Russia is rocked by a short-lived rebellion as the Wagner group chief goes rogue- how does India see the fallout of failed mutiny?
It’s been a dramatic week in Russia, with what some called a coup against Russia’s top military leadership contained- what’s clear is that the failed mutiny by the Wagner group militia chief had reverberations around the world, not the least in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was a “stab in the back”.
On June 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of a Russian militia group fighting alongside Russian troops in Ukraine, said in a video statement that he was launching a rebellion against Russia’s defence leaders, specifically Defence Minister Shoigu and Army chief Gen Gerasimov after his men were killed in Russian strikes. The preamble to this was the Russian ultimatum that the militia must sign contracts with the Russian Army by July 1
On June 24, Wagner forces took over the Russian city of Rostov on Don, the military command centre for the Ukraine war, and videos emerged of a 70 vehicle convoy heading towards Moscow.
In a terse statement Putin called it an “armed mutiny”, that came as Russia was in a tough struggle for its future- the Russian army was mobilized for the unthinkable- an assault on the Russian capital
Within hours, however, the turnaround. Prigozhin said he had told his soldiers to stop and turn back. He said he didn’t want to cause bloodshed, and had no intention of toppling President Putin.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko became the surprise player- announcing that he had mediated the truce, under which Prigozhin and some of his men would get safe passage and shelter in Belarus. Those soldiers who remained in Russia had the choice of signing contracts and folding in with the Russian army, or leaving the war.
Before we unpack all that the 14 hour rebellion that wasn’t means for the world, a word about Wagner and Prigozhin:
Yevgeny Prigozhin served time in Russian jail on robbery charges in the 1990s. After his release he set up a restaurant in St Peterburg that Putin would frequent. The friendship grew as Putin moved up the power chain, and eventually Prigozhin became the Kremlin’s caterer, also called Putin’s Chef
Prigozhin had other talents as well, and he soon became the go-to man for many operations – including
1. Running internet influence operations, or troll farms
2. providing private security forces for various conflicts in Africa and West Asia- Libya, Syria, Mali, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Sudan, and has considered gold and oil assets there as well
3. Prigozhin and the Wagner group set up in 2014 helped the Russian army in the Donbass region before the Annexation of Crimea, and now with Russia’s war in Ukraine. During the war, the wagner group has notched up many wins, including the recent wresting of Bakhmut from Ukrainian forces. They have been designated a transnational criminal entity.
4. The Wagner group is also believed to have links with the separatist groups responsible for shooting down a Malaysian Airways flight killing about 300 on board in 2014. Although that link hasn’t been proven- and lets remember, Ukraine too has its militias like the far-right Azov Army
5. In 2021, the US FBI also put him on its most wanted list for tampering and obstructing the 2016 elections in which Donald Trump was elected President
Given all the allegations against him and his importance to Russia, what does Prigozhin’s mutiny and his surrender mean for Putin and Russian War?
1. The open rebellion last week has been possibly the most serious challenge to Putin’s authority, and given that he was so close, his actions make Putin look weak
2. By targeting the Defence leadership of Shoigu and Gerasimov, the mutiny could have caused a rift within the Russian army. It may also have an impact on the war in Ukraine if Wagner’s 25,000 soldiers leave, just while Zelesnky’s spring offensive is underway
3. The takeover of Rostov, a garrison town that hosts the Russian Ukraine military command without any bloodshed implies Wagner group has popularity within Russia
4. Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus could mean he retains command over his men from the neighbouring country- it is still mysterious why he received a pardon of sorts from Putin, who is known not to brook any kind of disloyalty
5. While most don’t think Prigozhin has political ambitions, his anti-elitist rants against the higher echelons in the Kremlin may lead to a populist movement. On the other hand, these may actually strengthen Putin, who he does not name nor wish to overthrow, as Putin also pits himself against the elites. For the international community too, while Putin has been painted the villain, an unknown entity like Prigozhin could even be worse for Russia.
