Impact of Prigozhin’s putsch
Yvonne Gill assesses what led to the Wagner group’s mutiny against the Russian army, its aftermath, and whether it has weakened Vladimir Putin’s power
A Wagner mercenary group’s armoured column is rumbling ‘towards Moscow’, having ‘seized’ the port city of Rostov-on-Don and the headquarters of Russia’s Southern District Military Command. This was the tone and tenure of Western media reports, which promptly declared on June 24 that a coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin was in progress. And the putsch, we were told, was being led by the flamboyant Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose intemperate posts were going viral on social media. Videos showed crowds of people greeting the oligarch as he sipped coffee, sitting in a cosy backseat of an SUV.
But the short-lived ecstasy of the supposedly independent media of the ‘free world’ soon died away, as did Prigozhin’s mini-mutiny. As the haze cleared, it became known that Prigozhin’s was a ‘March for Justice’, cut short by security forces after Wagner fighters shot down a surveillance helicopter, killing the pilot. Putin in his address angrily denounced Prigozhin’s action as treason. The mutineers were rounded up by the security forces, some 600 kilometres south of Moscow, and detained at a military facility in the port city. Reports have it that a couple of the fighters died or were injured in a brief skirmish with police. The Wagner fighters were disarmed and given the option of either joining units of the regular army or going to Belarus, where they were given a site to set up their camps by Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered a deal between the mutineers and Russian authorities.
Who, then, is Yevgeny Prigozhin? Is he so powerful as to threaten Putin and the Russian establishment?
His is a typical crook-to-billionaire-oligarch story of a cunning individual exploiting the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union to make it big in the 1990s and beyond. Following his conviction for theft and then for burglary and attempted homicide in his early years, Prigozhin served a total of nine years in prison. From selling hotdogs at an open market in Leningrad after his release in 1990, he got into the big-time grocery supermarket business after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, he was involved in the gambling trade and became CEO of the first casino chain in Saint Petersburg. There he met Putin, a former KGB operative, who had been chairman of the supervisory board for casinos and gambling since 1991. After Putin came to power, Prigozhin, a crafty businessman, made use of his connections to set up a restaurant chain. He also bagged many lucrative government contracts, including, in 2012, one worth billions of dollars to supply meals to the Russian military. His catering company was later accused of supplying substandard food to schools and other irregularities.
In 2014, Prigozhin secretly formed the Wagner group at the behest of the Russian security agencies, recruiting former soldiers and ex-convicts who wanted to make a fast buck. The private company was deployed in Donbas to help pro-Russian separatists and then in conflict zones in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali to safeguard Russian interests. The group now provides services as military contractors/consultants in many African countries.
Its limited role in the Ukraine war came to light due to Prigozhin bragging about his group’s successes, particularly in Bakhmut, in his frequent social media posts. It was only in September last year that he publicly admitted to being the leader of the secretive private militia. Bakhmut was a big deal for him because his fighters had been given heavy equipment like tanks and anti-aircraft systems that could effectively shoot down enemy drones. But the city, heavily fortified with a large concentration of Ukrainian forces, proved to be a meat-grinder and both sides suffered heavy casualties. Apparently, the Russian commanders did not want lose their better trained soldiers in the close-proximity fight. Wagner fighters took most of the brunt on the frontline, while the regular Russian forces provided support and launched the final assault after the Wagners had broken through the Ukrainian defences.
This angered Prigozhin, whose men were not only used as cannon-fodder but also told to join the regular army, and he went hammer and tongs against the Russian defence establishment. On May 5, he slammed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Commander-in-chief Valery Gerasimov for ‘tens of thousands’ of Wagner casualties: ‘Where… is the ammunition? They came here as volunteers and are dying so you can sit like fat cats in your luxury offices.’ The Russian top brass did not respond but ordered the withdrawal of the Wagner fighters, giving them an option to join the regular army.
In a video released on the eve of his ‘March for Justice’, Prigozhin even questioned the Russian justifications for the invasion of Ukraine. Not that the Russians did not know about his plan; they were simply giving him a long rope. As he crossed the red line, the final crackdown was swift and brief.
Russia suffers from a twin dilemma. It is a nuclear superpower with the world’s largest arsenal, but its GDP is about one-fifth of the US’ in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). Russia is the only republic of the former Soviet Union that inherited the USSR’s formidable military and scientific legacy. The country went through a decade of turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When chaos reigned supreme, the Russian military not only protected its nuclear assets but also maintained the extraordinary readiness needed to put its nuclear triad into action. Nuclear arms are primarily offensive weapons, calling for modern and robust surveillance and an advance warning system of satellites, intelligence network as well as anti-missile defences. Hence, Russia has a gargantuan security apparatus which most European countries do not possess.
The Russian military is a very powerful force and has a big say in running state affairs. It was the military that brought Putin to power in 1999 to stem the utter chaos and open Western interference during Boris Yeltsin’s regime. Much of the credit for putting post-Soviet Russia’s house in order goes to the Putin regime. This includes disciplining the rapacious oligarchs, reviving the oil-and-gas-based economy, modernising the defence industry and facilitating the export of abundantly available natural resources.
Although Putin is known for his brutal elimination of rivals and his undemocratic ways, he was initially careful in dealing with the West. Former Labour Defence Secretary George Robertson, secretary general of the transatlantic alliance between 1999 and 2003, is on record as having stated that Putin once pushed for Russia joining NATO. Putin made it clear at their first meeting that he wanted Russia to be part of Western Europe, the Labour leader said. Putin’s strategy during the siege of Aleppo in 2016 involved coordinated diplomatic efforts for ceasefires and humanitarian corridors in coordination with the Americans. This even led to him being criticised by retired Russian army officers.
Like any other country, Russia has a segment of ultra-national right-wing and an influential left-leaning population. Both have been critical of Putin (who enjoys a rating of over 60 per cent among the people), and feel he is too soft in his Ukraine campaign. The hardliners think that the south-western neighbour, once also part of the former USSR, should be subjected to Iraq-style carpet-bombing (as carried out by the US) of Western Ukraine to liberate the Russian-dominated eastern part of the country. However, the Russian strategy has been to continue a war of attrition with minimum losses of Russian men and machines. So far the Russian offensive has managed to make gradual, albeit slow, gains. But the frustration of Ukraine’s backers, who are pumping more and more arms into the country, raises the stakes of a nuclear conflagration even higher than ever before.
Reports that a small contingent of Wagner troops tried to march towards a high-security nuclear storage facility with stockpiles of backpack nuclear warheads should serve as a warning for Western policy-makers. The dire consequences of extremist elements laying hands on such easy-to-carry tactical nuclear weapons is simply beyond imagination. True, it would be difficult to assemble and deploy them, but the danger remains that terrorists could use them against hapless civilian populations anywhere across the globe.
There is no way out of this morass but by a peaceful resolution of the dispute and cessation of hostilities. Attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO’s ambit will only worsen the already alarming military situation in the region.
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London