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Wagner's rebellion: The beginning of the end for Putin?

Wagner's rebellion in Russia: The beginning of the end for Putin?
7 min read
27 June, 2023
Analysis: While Putin has defused the imminent threat posed by Prigozhin's rebellion, the reverberations of the coup attempt will continue to pose challenges for his regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On 23 June, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin posted an explosive thirty-minute video on Telegram, which attacked the official justifications for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Prigozhin accused the Russian Defence Ministry of trying to deceive President Vladimir Putin and the public by highlighting threats of Ukrainian and NATO aggression that did not exist. He also accused Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and oligarchs of starting a war to plunder Ukraine and decried them as “mentally ill scumbags”.

Prigozhin’s brazen attacks on Russia’s military leadership and depiction of Putin as an ineffectual leader caused long-standing tensions between the Wagner Group and the Kremlin to boil over.

Hours after releasing the video, Prigozhin accused the Russian Defence Ministry of striking a Wagner Group camp and launched a self-described “march for justice” against Russia’s military leadership.

This insurrection resulted in the Wagner Group’s swift takeover of the Southern Military District’s headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and placed his forces within 200km of Moscow. Despite these rapid successes, a diplomatic intervention from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko caused Wagner Group forces to abruptly retreat and Prigozhin to flee to Belarus.

While Prigozhin’s rebellion caught the Russian authorities by surprise, it was the culmination of his years-long turf war with Shoigu. Although the immediate threat to Putin’s leadership was defused, Prigozhin’s coup attempt underscored severe vulnerabilities inside his regime that other ultranationalist dissenters could capitalise on.

Moreover, the Wagner Group’s impending integration within the Russian military could create serious internecine rifts that strengthen Ukraine’s counter-offensive and derail Russia’s ability to strike back against Ukrainian forces.

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The Prigozhin-Shoigu rivalry and the path to Wagner's rebellion

Although the Wagner Group’s founding in 2014 was shepherded by the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), its senior leadership has regularly clashed with Russia’s official structures.

Wagner Group founder and GRU Spetsnaz commander Dmitry Utkin was previously part of the Slavonic Corps, an organisation which faced an FSB crackdown in November 2013 for “illegal mercenary activity”.

In early 2016, the Russian Defence Ministry scaled back patronage of the Wagner Group as tensions between Prigozhin and Shoigu flared in Syria. Prigozhin responded by striking unilateral deals with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which included pledges to liberate Syria’s oil and gas fields in exchange for 25% of their production revenues.

The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine caused tensions between Prigozhin and Shoigu to escalate to new heights. Prigozhin’s mass recruits of prisoners into the Wagner Group, which saw the paramilitary’s ranks swell to 50,000 by late 2022, alarmed the Defence Ministry to such an extent that it began a rival prison recruitment drive.

The international response to Prigozhin's coup attempt reflected Putin's isolation on the world stage. [Getty]

The succession of Russian military defeats in Kharkiv, Lyman, and Kherson in the fall of 2022 caused Prigozhin to sharpen his criticisms of the Defence Ministry’s top brass. These critiques were initially heeded by Putin, as he appointed Prigozhin ally General Sergei Surovikin as Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine in October 2022 and banished Prigozhin’s nemesis Central Military District chief Alexander Lapin from Russia’s senior military leadership.

In early 2023, however, Putin began to side with Shoigu over Prigozhin on key questions relating to military strategy and recruitment. Putin replaced Surovikin as Ukraine forces commander with Chief of the Russian Army’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov in January 2023, cancelled the Wagner Group’s prison recruitment drive, and backed the Wagner Group’s integration into the Russian Defence Ministry’s structures.

Prigozhin’s personal appeals to Putin, which included offers of conscription of Afghan foreign fighters to Ukraine, did not make him reconsider these positions. This U-turn likely reflected Putin’s concern that Prigozhin’s cultivation of an ultranationalist support base and expanding private army could eventually threaten his hold on power.

Prigozhin’s fear of marginalisation and the Wagner Group’s dismemberment caused him to embrace more brazen tactics. Prigozhin regularly decried “shell hunger” on the frontlines and decried the Russian Defence Ministry for its “treasonous” refusal to supply the Wagner Group with adequate munitions. Prigozhin also threatened Shoigu’s son-in-law Alexey Stolyarov and stated that he should be assaulted with a “sledgehammer” for allegedly liking anti-war social media posts.

