’s uprising and the march to Moscow. The fact that the uprising took place demonstrates the erosion of Putin’s control over his subjects, even though it was put an end to without much bloodshed. If he didn’t know for sure that he would get away with it, Prigozhin would never have rebelled. According to my view, he has the backing of a particular group inside the Kremlin. His self-assurance and audacity attracted at least some backing from Russian power circles. This is a real threat to Putin. Until now, Putin had ironclad control, but it seems he has lost ground. Prigozhin, who was Putin’s closest ally for several decades, pulled off this rebellion. To say Putin can’t trust anyone in the Kremlin would be an understatement.
There are different cliques within the Kremlin’s top-brass elites who are plotting to dislodge him. No doubt, Wagnar’s mutiny has to be the tip of the iceberg. Another reason why Putin should be worried is the pace at which Prigozhin advanced towards Moscow. The Wagner forces faced no resistance while capturing Rostov-on-Don, even though it hosted a Russian military headquarters. Apart from the security forces, even the general populace showed no resistance; instead, they cheered and applauded their efforts. This shows Prigozhin succeeded in selling his version to the public. Many analysts believe it was all part of the mutiny, first gaining considerable acceptance among the people and then utilising it on the ground. This makes sense when you look at the sequence.
RUSSIAN PEOPLE CHEER AND APPLAUD THE WAGNER GROUP MARCHING TOWARDS RUSSIA.
Prigozhin tapped into public frustration by directing it towards Russian ministers and blaming them for the Ukraine botch-up. Through his videos, he played on the general public’s emotions, which are fed up with this conflict, to turn himself into their saviour who will free them from the evil clutches of a corrupt government. So, when the time is right, these people will provide legitimacy to his coup. This explains why, despite repeated warnings and calls for negotiations, Prigozhin didn’t stop releasing clips against Russian military officers. Two major takeaways that are imperative for Putin are: first, watch out for the people who surround him. People around him are not conveying to him the real ground realities. Second, he needs to end this conflict quickly. The more it elongates, the more frustration it will generate among the public. This time Prigozhin tried to play on it; tomorrow others could also try.
Although things seem to be back to normal as of now, are they? I doubt it! The fact that a rebellion is led by a close aide is enough to show things aren’t every day. The revolt came as a shock to Putin, who states that he isn’t all-knowing, at least not anymore. His aids betraying him without his knowledge, and his public applauding traitors, show Putin is no longer the tzar he used to be. A cornered dictator embroiled in a conflict at home and outside with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal is a perfect cocktail of disaster. Many believe this mutiny could trigger Putin to use a tactical nuke to end this war. If it turns out, it could be a nightmare for the world.
As far as Prigozhin is concerned, the deal between him and Putin won’t last for long. As soon as Putin sorts things out and regains control, he will go after Prigozhin. It’s just a matter of time before news of the sudden death of Prigozhin or an abrupt arrest for corruption and sedition surfaces. Though it is to be noted that if Putin is unable to regain control and continues to foster the same cliques, the tide will turn against him. One thing that’s peculiar about Russian society is that it can tolerate dictators but doesn’t tolerate weak leaders. And if Putin doesn’t salvage the damage inflicted on his strongman image, it’s the end of the road for him. From hereon, it’s a battle for everything or nothing. Undoubtedly, this entire episode will go down as a turning point and will have its impacts for years to come.