The Wagner mutiny has diminished Putin
But Prigozhin will not escape this unscathed, either.
So many explanations have been swirling about the actions and fate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, since his short-lived armed mutiny at the weekend. So it is worth establishing a few points at the outset.
Firstly, Russian president Vladimir Putin does not make an unscheduled broadcast to the nation – as he did at 10am Moscow time on Saturday, railing against Wagner’s uprising – on a whim.
Secondly, it does not reflect well on the authority of any national leader to admit that military facilities key to the conduct of a war – in this case, the headquarters and airfield in Rostov-on-Don, seized by Prigozhin on Saturday – are out of central control. This is doubly damaging for Putin, a leader whose chief claim to popular support since he came to power is the restoration of stability after the chaos and collapse of the 1990s.
Thirdly, Prigozhin, a founder, financier and leader of the 25,000-strong Wagner, was not putting himself forward as an alternative leader of Russia. He was challenging Russia’s defence establishment and its conduct of the war in Ukraine. This might have escalated into a challenge to Putin, but that is not how his revolt started.
Fourthly, Prigozhin, like many of those who made money in the chaotic 1990s, is believed to have – or have had – links with the criminal underworld. He was in the restaurant business before branching out into the military sphere, and got to know Putin when they both worked in St Petersburg. Now 62, he has given no hint of any political ambitions.
All of the above should knock several speculative theories on the head. The idea that Putin and the Kremlin staged the whole thing to provide elegant cover for the dissolution of Wagner, or as a feint to conceal vast new Russian troop movements towards the Ukrainian front, is implausible.
Likewise, the contention that Putin’s authority is either enhanced or undiminished by the apparent demise of Wagner is fanciful. Putin had to accept third-party mediation from Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, to halt Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. Putin’s bombastic and very public threats to punish the ‘traitorous’ but unnamed mutineer were dropped in return for Prigozhin agreeing that his force would be contracted to the regular Russian military (a demand from the Russian Defence Ministry) and that he himself would go into exile.
Even less convincing is the contention that Prigozhin was in the pay of, or otherwise beholden to, Western intelligence services. He is an ardent Russian nationalist. His complaint against the Russian military is not that Russia invaded Ukraine, but that it has been both incompetent and too soft in its conduct of the war.
Surely, no one involved in Western intelligence could see Prigozhin as a preferable alternative to Putin and a suitable custodian of Russia’s nuclear capability. If there were to be any sliver of truth in this theory, it would call into question the competence of the intelligence services even more than their failures on Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction in the early 2000s, or their failure to anticipate the Taliban victory in Afghanistan in 2021.
There are two reasons why Prigozhin may have acted when and how he did. He appears to have felt that the achievement of his Wagner forces in winning the gruelling battle for Bakhmut was not appreciated by the Russian top brass as much as it should have been. And he also believes that Moscow should have been more generous with supplies of weapons and equipment than it has been. The last straw appears to have been the demand that Wagner soldiers be contracted to the Russian armed forces. As Prigozhin sees it, this would end Wagner’s autonomous status, and potentially strip him of money and power.
He brought at least some part of the Wagner force back from Ukraine on 23 June, and took over the military facilities at Rostov-on-Don within 24 hours and without resistance. How far his convoy advanced towards Moscow has not been definitively established, but it appears to have got more than half-way – again, without resistance. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that Prigozhin and Wagner enjoy a degree of popularity, either in the regular Russian military or at the Russian grassroots. It could simply mean that Russians – military or civilian – did not want a fight or that they had no idea what was going on.
What is harder to understand is why Prigozhin halted what he called his ‘march for justice’ and agreed to terms that would appear to mean the dissolution of Wagner. There has been talk of a massive bribe or of Kremlin threats to his family, either of which is plausible. But neither seems likely to perturb someone with the ambition to challenge the top brass in Moscow. His statement said that he had agreed to halt the convoy to ‘prevent bloodshed’, which may also be true. But was that bloodshed in the sense of conflict with the Russian army, or in the sense of a Kremlin threat to annihilate Wagner forces? Given that Wagner has been one of the more effective contingents against Ukraine, it is hard to see how the second option would ever have been a possibility.
The actual terms of the deal brokered by Lukashenko are not public, and may never be. Footage of the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, emerged today, suggesting that Prigozhin’s demand for his removal has not been met, or at least not yet. Whether or not Russia’s chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov (another scalp demanded by Prigozhin), is still in place is less clear.
Nor is it clear whether Prigozhin has actually gone into exile, in Belarus or anywhere else. Some are predicting that he may leave Europe altogether, to concentrate on Wagner’s activities in parts of Africa, specifically in Mali and the Central African Republic, where the mercenary group has been active for several years. And this could be a solution of a kind, both for him and for Putin. On the other hand, there are those who forecast that he could soon be back, either recalled and forgiven by a Kremlin in need of military reinforcement or – less likely – following the departure of Putin.
Whatever Yevgeny Prigozhin’s immediate plans, however, it would be foolhardy to predict a long and prosperous life for him. He moved against Russia’s top brass at a time of war. Whether or not he had Putin in his sights, he will now be a marked man. As such, he would be well advised to be on his guard against poisons, open windows and booby-trapped cars, whether he settles in Mali or Minsk.
Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.
Picture by: YouTube / The Sun.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.