Explained | Understanding the Wagner mutiny

While the crisis was unfolding, Mr. Putin appeared on the state TV, addressing the nation, in which he called the mutiny a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back”.

June 26, 2023 05:36 pm | Updated June 30, 2023 12:31 pm IST

Members of the Wagner Group military company sit atop of a tank on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Saturday, June 24, 2023, near the headquarters of the Southern Military District.

Members of the Wagner Group military company sit atop of a tank on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Saturday, June 24, 2023, near the headquarters of the Southern Military District. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of Russia’s Wagner Private Military Company, staged a short-lived mutiny against the country’s defence establishment on June 24, pushing Valdimir Putin’s Russia into an unprecedented internal security crisis. Mr. Prigozhin said he was not staging a coup and stayed away from directly attacking the Kremlin. But he demanded the ouster of Russia’s top defence brass and launched a “march of justice”, with a convoy of armed men and armoured vehicles, towards Moscow. Mr. Putin opted to resolve the situation through talks but the fact that a feud between his Ministry of Defence (MoD) and a favourite, powerful warlord came to the brink of an open civil war speaks more of chaos rather than order in Moscow. Mr. Prigozhin has called off his rebellion, but has left open several unaddressed issues which could continue to haunt the Kremlin.

What happened on June 24th?

The crisis erupted on Friday (June 23) night when Mr. Prigozhin released a video on Telegram, accusing the defence leadership of ordering strikes on Wagner and killing many of his forces. Hours later, he released another video claiming that his forces have taken over Russia’s Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, the largest city in southern Russia that sits just 100 k.m. from the Ukrainian border. “Our men die because you treat them like meat,” he said in the video, attacking Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov, who is also in charge of Mr. Putin’s Ukraine campaign. Short videos of Wagner troops and tanks on the streets of Rostov flooded the Internet. Mr. Prigozhin said Wagner would start a “march of justice” towards Moscow.

Immediately, a convoy of his forces started moving along the main highway connecting Rostov to Moscow. During the “march”, Wagner forces shot down six Russian helicopters and a command centre plane, killing 13 servicemen, according to local reports. Roads and bridges were damaged when the Russian troops tried to stop Wagner. A jet fuel depot in the city of Voronezh, north of Rostov, caught fire when it was hit. As the whole world was warily watching the situation in Russia, by Saturday night, the Belarus government announced that Mr. Prigozhin would turn back. By that time, the convoy had crossed Yelets in Lipetsk Oblast, some 200 km south of Moscow. Mr. Prigozhin released another video confirming what the Belarus government said. “It’s over,” he stated.

Why did Prigozhin launch the mutiny?

The crisis between the Wagner chief and Russia’s MoD has been brewing for quite some time. Mr. Prigozhin, a former Kremlin contractor and a close ally of Mr. Putin, accused the MoD leadership of corruption and incompetence. The earliest signs of the feud were visible in February, weeks after Wagner captured Soledar, a small salt-mining town in Donetsk, when Mr. Prigozhin said the Ministry had limited the supply of arms and ammunitions for Wagner whose forces were on the frontlines in Bakhmut. Wagner took Bakhmut in late May, after one of the bloodiest battles of the 21st Century. According to Mr. Prigozhin, Wagner lost some 20,000 men in the battle, “five times more guys than had been supposed to have died”.

He appeared in a video from the captured city and said the MoD leadership “should be held responsible for their actions”. The capture of Bakhmut seemed to have strengthened Mr. Prigozhin’s standing. It also intensified the feud between the MoD and Wagner. Mr. Prigozhin said his forces came under fire while retreating from Bakhmut. And Wagner arrested one Russian regular serviceman and filmed him. The crisis came into the open on June 10 when Mr. Shoigu issued an order asking all armed volunteers to sign contracts with the MoD before July 1. It was an attempt to bring Wagner’s remaining 25,000 forces under the Defence Ministry’s command. Mr. Prigozhin protested. President Putin continued to remain silent, at least publicly, allowing Mr. Shoigu to go ahead with his plan. It threatened to take Mr. Prigozhin’s base away from him. And then on June 23- 24, Mr. Prigozhin launched his rebellion.

What was Putin’s response?

While the crisis was unfolding, Mr. Putin appeared on state TV, addressing the nation, in which he called the mutiny a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back”. He added that he’d ordered security services to crush the rebellion. But it was easier said than done for the Russian leader. He was already in a dilemma. Mr. Prigozhin was a former close ally. He built Wagner with Mr. Putin’s blessings. And Wagner has turned out to be an important security tool for the Kremlin in recent years. The company has established a deep presence in Africa’s lawless regions providing security to governments, mines, corporations, etc. It allowed the Kremlin to expand its influence in the region without sending the regular Russian troops. 

Wagner also proved to be ruthlessly effective in the Ukraine war. Russia suffered humiliating retreats last year from Kharkiv and Kherson after its initial thrust into Ukraine made limited territorial gains. Since last summer, Russia has taken only two major battlefield victories — Soledar in January and Bakhmut in May — and both were led by Wagner. Wagner’s battlefield victories as well as Mr. Prigozhin’s repeated attack on corruption in the establishment has rendered the mercenaries popular at least among the nationalist sections of Russia. So the dilemma Mr. Putin faced was whether he should crush them, risking an all-out civil war, or find a face-saving exit. The realist in Mr. Putin chose the latter. He turned to Alexander Lukashenko, a long-time ally and the President of Belarus, who negotiated with Mr. Prigozhin. By late evening on Saturday, they had a deal. Mr. Prigozhin agreed to turn back, and an immediate security crisis was averted.

What was the deal?

When he launched his mutiny, Mr. Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of the MoD top brass, mainly Defence Minister Shoigu and Gen. Gerasimov. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had slapped a criminal case against Mr. Prigozhin. The future of Wagner was also hanging in balance. According to the Kremlin, as part of the deal, Mr. Prigozhin would relocate to Belarus and those Wagner members who did not join the mutiny would be allowed to sign contracts with the MoD. The case against Mr. Prigozhin would be dropped. But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said ‘changes of personnel in the MoD”, a reference to Mr. Prigozhin’s key demand, were not discussed. 

After the deal was announced, Wagner left the southern headquarters in Rostov and Mr. Prigozhin was seen leaving the city in a black SUV amid cheers from the locals. But it’s not clear when he would move to Belarus, how many of his men would follow him or what would be their role in the country. Mr. Putin has made no remark about the situation after Wagner withdrew. On the face of it, Mr. Prigozhin achieved little out of his mutiny. The MoD still plans to bring Wagner forces under military command. Mr. Shoigu and Gen. Gerasimov are still in their respective positions, at least for now. And Mr. Prigozhin is being exiled into Belarus.

What’s next?

For Mr. Putin, however, the whole crisis poses several challenges. The mutiny itself was an implosion of the feud between the strongmen of his security circle. For a long time, he tolerated the feud but Saturday’s developments showed his inability to stop it from escalating into public fighting. Mr. Prigozhin also set an example of challenging Russia’s state institutions and walking away freely, something that’s unheard of in Mr. Putin’s Russia and could have echoes in the future. The whole incident exposed Mr. Putin’s weakening authority. After promising to quell the rebellion on TV, what Mr. Putin did was to talk to the mercenaries indirectly and pardon them in return for their retreat. He may have averted an immediate crisis, but the reasons for the mutiny —Russia’s poor battlefield performance, internal feud, corruption allegations, etc. — remain unaddressed. If the war drags on further without any concrete result, Mr. Putin could face more challenges from within.

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