Images of camouflaged gunmen seizing government buildings in a post-Soviet city were eerily reminiscent of what the world witnessed in the spring of 2014 when members of the Russian Armed Forces captured dozen of towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine. But unlike the operations of nearly a decade ago, the men involved in the capture of municipal and military sites on June 23rd and 24th were Russian citizens from the Wagner Group, the country’s most infamous mercenary organization, and they were taking control over two of the Russian Federation’s largest cities – Rostov-na-Donu and Voronezh.
The scenes were a far cry from Wagner’s previous objectives just days before – the capture and annihilation of Ukrainian cities and their populations.
Wagner, a Russian state-funded private mercenary company led by the blowhard former convict-turned-caterer-turned oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, launched an open rebellion against the Kremlin after it had gained significant influence in Russia’s power politics over the past decade.
Used as a paramilitary proxy by the Russian government, Prigozhin, himself, enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Vladimir Putin that allowed Wagner to play a major role in lucrative combat operations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali. Wagner’s ability to operate entirely outside the Russian Federation’s legal system filled the group’s coffers and expanded Prigozhin’s wealth and fueled his rise to a position of significant power within Putin’s inner circle.
Wagner’s Rise and Fall in Ukraine
In the 17 months since Putin launched his brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin’s mercenaries have not only been some of the war’s central protagonists but have also been accused of some of the worst war crimes committed against the Ukrainian people. Despite their mutual objectives in the prosecution of the invasion, neither Prigozhin nor his Wagnerites have had an effortless relationship with Russia’s defense ministry or much of the regular Russian military.
In the months leading up to Wagner’s mutiny, Prigozhin had publicly and demonstratively insulted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov; accusing both of incompetence and conspiring to undermine Wagner’s influence in waging war against Ukraine.
What was most striking about Prigozhin’s denouncements of Shoigu and Gerasimov was the simple fact that he was able to publicly verbalize his disdain for both men and not face any consequences for his criticism. This wasn’t and isn’t an insignificant detail in a country where one can be subject to a long prison sentence for any minor deviation from Putin’s narrative about his war in Ukraine.
Wagner’s effectiveness in the invasion of Ukraine has been mixed. Usually used as a blunt instrument of terror on the battlefield, they were, however, some of Russia’s most effective combatants in the ongoing Battle of Bakhmut, an engagement that has been described as a 21st-century version of the World War I Battle of Verdun.
Prigozhin had some success in Bakhmut, once a quiet city in eastern Ukraine that was best known across the former Soviet Union for its sparkling wine, in areas where the Russian military’s human wave attacks were repeatedly repelled by Ukraine’s military. Wagner was removed from active operations in the late spring, which further angered Prigozhin and his fellow mercenaries. Known as an arrogant and unpleasantly emotional man, this only enhanced his hatred of Shoigu and Gerasimov.
Uncharacteristically, Putin remained silent throughout the spat. That decision now appears to have been a serious lapse of judgment on his part.
The Uprising Is Not Near Its End
Only 24 hours after calling for a march on Moscow, Prigozhin called off the whole endeavor after reportedly negotiating an offramp for himself with Belarus’ longtime dictator, and close Putin ally, Alexander Lukashenko. The details of the negotiations remain murky, and the parties privy to the deal now deny that most of the agreements were ever formalized. A general amnesty has, for now, been granted to most of Wagner’s personnel, but Putin’s track record of vindictiveness would point to the most severe form of punishment to be meted out to Prigozhin and his group.
The main question that still remains is what Prigozhin hoped to achieve with his single-day uprising. His own claim that he was only trying to attract Putin’s attention and force the latter into sacking Shoigu and Gerasimov is an outright falsehood. The missions to capture Rostov-na-Donu and Voronezh were carried out in a way that would have required significant pre-planning, just as a military operation would need.
What Next, Post-Mutiny?
Prigozhin’s endless tirades against the military and defense establishment, along with scenes of heavily armed mercenaries sweeping, unmolested, through the heart of southern Russia; covering some 750 kilometers in less than 24 hours, and coming within 200 kilometers of Moscow, has exposed Putin’s growing weakness.
The ease by which Prigozhin was able to organize a forced march through parts of Russia where strategically important military headquarters are based and where the police, national guard, and even the FSB (the successor to the Soviet KGB), did nothing to stop Wagner is proof that Putin is failing ever more as both a wartime and national commander. Furthermore, any attempt to portray Prigozhin’s attempted putsch as a carefully choreographed exercise in Kabuki theater is a gross misreading of the logistical planning that Prigozhin and his commanders would have needed to even initiate the take-over of two major Russian cities and make use of major national highways and transport infrastructure.
