What Does the Mercenary Mutiny Mean for Russia, Ukraine, and the World?

A day after Wagner’s mutiny showed the unexpected fragility of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, all the main players in Russia’s worst political crisis in decades stayed out of sight—leaving Russians, and the world, to wonder whether the drama was really over. Key unanswered questions include the future of Wagner’s 25,000 heavily armed troops, of the paramilitary group’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin and of Russia’s military leadership, which failed to stop his rapid advance toward Moscow. The details of agreements brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to halt looming bloodshed have yet to be made public. “The entire world has seen that Russia is on the brink of the most acute political crisis,” Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser and a political analyst in Moscow, said. “Yes, the putsch failed now. But putsches have fundamental reasons. And if the reasons remain, a putsch will happen again. And it could be successful.”

One widely shared conclusion in Russia and abroad, however, was that none of the key players in the power struggle, beginning when Prigozhin seized the southern city of Rostov has been strengthened by the ordeal that brought the country to the edge of civil war. Prigozhin, who showed Wagner’s strength by marching two-thirds of the way toward Moscow with little opposition, ended up aborting the rebellion and accepting, at least for now, exile. The Russian army and security forces, meanwhile, displayed little glory as their troops proved reluctant, if not outright afraid, to try stopping Wagner. “The entire system has lost, including Prigozhin, who is also part of the system,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who was in Moscow. As for Putin, he added, “it turned out that the czar is not a real czar because he couldn’t control a man from his own system who’s supposed to be under his full control.”

As a result, the authority and self-image of the Russian state has sustained lasting damage, likely fuelling future challenges to its writ regardless of what happens to Prigozhin. That is especially so as the war in Ukraine, which helped precipitate the Wagner mutiny, continues raging with no end in sight, causing mounting casualties on both sides. The fate of Wagner itself has yet to be determined, Kartapolov added, saying that the Russian parliament is working on new legislation to give private military companies legal status. “To disarm and disband them would be the best gift for NATO and the Ukrainians,” he told Vedomosti. Prigozhin was last seen on Saturday night, as he left the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov to an unknown destination. Disconcertingly for Putin, many locals cheered Wagner’s troops as they withdrew from the city and jeered the regular police that reappeared on Rostov’s streets after hiding for a day.

In Moscow, too, feelings about Prigozhin were mixed at best. “We’ve seen some very serious cracks emerge,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said about turmoil in Russia in an appearance on ABC, “I doubt we’ve seen the final act.”  The grainy footage announcing the insurrection appeared on the Telegram messaging site at 7:24 a.m.: Yevgeny Prigozhin had gathered two of Russia’s most senior commanders in the strategic city of Rostov-on-Don to humiliate them on camera and threaten to march his mercenary army to Moscow. “Our men die because you treat them like meat, no ammo, no plans,” said the founder of the Wagner Group private military company, flanked by masked fighters who had seized the city’s command centre. He demanded the base’s brass hand over their bosses, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov, whom he called “geriatric clowns.”

The video reverberated across the world, offering a partial explanation for the lightning insurrection that posed the gravest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power. The full story behind why Prigozhin launched, then stunningly halted, his revolt isn’t yet known. But the elements include the culmination of military infighting, financial pressures and Prigozhin’s personal political ambitions, according to Russian defectors, military analysts and Western intelligence officials. After years of rapid growth that saw Wagner play a leading role in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the mercenary outfit was facing pressure. Russia’s defence ministry was tightening the noose around the company, starving it of recruitment, finance and weapons. A key trigger was the June 10 Russian Defence Ministry order that all volunteer detachments would have to sign contracts with the government by July 1, a move to bring Wagner under formal military control. Prigozhin refused.

A day after the de-escalation agreement, which pledged that Prigozhin would head to Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, in exchange for the dropping of criminal charges against him, neither the Wagner chief nor Putin has spoken publicly about the mutiny. Shoigu and Gerasimov, whose removal was Prigozhin’s key demand, remained out of sight until a video of the former surfaced Monday. As of Sunday afternoon, Wagner remained in charge of the Millerovo military airfield in southern Russia, according to European intelligence officials. It wasn’t clear when and how Prigozhin would leave for Belarus, and how many of his men would follow suit. The officials speculated that he could use the airfield to fly senior Wagner loyalists to the relative safety of the company’s operations in Africa. If Prigozhin goes to Belarus he would be unlikely to stay long, fearing possible reprisals from the Kremlin, the officials added.

Opinion is still divided on whether Prigozhin’s aim was to leverage more influence within Putin’s security system or ultimately seize power. Prigozhin made his move after state support that once flowed to Wagner was diverted to new private mercenary groups established by state-owned companies such as gas giant Gazprom. The uneasy truce struck on Saturday saw Wagner fighters roll out of the stronghold cities of Rostov and Voronezh which they had captured with little to no military resistance. It hasn’t been confirmed that Prigozhin has left Russia. Even if he does, he maintains an outsize base of support, not only among his fighters who have dispersed to Ukraine, Belarus and Wagner’s training base in Molkino, Russia, but also among the Russians who admire his courage for openly talking about the country’s endemic corruption.

The Kremlin has come out of the events looking weaker, and tolerance for any known dissent will only likely shrink. While the agreement says all those who took part in Prigozhin’s uprising will be amnestied, Russia watchers believed the Kremlin is likely poised to root out pockets of Progozhin’s armed supporters quietly over time. The unseen tensions between Wagner and Russia’s military exploded into public view in February when Prigozhin publicly complained that the defence ministry had limited the provision of weapons and ammunition for his 50,000-strong force that had fought in Bakhmut, a small town that had become the most critical front line of the Ukraine invasion. Wagner’s forces led Bakhmut’s capture in May, Russia’s first material advance in 10 months, but the victory came at a cost of over 20,000 Wagner lives, according to Prigozhin’s public tally.

As Wagner troops raised flags in the town centre, Prigozhin appeared in a video among the devastation to address Shoigu and Gerasimov directly: “Because of their whims, five times more guys than had been supposed to die have died. They will be held responsible for their actions, which in Russian are called crimes.” The news boosted Prigozhin in his clash with the defence ministry. Putin kept switching between the two sides as military fortunes ebbed and flowed. He promoted generals who appeared to be aligned with Prigozhin, then fired them and appeared to move more decisively behind Shoigu and Gerasimov. When Prigozhin mounted his stunning takeover of the Rostov military command post, he dispatched a 5,000-strong column led by a key commander named Dmitry Utkin, known for his tattoos of Nazi symbols, toward the capital. By then Prigozhin said Wagner’s strength had been whittled down to 25,000 men.

Prigozhin late Saturday night left the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov, for an unknown destination. Analysts said the efforts to absorb the Wagner fighters into conventional forces and strip Prigozhin of cash and influence would now accelerate. Analysts said Putin’s silence suggested he was focused on shoring up support among the fractured elite. One intelligence official said the president’s power had been weakened to such an extent that it had reduced the threat of nuclear conflict, since subordinates would be less likely to enact his orders.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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