By Nakshatra Jagannath & Dr. A Adityanjee
Russia has seen turmoil in the last two months when it comes to its internal situation and ostensible challenge to the leadership structure. The source of Schadenfreude for the West and NATO is the Wagner Group, infamously called Putin’s private army – a prominent private militia.
It all started back in 2014, when the notorious and reportedly corrupt businessman with a previous criminal record- Yevgeny Prigozhin, established a private mercenary group. Prigozhin was successfully leading his catering business – ‘Concord’ that served the Kremlin. Prigozhin won lucrative army and state schools led catering contracts that earned him the title of ‘Putin’s Chef’. The legal basis for the private military company was shaky owing to a law in Russia categorically banning all types of mercenary activities. But in the Russian Federation, the laws are what Putin approves, condones, and tolerates. This private militia was initially a group of a few thousand retired army veterans and veterans from the elite and special forces. The group was established to fight alongside the government forces and to promote pro-Russia sentiment and nationalistic ideology. The idea was to help Russian forces combat its enemies- both in Russia’s near abroad region like Ukraine, and in the far-flung areas- e.g., to combat the French influence in Mali or Islamist terror groups in Syria alongside the pro-Syrian Government Forces.
The Wagner group was primarily instrumental in the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and played a key role in the annexation of Crimea. After this initial success, the group also extended its operations in regions like the Central African Region (CAR) to curtail the French influence and in Syria to combat Islamist terror groups., The Wagner group was vital in propping up of the Bashar-Al-Assad regime in Syria by backing his government and successfully fighting enemy forces including the ISIS alongside government forces.
In Recent Years from 2022 and into 2023
The mercenary group rose to prominence during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 in the Donbas region and beyond. The private militia group may be considered as an ad-hoc arm of the Russian state providing support and aid to the Russian government forces in its operations and missions in the immediate neighborhood and beyond.
The tensions between the Wagner group and the Kremlin apparently began early this year. There were serious disagreements between Wagner group and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin in his television address made shocking allegations against the Russian Ministry of Defense, the chief one being the paucity of ammunition provided to the Wagner group due to lopsided supply chain controlled by the Russian government. Another shocking allegation made was the gross negligence and neglect of the members of the Wagner group resulting in shelling and friendly fire attacks on Wagner fighters by the Russian Army. He also raised questions on the competence of the top military leadership in Russia and the lack of justice in the Russian armed forces. It is important to recall that the Wagner group was instrumental in Russia’s operation in Bakhmut. It was this very mercenary group that played a key role in capturing and overpowering the region. Soon after, the situation became murkier when Prigozhin threatened to leave the region, if his demands for more ammunition remained unfulfilled. Even back in May 2023, disagreements and disapproval could be sensed. But what was yet to come- the mutiny and the Justice March, remained behind the dark curtains of uncertainty.
By June 2023, tensions between the dissatisfied and the disenchanted group and the Russian leadership widened. Finally on June 24th, the Wagner group crossed over from Ukraine to Russia and seized the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and started taking over all military establishments in the city including the military headquarters. This was reportedly done with mass support of the civilian population and with zero firing. This certainly reflects cracks within the Russian leadership and the growing tendency of even the local citizens siding with elite militia groups. This was a massive blow to Putin’s supremacy and claim of rule with an iron fist. To the naïve, it was a live example of him losing grip over powerful commanders and even local masses. In the chaotic era of external warfare and international sanctions, an armed internal rebellion led by former loyalists and close confidants was the last thing Putin administration would be expecting.
The same day, a proud Prigozhin led his private army and marched towards Moscow. He christened this as the ‘Justice March’. The Putin regime soon began its damage control exercise. An official statement was issued by the Ministry of Defense claiming Wagner fighters had decided to abandon Prigozhin as he had dragged them into a criminal adventure. This was soon followed by a petulant Putin’s television address where he called the armed rebellion a stab and promised to crush the short-lived insurrection and punish the perpetrators (traitors) in a speedy manner. But by then the Wagner affiliated fighters were on their way towards Moscow, advancing at a lightning speed and capturing Rostov-on-Don overnight without firing a single shot. The Russian military helicopters started their offensive operations against the Wagner fighters and positioned machine guns near Moscow. Meanwhile, reportedly, Prigozhin was offered amnesty if he and his entire group laid down their weapons. Soon, Prigozhin announced retracting from his justice march towards Moscow ending the rebellion.
