By David R. Marples on July 9, 2023
Much has been written about the Wagner Division’s uprising of ten days ago, which ended some 200 kms from Moscow. What can we say definitively about its importance?
The first thing to note is the lengthy relationship between Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s career has included a lengthy period of imprisonment for manslaughter, a period selling hot dogs on the streets of St. Petersburg, and a successful restaurant business, as well as the creation of businesses and his Internet Research Agency. At one time, he was known as “Putin’s chef” as the Russian leader liked to dine at his attractive Old Custons House restaurant on Vasilievsky Island.
His “second career” as an oligarch and founder of the private military company (PMC) Wagner was for years a secret operation. The Russian government officially denied any knowledge of the group, which was sent to various military conflicts (Syria, Libya, Mali), as well as to places where Russia was interested in exploiting natural resources, such as Central Africa and Venezuela.
Wagner, however, came to light officially during the incited war in the Donbas, as Russia backed separatist governments (known as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) and sent troops to the key battles in 2014 and 2015 to ensure the survival of the breakaway republics. In September 2022, Prigozhin admitted to being its founder.
In the summer of 2020, the president of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, arrested 33 Wagner soldiers who had arrived in Minsk at the start of the presidential election campaign. Lukashenka evidently feared that their goal was to remove his government, though all evidence pointed to their using Minsk as a transit point en route to Africa. The incident reflected Belarus’ distrust of Russian intentions, particularly given the emergence of presidential candidates with significant Russian links to oppose Lukashenka (the highly popular Viktor Babaryka, former Chair of the BelGazprombank, being the most obvious).
The failure of the regular Russian army’s early efforts to capture Kyiv in February 2022, the lack of military direction from the high command (Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Commander in Chief Valery Gerasimov), and the generally poor performance of the Russian army provided an opening for PMCs to play significant roles in the invasion force. They included the Chechens led by close Russian ally, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov (in theory, part of the Russian National Guard), and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group and the Patriot Group affiliated with Shoigu. .
At Bakhmut last summer, Prigozhin attacked with his force that comprised a large percentage of high security prisoners that he had recruited with the agreement that they would be set free if they could survive for six months. The losses were enormous, but the campaign provided Russia ultimately with a rare success after a lengthy war of attrition. Buoyed, Prigozhin became bolder and began to offer open challenges to Shoigu and Gerasimov on social media, insulting them in the foulest language with no response from the Kremlin.
Finally, prompted by the June 30 deadline for his troops to disband and join the regular Russian army, Prigozhin evidently decided to march into Russia and remove the incompetent leaders, the president excepted. It almost worked. Not only did he cross the Ukraine-Russia border unimpeded, but after he arrived in the southern military base of Rostov-on-the Don, which was coordinating the invasion of Ukraine, the local population greeted him like a conqueror.
The critical aspect of the advance of about 35,000 troops, with a spearhead of around 8,000 was the undefined relationship between Prigozhin and Putin. Did Prigozhin imagine that Putin would support his campaign and remove the military leaders, or did he expect the defection of members of the army leadership and National Guard. Did he have allies in the FSB or, as many suspect, the GRU?
Putin appeared passive, uncertain what to do. The rebellion undermined his image as a popular, almost infallible leader. But there was also the relationship with a fellow gangster, someone equally ruthless, without scruples, and committed to the same cause of revived Russian glory. But after the occupation of Rostov and the Wagners’ subsequent march to Voronezh, Putin responded by declaring the uprising an act of treason in a curt 5-minute speech in the Kremlin.
Now Prigozhin was a rebel. He was Yemelyan Pugachev in 1773 after Catherine II seized power, declaring the end of serfdom in the name of the late Peter III. He was acting against Russian authority, but with a pitiful force that would inevitably crumble before it entered Moscow. And he was not a fighter. He ran a brutal army but he himself had always avoided combat. There was a good chance he woud be killed in a conflict that was now directed against his hero Putin.
Though Prigozhin was not answering phone calls on June 24, the deployment by Putin of the eager Lukashenka as an intermediary was enough. A deal was brokered. Prigozhin would not be arrested if he abandoned the march and accepted exile in Belarus.
But Belarus was not an independent actor. It had been involved in the initial invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenka was beholden to Putin for rescuing him after the mass protests that followed the falsified presidential elections in 2020. Russia has two military bases and several thousand troops in Belarus. It has agreed to station tactical nuclear missiles there in July, a move counter to the 1994 Constitution declaring Belarus a nonnuclear state (Lukashenka amended this Constitution after a staged referendum in early 2022).
Though the crisis would appear to have ended there, it can hardly be considered a conclusion. The idea that a rebel leader could remain free after such an event is inconceivable. He will likely be eliminated in the near future. The ending of the “coup” was so sudden, that some analysts believe the entire event to be staged. But that is unlikely given the way it highlighted the indecisiveness of the Russian president.
More important, while the course of the invasion may not have been deeply affected, Putin can no longer feel secure. Where will the next challenge emerge? How much longer can be maintain the facade of a successful leader given the massive losses of troops and materiel, and as his allies, China at the forefront, question the wisdom of a long-term war.
And the problems pointed out by Prigozhin–the ineffective leadership and poor showing of the army in Ukraine–remain for all to see. At the least, the great imperial dream is over. Rossiya–the idea of a Greater Russia or Russkiy Mir–will never replace the Russian Federation. Ukraine will not be destroyed. Zelensky remains free and a popular world leader. NATO has expanded with the addition of Finland, with Sweden set to join next.
The uprising failed but it has highlighted the intrinsic flaws within the authoritarian regime as well as Putin’s long-term presidency.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
DAVID R. MARPLES
Chair of Eastern Europe Studies, CGC; Author “Understanding Ukraine and Belarus: A Memoir”