Days after the Wagner mutiny, the spectres of ‘Black Saturday’ continue to haunt Russians

While there were different narratives about the origins of Prigozhin’s rebellion, the key question yet to be answered is this: whether the mutiny, and the way it was aborted, undermines Vladimir Putin’s authority or shores it up

Updated - June 30, 2023 12:51 pm IST

Published - June 28, 2023 03:36 pm IST - Moscow

File picture of a still from a video released by the press service of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military contractor, in which he speaks while holding a Russian flag in front of his forces in Bakhmut, Ukraine.

File picture of a still from a video released by the press service of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military contractor, in which he speaks while holding a Russian flag in front of his forces in Bakhmut, Ukraine. | Photo Credit: AP

The dramatic events that unfolded in Russia over the weekend with an armed column of Wagner private military company marching towards Moscow have sent chills across the world — any radical challenge to Russia’s government of President Vladimir Putin could affect not just the lives of Russians, but also the stability of the world order, already pretty fragile.

Editorial | Rebellion in Russia: on the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company

The “march of justice”, as Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman and once President Putin’s trusted associate, called his rebellion, was unprecedented in Russia’s modern history but was very short-lived. Still it exposed cracks in the Russian statehood and society. 

While there were different narratives on the origins of Mr. Prigozhin’s move — political ambitions, strive for profits, a bid to challenge the current status quo, or an overreaching hand of the West — the key question yet to have a solid answer is whether the mutiny, and the way it was aborted, undermines the strength or Vladimir Putin or amplifies it. And, more important, whether it was the final act or just the beginning.

“This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Military mutiny, even unsuccessful, is a harbinger. Key events (revolution, coup, civil war) unfold later, after some time lag. History has no formulas for the future, but such a scenario has some significant tradition (probability),” political scientist Kirill Rogov, founder of the Re: Russia, a discussion platform addressing key issues of Russian politics, economy and society, wrote on his Telegram channel. He pointed out that the mutiny marked a point where those people who took the oath and are ready to “serve the motherland” suddenly discovered a completely different understanding of where the “motherland” is.

Mr. Putin in his address to the nation on Saturday, while the mutiny was unfolding, made it clear: as the motherland is engaged in a “severe struggle for its future” which would decide the “the fate of our nation”, consolidation of all forces is required. He called actions that divide the country’s unity “a betrayal of our people and the comrades who are currently fighting on the front lines”, and compared the current situation with 1917 when, during the First World War, intrigues and disputes “behind the Army and the people turned into the greatest upheaval,” resulting in the collapse of the Army, the disintegration of the state, and a civil war.

Fear of bloodshed

The real-time footage shared by dozens of Russian Telegram channels on Saturday, in which residents are seen shaking hands, hugging and taking photos with Wagner fighters who took control of a regional military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don — a city of over 1 million close to the Ukraine border — must have sent shudders through the power elites.

Servicemen of the Wagner Group military company sit atop of a tank, as local civilians pose for a photo prior to their leave an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023.

Servicemen of the Wagner Group military company sit atop of a tank, as local civilians pose for a photo prior to their leave an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

As Russian political analysts note, many of the issues raised by Mr. Prigozhin — corruption, poor decision making resulting in high casualties on the frontline, or the idea of invading Ukraine itself — resonate with the common people. In an interview released hours before he announced his ‘march of justice’ towards Moscow, Mr. Prigozhin stated Russia had lost tens of thousands of troops, and accused Defence minister Sergei Shoigu of being the mastermind behind the invasion of Ukraine, driven by his personal ambition to enhance his own position.

Mr. Prigozhin also claimed that Mr. Shoigu was supported by oligarchs seeking to exploit Ukrainian resources. Such statements, like many others that Mr. Prigozhin has earlier made, could result in heavy prison terms (from 5 to 15 years) if those were made by ordinary Russians. 

However, a majority of Russians, who recall the events of 1991 (the disintegration of the Soviet Union) with great pain, irrespective of their political views, were rather alarmed at seeing their countrymen embracing Wagner fighters who shot down, as was later confirmed by the President, several helicopters and a military plane of the Russian armed forces, killing at least 13 people. The fear of bloodshed is extremely strong in the nation that has lived through many wars over the past 100 years. 

In the latest comment released by Mr. Prigozhin on Monday evening, he reiterated his claim that the decision to turn the military column around was made “to avoid bloodshed”, and he stressed several times that there was “no death” on the ground during a nearly 24-hour long march. In the same statement, Mr. Prigozhin, however, confirmed that Wagner shot down Russian Air Force aircraft, adding that it was for self-defence.