Just then, the Belarusian President- Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President- Vladimir Putin, officially announced his role in brokering an amicable peace deal between the Russian state authorities and the Wagner group. According to this deal, Wagner chief Prigozhin would be allowed to migrate to Belarus and all charges against him will be dropped. Meanwhile, Wagner fighters that did not participate in the justice march would be awarded military contracts. Though, the Russian propaganda machinery would twist this story and pinpoint the blame on NATO, Ukraine and other enemies of Russia while lauding the Putin administration for making peace with the Wagner group without massive bloodshed and collateral damage. Insinuations of bribes paid by the CIA to the Wagner group were bandied around. Headlines screamed that Pentagon’s accounting error means an extra $6.2 billion in aid for Ukraine. But the truth remains crystal clear. An anti-Putin sentiment was brewing and this time it was heavily led by powerful commanders and former loyalists who might be planning a coup. Though we cannot undermine Putin’s leadership and capability to rule and effectively and efficiently counter any chances of a coup, this incident surely must be a red flag and a warning signal for him. If genuine, it would make an already perennially paranoid Putin more paranoid and will give him a chance to bring back loyalists under his iron-fist and restrict their autonomy or else another Prigozhin might pop up.
What lies ahead is yet to be seen. It is sure that there is going to be a long period of ensuing deception, confusion, and chaos in the regions where the Wagner forces are still present outside of Russia like CAR and Syria. It is yet unknown in whose interest would they work for now despite their chief fleeing into the territorial boundaries of Belarus. The current situation, post the failed mutiny might also force China- a close ally and partner of Putin in countering US to rethink its position. It will increase Chinese support and faith in the Putin administration that appears to be struggling with internal fragile framework. Meanwhile Poland is strengthening its borders in midst of the Wagner challenge! The USA backed reports are propagating the idea that Putin has been seriously weakened and is buying time to strike revenge against the mutiny chief.
Though the mutiny ostensibly failed, it did cast a huge shadow over Putin’s authority and hold over the Russian state. It has also brought back NATO and other like-minded nations to the discussion table. Ukraine on the other hand, seemed extremely elated to see such a turn of events and more importantly at the show of defiance by former loyalists of Putin. The swift reversal by all the players involved in psychodrama does suggest a stage-managed show for the benefit of the West and Ukraine. It cannot be ruled out as part of devious psychological warfare. Meanwhile, the Wiley Putin has essentially managed to transfer his private militia into Belarus along with his tactical nuclear missiles!
One must remember that over the last two decades, Putin’s rule has not been so weak that a mere threatened mutiny led by a private militia group can be a major threat. It is totally inconceivable that the Wagner group could successfully actuate a coup against Putin.
CSA Training Fellow at the Council for Strategic Affairs. He is based in Kolkata, India.
Dr. A Adityanjee
President of the Council for Strategic Affairs. He is based in Cleveland, OH, USA.
However, the warning bells are still ringing. The Kremlin must reflect upon as to what went wrong if at all. Appropriate necessary action must be initiated by Russian authorities to bring back their house of horror in order and avoid possibility of a civil war. And most importantly for the Kremlin is the herculean task of thwarting the US and NATO from taking advantage of this precarious domestic situation. If indeed Pentagon’s unaccounted $6.2 billion went to Prigozhin as bribe, both Putin and Prigozhin must be having the last laugh at the expense of Pentagon! Did the Pentagon really rob Peter (US taxpayer) to pay Paul (Prigozhin)? Only Putin and Prigozhin can pontificate on this problem!