The Wagner Rebellion

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The Wagner Rebellion

Causes and repercussions

Aftab Wahla

Since he first took office in 2012, President Vladimir Putin appeared to face the strongest challenge to his rule over Russia so far as the head of the Wagner Private Military Company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, suddenly seized control of Rostov-on-Don, one of the main cities in the country’s south, and sent his fighters marching towards Moscow. The move came after months of bickering with Russia’s military top brass, especially defence minister Sergei Shoigu, over the conduct of operations in Ukraine. The rebellion was all the more stunning since Prigozhin, the head of the organization that has been used by Russia in hotspots in Africa and the Arab world, owes his current standing entirely to Putin.

The day that dawned in Russia on June 23 left everyone, including President Vladimir Putin, in a state of utter shock. Wagner Group, a Russian government-funded paramilitary and mercenary private security company whose ranks include thousands of former prisoners and some of the most battle-hardened fighters in Russia, staged an armed rebellion and started its “March for Justice” toward Moscow. The rebellion of a 50,000-strong group was not an ordinary affair. Though mediation from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko helped resolve the crisis, many questions about this abortive mutiny or rebellion linger on. Has this rebellion by Putin’s once very close confidant weakened his grip on power? Could this be the beginning of the end of Putin’s 20 years of rule? What impacts it will have on the ongoing Ukraine-Russia War?
In this piece, we will address all the questions in detail.
But first, we look at the Wagner Group and its role in projecting and consolidating Moscow’s influence in various conflicts across the globe.
A self-described Private Military Company or a secretive and shadowy Russian mercenary group, Wagner is known by different names. This group has been around for the last 10 years, and its name first popped up during the Crimean crisis in 2014 when Russia annexed this peninsula from Ukraine. This group has been active across the globe with a publically-acknowledged presence in at least 9 countries – Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan, Madagascar, Libya, Mozambique and Venezuela. Besides providing training and active military support, the Wagner group engages in various economic activities such as the mining of diamonds and gold and the exploration of oil.
The operational and organizational structure of this secretive paramilitary group is hard to understand. The Group itself is a loose network of companies and financial intermediaries which are organized deliberately in an opaque manner to make the internal organization and hierarchy secretive. The group works in tandem with the Russian defence ministry and other security agencies and has played a key role in strengthening Russia’s influence in Africa, the Middle East and South America. For instance, in Syria, the group was sent to support Bashar-al-Assad forces to suppress armed resistance to his rule. The group was also sent to Venezuela in 2019 as a protection force for President Nicolás Maduro because he was then facing strong protests. Similarly, Wagner mercenaries were sent to the Central African Republic, along with regular Russian contingents, to support the CAR regime against rising waves of protests. The modus operandi for this group has been the same, particularly in Africa. They usually target a country having a weak central government, rich natural resources and security challenges. They provide muscles and power in exchange for economic dividends such as extracting gold, diamond and oil. In short, the group was used by President Putin for increasing Russian clout and influence in those regions where the US had failed to bring normalcy. They have been part and parcel of the grand Kremlin strategy right up to the waging of armed rebellion.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder and current chief of this group, had very close relations with Russian authorities, including President Putin. Their ties date to the 1990s when Prigozhin used to be an owner of a bunch of restaurants. Later, he strengthened ties with Putin, made intrusion into higher authorities, made wealth from lucrative contracts and became a billionaire and an oligarch. He then used this wealth to build a media empire and gained influence within the Russian oligarchy. The deployment of Wagner troops in Ukraine and their on-field battling prowess allowed Prigozhin to further consolidate his powers. From 5000 troops comprising mostly veterans of Russian elite regiments and special forces before the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war, the group’s strength grew rapidly after the invasion. It is even alleged to have carried out a false flag operation right before the invasion so that Kremlin could offer some plausible excuses for the blatant violations of principles of respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Now we look at how the Wagner Group has performed, so far, on the Ukraine front because serious differences between Putin and Prigozhin developed here.
