Putin seriously weakened by Wagner Group mutiny but it was a missed opportunity for Ukraine too

London: Zelensky’s senior advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, expressed disappointment that Prigozhin had given up so quickly

BY | Monday, 26 June, 2023
A man with a flag of PMCs Wagner in front of police cars in Rostov-on-Don on 24 June 2023 (PC: Fargoh)

Authors – Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at University of Birmingham & Tetyana Malyarenko is Professor of International Relations, National University Odesa Law Academy

Blink and you could have missed it. Within 36 hours, the challenge mounted against the Kremlin by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary private military company the Wagner Group, was over.

On Friday, 23 June 2023, Prigozhin ordered 25,000 of his troops on to a “march for justice”, which duly set out to confront the Russian president in Moscow. The following afternoon he called it off.

At that point his troops had advanced along the M4 motorway more than halfway between Moscow and the Russian military’s southern headquarters at Rostov-on-Don. His private army was within 200km (125 miles) of the Russian capital.

The crisis was apparently averted thanks to a deal brokered by Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, and confirmed by the Kremlin. But this brief episode of turmoil will have lasting repercussions for Russia and for the war in Ukraine.

The conflict between Prigozhin and the top brass of the Russian military has been going on for some time. But it escalated as the battle over Bakhmut intensified, during which Prigozhin complained more than 20,000 of his men had been killed.

Back in May, Prigozhin warned of another Russian revolution. He attempted to make good on this promise four weeks later. But this was a far cry from the mass uprising of the 1917 October revolution. Instead, it was ultimately a showdown between competing factions of the Russian military-industrial complex.

If there is a parallel, however, it is that foreign wars were part of the background against which both the Bolshevik revolution and Prigozhin’s attempted power play occurred. And then, as now, the challenger confronted an increasingly fragile regime plagued by deep structural problems and uncertainty that any war brings.

The alleged trigger for Prigozhin’s mutiny was an apparent airstrike on his camp at the front in Ukraine by Russian forces. The airstrike itself if indeed it happened is an indication that the Kremlin was aware that something was afoot.

But the speed and precision with which Prigozhin moved his troops over large distances and to strategic locations including Rostov-on-Don indicates that this was a well-prepared operation.

It may have failed, but there will be lessons even in that for any future challenger to the Kremlin. As Lenin put it succinctly in his 1920 book Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, without the “dress rehearsal” of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 “would have been impossible”. That should deeply worry Putin and his inner circle.

Russia a fragile regime exposed

More immediately, Putin has other problems to consider and take care of. The Russian president’s speech on Saturday morning was fiercely combative, vowing to crush what he called an “armed uprising”.

Within 12 hours, he had made a deal which, for now, will not see Prigozhin or any of his mercenaries punished. What’s more, Putin stood by his defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, and chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, throughout their rivalry with Prigozhin.

But there are now indications that both of them may be replaced. Shoigu by Aleksey Dyumin, who led the operation that resulted in the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and currently serves a regional governor of Tula. And Gerasimov by Sergey Surovikin, one of his current deputies, who was briefly in charge of the war in Ukraine during the autumn and winter of 2002-23.

This does not project an image of a strong leader either at home or abroad. Moreover, the fact that Putin had to cut a deal in the first place and after Prigozhin’s mercenaries advanced so close to Moscow without facing any resistance on the ground is significant. It says something about the limitations of Russia’s capacity to respond to the crisis and deploy military and security resources beyond the war in Ukraine.

This lack of resistance to Prigozhin and the apparent popular support Wagner received in Rostov-on-Don also speaks volumes about the lack of enthusiasm for the war in Ukraine among regional elites and people outside the Kremlin bubble. It also raises questions about how ordinary people might feel about a change in regime in which the choice is between Putin and Prigozhin.

The exposure of these weaknesses must also be worrying for Russia’s few remaining allies. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was apparently among the first foreign leaders to speak with Putin after his televised address on Saturday morning.

The Kremlin also dispatched Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Andrey Rudenko, to Beijing for talks with China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, to “exchange views on China-Russia relations and international and regional issues of common concern”.

Turkey and China will have viewed the turmoil in their nuclear-armed neighbour with some concern. And both they, Kazakhstan, and other Russian neighbours in central Asia, will have deepening reservations about how reliable a partner Putin can be going forward.

Vladimir Putin with Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2010 at Concord food catering factory

An opportunity missed for Ukraine

This will probably be noted by Ukraine and its western partners. Most of Kyiv’s allies generally limited themselves to statements of concern and noted that they were monitoring events as they were unfolding. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, highlighted the chaos in Russia and the humiliation that this meant for Putin.

Zelensky’s senior advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, expressed his disappointment that Prigozhin had given up so quickly. Oleksiy Danilov (the general secretary of Ukraine’s national security council) and Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasianov both saw Prigozhin’s mutiny as another sign of the coming fragmentation of Russia.

And this is perhaps the main point from Kyiv’s perspective. Had the chaos in Russia continued long enough, it may have created a real opportunity for further advances in a counteroffensive that Zelensky himself had to admit last week is making less progress less fast than had been envisaged.

In this sense, too, Prigozhin’s failed rebellion can be seen as an important dress rehearsal that offers valuable lessons, especially for Ukraine’s western partners.

A better equipped and trained Ukrainian military could have capitalised significantly more on even this short period of disarray in Russia. More tanks and artillery, more and better air defence systems, and more fighter aircraft would not have helped either one of the Russian war criminals Putin and Prigozhin to defeat the other.

But they could have brought the Kremlin closer to the point of accepting the failure of its war against Ukraine.

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