6. By removing Wagner from the frontlines and folding forces into the Russian army, Putin may wish to maintain deniability over any war crimes committed by the Wagner group in Ukraine
The outcomes remain mixed- listen in to how Ukrainian President Zelensky and US President Biden saw the Russian revolt- while Biden said, mistaking Ukraine for Iraq, that the mutiny had weakened the Russian president, Zelensky said this is the time for the west to arm the Ukrainian army
Finally lets see how India sees the fallout of the last week’s events:
1. To begin with, PM Modi, just back from the visit with the US, has made it clear that India is not shifting its position on Russia- note the joint statement does not mention Russia, although it speaks of the war in Ukraine. Within days of returning from Washington, PM Modi dialled President Putin, and discussed his visit to the US, and was briefed about the mutiny and the situation in Ukraine.
2. PM Modi retains a close relationship with Putin, and will host him for the SCO virtual summit on Tuesday, meet with him in South Africa in August, and host him in Delhi for the G20 summit in September. Remember, while PM Modi met Zelensky in Hiroshima in May, New Delhi has not so far invited Zelensky to address the G20 as Indonesia did last year, and the Ukrainian govt has requested this year.
3. Events in Russia might mean Putin is unable to travel to Delhi, but if he does it may be even harder for the government to forge G20 unity and a joint communique at the summit, which has become a prestige point for India
4. Speaking about the government’s foreign policy this week, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made it clear, the Russia relationship is “unique”:
“The relationship with Russia, this relationship has been held steady despite all the conflict in the world. So it is a very unique relationship, I think, in some ways for the Russians also. And in this period, for all the pressures on us, I think we have taken made our own evaluation of the importance of this relationship. Sometimes this relationship is dumbed down to things like oh, we are dependent on them for arms. I think it’s far more complex than that. There is a geopolitical logic for what we are doing what we have been doing with Russia, ” said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar
5. India Russia trade ties have tripled as oil imports from Russia have risen 50 times from about 40,000 bpd to 2 million bpd, even though issues over payments remain.
6. India is high on the Russian radar too- as the Kremlin reached out to leaders in partner and allied countries- from Belarus to Central Asia, Gulf to Iran, Russian Secretary of the State Council Patrushev briefed NSA Doval about the developments.
7. And at a speech in Moscow, President Putin praised PM Modi for the Make in India programme, calling him “a great friend of Russia”.
Until more is known on just what transpired in the trilateral deal between President Putin President Lukashenko and Prigozhin, it may be premature to pronounce what the mutiny’s lasting impact may be. President Putin has come through many challenges to his leadership, even as he continues to wage war in Ukraine and faces the full force of the western world. For New Delhi, that has reaffirmed its ties with Moscow at every stage, the situation bears closer merit- any problems for the Russian military and its supplies, will mean further delays for Indian imports of Russian military hardware, spares and systems.
WV Reading Recommendations:
With the usual rider- that English language books tend not to have writers favourably inclined towards Putin and Russia
1. The Silent Army Inside the Covert Operations of the Wagner Group in Ukraine (The Wagner Group Series- 4 books) Kindle Edition by Marion Mildredson
2. Shadow Warriors : The Wagner Group: The most Secret Private Military Company by Sahil Gosalia
3. Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: The Brown–Red Cocktail (Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right)- Kacper Rękawek
4. FIRST PERSON: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin interviewed Nataliya Gevorkyan Natalya Timakova Andrei Kolesnikov
5. Putin’s People: The Story of Russia’s History and Politics by Catherine Belton
6. Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest by Angela Stent
7. Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine by Mark Galeotti
8. The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War by Arkady Ostrovsky
9. Strongmen: Trump / Modi / Erdogan / Duterte / Putin- Edited by Vijay Prashad
10. STRONGMEN: HOW THEY RISE, WHY THEY SUCCEED, HOW THEY FALL by Ruth Ben-Ghiat
11. Getting Russia Right - in November 2023 by Thomas Graham
Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar
Production: Gayatri Menon and Reenu Cyriac