Wagner Group was deployed in Ukraine along with formal Russian regular troops. The number varies. Prigozhin claims that he commands some 25,000 mercenaries whereas the US estimates – as of December 2022 – put the number at around 50,000. The US government had also estimated that almost 90% of Wagner troops were Russian convicts recruited directly from prisons.
Members of the group were fighting as a more or less informal unit of the Russian army and they were mostly on the frontline, taking or defending territories from the Ukrainian army. They played a key role in capturing Bakhmut city before the largely symbolic May 9, because Russia celebrates this day as a remembrance of its triumph over Nazi troops during Second World War. In short, this group is playing a key role and is sometimes used as cannon fodder as well to keep the momentum of war in Kremlin’s favour. These battlefield achievements have contributed to the inflated ambitions of Wager’s chief. Hence, when the Russian defence ministry asked Wager Group to sign new contracts to integrate with the Russian army fully and work under the command of Russian military leadership, his furious reaction was highly anticipated.
So, what happened exactly when both sides parted away violently?
The answer is not straightforward. It is a public secret that Prigozhin had long developed serious differences with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and General Gerasimova (the head of Russian forces in Ukraine) over war strategies and tactics. Their differences became more serious in the wake of the embarrassing retreat of Russian forces in northern Ukraine. Furthermore, he also blamed them for want of supplies and logistical constraints that impacted the performance and morale of Russian troops. The immediate trigger for an armed uprising against higher Russian command was the alleged attack by Russian forces on Wagner mercenaries, claiming 30 lives. Though no evidence whatsoever was presented by Prigozhin, he launched a bitter diatribe against military leadership while standing before some dead bodies and ordered his troops to march toward Moscow for seeking justice. Lastly, Prigozhin is very ambitious, he sees himself as the possible Putin rival or successor and a defender of Russia’s interests against corruption and incompetence.
But what unfolded exactly during that brief and abortive yet extremely seismic armed rebellion?
The chaotic mutiny began on June 23, when Prigozhin released a video wherein he alleged that his troops had been attacked and killed and called for armed rebellion against Russian military leadership. Russian security agency responded by registering a criminal case against him for inciting mutiny. On the second day, Prigozhin announced that his troops had taken Rostov-on-Don, Russia’s main command center for the war in Ukraine, and they had started moving towards Moscow to sort things out. Putin addressed the nation, vowing to crush the armed mutiny and accusing the Wagner chief of committing treason. But the march on Moscow kept on advancing unopposed largely, except for a few incidents of resistance. They reached a threatening distance of mere 200 miles from Moscow, reminding the world of the blitzkrieg of the Nazi advance in 1942. It seemed that the Russian state was on the verge of civil war and the collapse of the Putin-led regime was on the horizon. The situation took a 180-degree turn on June 25 when Belarusian President mediated and Prigozhin asked his troops to stop the march and return to Ukraine-based field camps, saying that he would live in exile in Belarus, and disband his Wager Group. After the aborted rebellion, Putin addressed the nation, saying that the Wagner group would be disbanded and its members would sign new contracts with the defense ministry. Five days later, Prigozhin and the 34 of Wagner’s top commanders met President Putin where the former pledged loyalty to Putin and showed their willingness to fight for their motherland. Later, thousands of Wagner troops were allowed to remain stationed in Russia-occupied areas in eastern Ukraine. On July 13, two weeks after the launch of the rebellion, the Wagner mercenaries started handing over their military hardware and weapons to regular Russian troops. In short, the Wagner group is well on the way to disintegration and absorption in the regular Russian forces.
Although the uprising effectively ended within a few hours, it did ignite a fierce debate about the fallouts of the most daunting threat Putin has seen in his iron-fist rule of 20 years. This has also generated many questions and exposed vulnerability in Putin’s once-seemingly invincible fortress. Furthermore, this failed coup will have ripple effects on Moscow’s relationships with Beijing as well.
Let’s dig deeper into these areas.