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on monitors as he addressed the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for armed rebellion on June 24, 2023

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on monitors as he addressed the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for armed rebellion on June 24, 2023 | Photo Credit: AP

As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who on Tuesday unveiled the details of his mediation between Moscow and Wagner, said Kremlin had amassed some 10,000 troops to repel the Prigozhin-led march, which could have led to clashes and bloodshed. A peaceful solution was the priority, he added

‘Stop the columns’

No one in Russia’s power, business or military circles publicly supported Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. Hours after Wagner’s move towards Moscow was announced, Deputy Commander of the Russian Joint Forces, General Sergey Surovikin, whom Mr. Prigozhin was considered as being “close to”, and called on Wagner fighters to stop. “Before it’s too late, we need to obey the will and order of the popularly elected President of the Russian Federation, stop the columns, return them to their permanent locations,” he said, urging mercenaries not to “play into the enemy’s hands in these difficult times for our country.”

The deputy head of the GRU (the military intelligence service), Vladimir Alekseev, made a similar appeal, stating that Mr. Prigozhin’s actions as well as demands to replace the military leadership were “a stab in the back of the country and the President”. 

After Mr. Putin’s address on Saturday, Russian officials, including Governors of the regions, members of Parliament and other dignitaries, have published messages in support of the President and calling for unity of society. As Wagner fighters were leaving Rostov on Saturday night, the facade of Rostov city stadium was lit up with the colours of the Russian flag, and a line running: “We are all one nation, and we are fighting against a common external enemy. We believe in the Russian people and our President!”

System crisis

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov called June 24 “a moment of the most acute political crisis in the Russian realities of the 21st century”, adding that there was not a single institution that has acted honourably. “Everyone suffered reputational risks. At the end, the general feeling among all the parties is devastation. It is valid for those who saw the developments as a chance for change. And for those who were sincerely convinced that they were acting on behalf of the good and speaking on behalf of the ‘majority’.” 

Sergey Markedonov, a leading researcher at the MGIMO Institute of International Studies, Moscow, noted that “if we don’t continue to improve the quality of public administration in our country”, such tragedies as the events of June 24 will repeat. The ‘Black Saturday’, as he and many other commenters have labelled it, has not created political alternatives for Russia, but made them more visible. “It would be a big mistake to believe that changes in our country will occur in the spectrum of fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. The “transit” [of power] can also follow completely different trajectories,” he said. 

Anton Chekhov once defined Russia as a ‘bureaucratic country’, Mr. Markedonov recalled in a Telegram post. “And if that’s the case, then the quality of state governance is a crucial question for us... Therefore, strengthening the state, its de-privatisation (where necessary, especially in the security sector), becomes the most urgent task for the future. Only then does the illusory chance arise that a strong authority, in order to increase its own effectiveness, will demand high-quality independent expertise, a functioning ‘feedback loop,’ and self-purification from numerous ‘clots’”, he added.

Wagner’s future

In his latest address to the nation made on Monday night, Mr. Putin offered three choices to Wagner fighters: sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense, return home or move to neighbouring Belarus.

“The overwhelming majority of the fighters and commanders of the Wagner group are Russian patriots, devoted to their people and country. They proved this with their courage on the battlefield,” Mr. Putin said, thanking Wagner soldiers and commanders who “stopped at the last line” and didn’t allow the “fratricidal bloodshed” to take place.

On Tuesday morning, Russian state-owned news agencies reported, citing the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), that the case of armed mutiny against Mr. Prigozhin was dismissed on June 27. Mr. Prigozhin’s private jet was spotted landing at a military airfield near Minsk, early morning on Tuesday and later in the day, Mr. Lukashenko confirmed that the Wagner chief was in Belarus.

Independent media outlet Verstka, considered a “foreign agent’ by the Russian government, reported that camps were being built for Wagner forces in Belarus’s Osipovichi, Mogilev region (200 km from the border with Ukraine). The camps will accommodate up to 8,000 people (according to various estimates, 5,000-8,000 Wagner forces took part in the mutiny).

However, Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the reports, but added that he would assist with accommodation if necessary. “We don’t build any camps for now. But if they want, we will accommodate them. As far as I can see, they are looking at various territories. Feel free to set up tents. But for now, they are in their own camps in Lugansk,” the Belarus President was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defence ministry said Wagner PMC’s heavy weaponry will be transferred to the Russian armed forces.

Political analyst Alexey Makarkin, interviewed by Vedomosti newspaper, noted that while the ‘march of justice’ came as a surprise to the “system”, the Russian President’s speech sent an important signal to all its stakeholders. Now, any support for Mr. Prigozhin is categorically unacceptable, and the “former network of Prigozhin sympathizers” should now distance themselves from him. 

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