Putin has tried to portray the defeat of the attempted coup as a victory for Russia’s military against a band of traitors and marauders. In fact, what Putin was faced with was the most dangerous scenario for the Kremlin since the October 1993 constitutional crisis when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin was forced to test the loyalty of the military and elements of the Congress of People’s Deputies – at the time, the main government body of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin used the military to shell renegade lawmakers who had barricaded themselves in the parliament in an attempt to overthrow Yeltsin.
Since Prigozhin’s uprising came to a somewhat subdued end, he has claimed that he called off the attempted coup to avoid bloodshed on the streets of the Russian capital. It is entirely possible that he had second thoughts about his own uprising, particularly if he did not receive the support that he expected from many of Russia’s senior officers, many of whom Prigozhin had cultivated a working relationship with in the years since Wagner became active.
In fact, in the days since Prigozhin called off the mutiny, American intelligence released reports indicating that it had been aware of Prigozhin’s plot and that some high-ranking officers were sympathetic to Wagner’s anti-Kremlin cause. In Moscow, increasingly loud rumors have filtered amongst Russia’s elite over whether Prigozhin had support from the upper echelons of power, the majority of which are angry about Russia’s impending defeat in Ukraine.
In practical terms, this means that Prigozhin would not have carried out a full-blown attempted coup unless he expected support from that key military and intelligence officials who are growing increasingly impatient with Putin’s rule.
Not known for his sound judgment, some Kremlin watchers have noted that Prigozhin may have misconstrued the social media support he received from individuals like Ramzan Kadyrov – the mercurial dictator of Chechnya, and a man who has long had his eye on higher office in Moscow; or the subtle sympathy from career army officers like General Sergei Surovikin, who had been in overall command of Russian forces in Ukraine until his removal in January.
Surovikin and Kadyrov both called on Prigozhin to stand down immediately after the Wagernites began taking control of government installations in southern Russia.
Kadyrov, whose ruthless rule and personal loyalty to Putin has been instrumental in keeping the Muslim North Caucasus republic fairly calm since Moscow re-established control over the restive region in the early 2000s, quickly sided with the Kremlin. His show of loyalty did not go unnoticed in Putin’s inner circle as any mention of his own criticism of Shoigu and Gerasimov has been quickly forgotten by the Kremlin.
At the time of writing, for Surovikin, his fate has been just the opposite. He has not been publicly seen or heard from since the uprising and is reportedly in the custody of the FSB as part of a massive investigation into his connection with Prigozhin’s attempted coup.
Which Putin Emerges From the Fallout of the Attempted Coup?
Since the failed mutiny, Putin has tried to convey an impression of unity, confidence, and stability – the ‘business as usual’ message that he’s used so effectively to pacify Russian society in the quarter century that he’s ruled the country. But the remarkable series of events that seemed to paralyze the entire country has left the facade that Putin cultivated for himself, and imposed on the Russian people, showed significant cracks in the 24 hours that Prigozhin’s mercenaries trampled through a huge swath of Russia’s south.
From June 23-24, it appeared no one was in effect in charge of the world’s largest country. Putin’s image as the iron-fisted spiritual heir to Joseph Stalin has come crashing down as a result of Prigozhin’s actions.
Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who as the leader of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, refused to send armed assistance to Russia after Putin requested that the organization’s members come to his aid following Wagner’s successful capture of Rostov-na-Donu. Tokayev’s response to Putin’s request was that the uprising was “an internal Russian affair”.
The mere fact that Lukashenko, long considered Putin’s junior partner in the post-Soviet space, had to act as a face-saving intermediary between the Kremlin and Wagner’s leadership, is proof that Putin no longer wields the sort of control that he possessed just three or four years ago.
Putin will undoubtedly attempt to show his own people, and those in his inner circle, that he remains fully in control of his dictatorial capacities. He is not the sort of former KGB man who will step aside or yield power to anyone he sees as a cultural inferior – Prigozhin, as a former member of Russia’s convict culture, is a prime example.
For the average Russian citizen, the immediate future will not be pleasant. Putin is likely to double down on repressions within the country. His own paranoia and unforgiving vengeful character will dictate his next moves. That will most likely include a new commitment to plunging the Russian Federation ever deeper into the quagmire of its war of choice in Ukraine and ever-more encroachments into the daily lives of Russian citizens.
Putin’s political survival skills as a ruthless leader have been on full display since Prigozhin opted for exile in Belarus, but his vulnerabilities as an aging dictator were also clearly visible for the whole of the Russian population and the rest of the world to see.
While many may hope that this could signal the beginning of the end of his time in power. Russia’s democratic opposition, regardless of their status as political prisoners or exiles and who oppose the war in Ukraine, must embrace and try to capitalize on the seismic events of June 2023.
But all should be aware and ready for the most likely scenario – this could usher in a new and increasingly more oppressive period under Putin as he attempts to prove the pretense that he is Russia’s most consequential ruler in its 1,000-year history.