Out of many questions that baffle analysts, the poor performance of Russia’s internal security apparatus is the most intriguing one. The fact that Wagner marched unopposed right from the Ukraine border to within 200 miles of Russia’s capital has laid bare the poor preparation of FSB, the Kremlin’s main internal security service. An essay titled “Putin’s Real Security Crisis,” (Foreign Affairs) discusses that two important pillars of Russia’s internal security, the FSB and National Guard both failed to anticipate and stop the mutiny before it started, and worse still, failed conspicuously to resist the march of Wagner mercenaries. National Guard made every effort to avoid confrontation with Wagner. The essay further adds the reaction to the uprising by Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, GRU, was more startling. The first deputy head of GRU tried to convince Prigozhin to stop marching, but he agreed with the main assertion of Wagner chief that the military high command should be held accountable. The failure of Russian generals to show up during a moment of crisis has made it evident that Russia’s ruling elite has developed a fault line that bodes ill for the future political stability and domestic security of Russia. It has become clear now that a larger threat to Putin’s regime came not from Prigozhin’s insurrection itself, but from the reaction of Russia’s vast internal security apparatus and intelligence agencies. This short violent episode has undermined the credibility of Putin as a strongman because instead of punishing the man he termed a traitor, he agreed to let him go.
Would this short-lived aborted insurrection have any impact on the Ukraine-Russia war? The analysts have mixed opinions. The Wall Street Journal has concluded that it is unlikely to have any major impact on the ongoing war. But the fact that a few thousand mercenaries managed to reach within the threatening distance from Russia’s capital largely unopposed could cause diversion of military assets including loyal and elite Russian troops from Ukraine to back home to strengthen the home front. That could create opportunities for Ukrainian forces to gain some ground in their ongoing much-hyped counteroffensive. But, at the same time, setbacks and humiliation faced by Putin could provoke him to intensify or escalate the conflict to divert public attention. Putin would attempt to regain the legitimacy he lost during this rebellion by further committing resources and troops to gain some noticeable gains in the war. Furthermore, when the Wagner troops have surrendered thousands of tonnes of weaponry and ammunition to Russia’s regular army and the group is set to come under the discipline of Russia’s military command, the war in Ukraine is likely to further intensify in the coming weeks and months.
Though the Wagner saga has exposed cracks within Russia’s security apparatus and left Putin in a vulnerable position, it does not mean the beginning of the end of Putin’s rule. There is no indication at all that Prigozhin sought to topple Putin’s regime; instead, he aimed his guns exclusively at defense ministry, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov. The fact that he met Putin within 5 days after launching the rebellion further indicates that Putin is facing no imminent threat. Attempted coups in autocracies are not uncommon, and whenever an autocrat survives the coup, he comes out stronger. For instance, there have been 1000 attempted coups since the Second World War and a majority of them occurred in autocracies, and whenever the targeted ruler survived, he reasserted his authority, stabilized his regime and preserved his hold on power much longer. The analysts believe that it is the post-rebellion purge that sustains the rules of autocrats. For instance, on July 15, 2016, when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced an attempted coup, he launched a widespread purge from the military, police, judiciary and civil service. Resultantly, he managed to prolong his rule, winning two parliamentary and two presidential elections after the failed coup. Though Putin has managed to dodge Wagner’s bullet, his post-rebellion purge, especially in military and intelligence, would determine the longevity of his rule.
The dramatic and seismic rebellion by Putin’s once protégé happened out of the blue. It created a sense of panic among Russia’s internal security apparatus and laid bare many weaknesses in security and intelligence infrastructure. This short-lived mutiny has created repercussions that would be felt across the globe; in particular, the Russia-China relationship could face adverse consequences. Furthermore, Putin’s global ambitions particularly in Africa and the Middle East could face serious setbacks. The rebellion has also raised questions on the role of mercenary groups in inter-state wars and hopefully, the world could move ahead to tighten the noose around such groups operating with impunity in many parts of the world. The failed rebellion has made sure that no state should instrumentalize mercenaries to achieve its political or economic goals, as this policy could backfire and engulf the state in a prolonged and potentially existential security crisis.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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