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

Valdimir Putin should bring the war to an end for stability at home 

Updated - June 27, 2023 01:33 pm IST

Published - June 27, 2023 12:10 am IST

The short-lived mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military company, not only exposed the growing, uncontrollable feud between the warlord and Russia’s top defence leadership but also the weakening position of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the country’s complex power dynamics. For over two decades, Mr. Putin has ruled Russia with an iron fist, allowing little dissent at home and expanding foreign policy interests through force. But in Mr. Prigozhin, whose forces took over a critical military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and launched a “march of justice” towards Moscow, Mr. Putin faced his most significant political and internal security challenge. He called the mutiny a “betrayal”, and ordered his security services to crush the rebellion. But Mr. Putin’s hands were understandably tied as Wagner has grown over the years as a parallel security structure with deep influence in Africa and has made battlefield gains in Ukraine. So, instead of crushing the rebellion, Mr. Putin allowed the Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko, to strike a deal with Mr. Prigozhin. As part of the deal, Mr. Prigozhin, who earlier on Saturday had demanded the dismissal of Russia’s top military leadership and called the Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of General Staff “geriatric clowns”, decided to pull back his troops and exile himself in Belarus.

Mr. Putin has averted an all-out civil war, but he cannot escape the question why he failed to prevent this feud in his security circle from escalating into such a humiliating public crisis. The rivalry between the Defence Ministry and Wagner was hardly a secret. Since February, Mr. Prigozhin has attacked the Ministry, accusing it of corruption and incompetence, and Mr. Putin did nothing. Mr. Prigozhin has also blamed the defence establishment for the excessive losses Wagner suffered in Bakhmut. But Wagner’s victory in Bakhmut, the first major Russian battlefield victory in months, seemed to have intensified the Shoigu-Prigozhin feud. A few days after Wagner captured Bakhmut, Mr. Shoigu asked all paramilitary forces to sign contracts with the Defence Ministry, which Mr. Prigozhin saw as an attempt to dismantle Wagner. This was the trigger for his revolt. Before the Ukraine war began on February 2022, Mr. Putin seemed all powerful, presiding over a huge but cohesive administration and expanding Russia’s influence abroad. Sixteen months later, with limited Russian territorial gains in Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s challenges at home are mounting. He may have brought temporary peace between his generals and warlords, but the reasons behind the mutiny remain unaddressed. If he wants stability, Mr. Putin should first bring the war to an end and put his house in order.

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