As his relations with Shoigu deteriorated and Putin refused to take his side, Prigozhin instigated an armed rebellion to force sweeping leadership changes inside the Russian Defence Ministry.

How Prigozhin's coup attempt exposed Putin's vulnerability

During the initial hours of Prigozhin’s rebellion, it appeared as if Putin remained firmly in control of the spiralling crisis. Key allies, such as Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, called for unity around Putin’s leadership, while Surovikin urged Prigozhin to stand down.

Putin’s Saturday morning speech accused the Wagner Group of “attempting to subvert us from the inside” and of “treason,” and these narratives were uniformly repeated across the Russian political system. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) launched a criminal probe into Prigozhin’s call for “armed mutiny,” which underscored Putin’s potential to crush the Wagner Group rebellion.

As 24 June progressed, a different picture emerged. The Wagner Group’s seizure of Rostov-on-Don was met with little resistance and many residents greeted Prigozhin with a hero’s welcome. Prigozhin’s appeals against oligarch corruption and pledge to supply adequate munitions to the Russian Armed Forces resonated amongst lower-level personnel, who defied their top brass’s fealty to Putin.

Although the Wagner Group possessed just 25,000 forces, it swiftly marched on Voronezh, Lipetsk, and towards Moscow, and seven aircraft carrying thirteen Russian pilots were destroyed in clashes.

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The international response to Prigozhin’s coup attempt reflected Putin’s isolation on the world stage and diminished confidence in his leadership. Key Russian partners, such as treaty allies Kazakhstan and Iran, opted to describe Prigozhin’s rebellion as an “internal affair” and refrained from expressing solidarity with Putin.

China remained conspicuously silent during Prigozhin’s coup attempt and only released a terse statement backing Russia as a “strategic partner” after the rebellion ended. Even stalwart allies, such as Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, only released statements expressing solidarity with Putin once Lukashenko’s mediation proposal had taken effect.

These displays of vulnerability could embolden other ultranationalist dissenters to directly challenge Putin’s leadership. The Angry Patriots Club, which is led by MH17 shootdown perpetrator Igor Girkin, former Donetsk People’s Governor Pavel Gubarev, and nationalist author Maxim Kalashnikov, opposed Prigozhin’s coup attempt but share his disdain for the Russian Defence Ministry.

The Storm Z unit, which called Prigozhin a “rat” for abandoning the insurrection, is another example of a militia that could challenge Putin’s leadership. Until recently, Putin has successfully assuaged these groups through conscription and civilian infrastructure strikes in Ukraine. Further military setbacks could create an ultranationalist coalition that the Kremlin has difficulty containing.

Prigozhin's fear of marginalisation and the Wagner Group's dismemberment caused him to embrace more brazen tactics. [Getty]

The Wagner Group's uncertain future

Although Prigozhin has thus far avoided arrest for his involvement in the coup attempt, the Wagner Group is poised to lose much of its autonomy. During his 26 June address, Putin stated that Wagner Group fighters could sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry, go back home, or relocate to Belarus.

Hours later, the Wagner Group began handing its military equipment over to the Russian Defence Ministry. Shoigu’s business-as-usual visit to Russian troops in Ukraine suggests that no leadership changes are imminent.

The Wagner Group’s integration into the Russian military command structure is unlikely to be a smooth process. In addition to its frictions with the Russian Defence Ministry, its members will likely have tensions with other paramilitaries. Kadyrov’s threat of “tough suppression” of future Wagner unrest and continued castigations of Prigozhin will likely create friction between his Chechen army and the Wagner Group. As the Wagner Group played a key role in Russia’s victories in Soledar and Bakhmut, any dilution of its effectiveness could severely undermine Russia’s offensive potential in Ukraine.

The complete marginalisation of the Wagner Group is also unlikely to transpire. Despite historical mistrust between Lukashenko and Prigozhin, which included the detention of 33 Wagner Group PMCs in Belarus in July 2020, Wagner camps have already begun to appear in Belarus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s confirmation that “instructors” will remain in the Central African Republic and Mali suggests that the Kremlin still needs the Wagner Group to project power in Africa

Although Putin managed to defuse the imminent threat posed by Prigozhin’s rebellion, the reverberations of the coup attempt will continue to pose challenges for his regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It remains to be seen whether Putin can create a sustainable patriotic rally against Prigozhin’s coup or if further ultranationalist challenges weaken his standing in the months ahead.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2