This article was written by: Lorenzo Izzi
In a world in which the entire human knowledge is available from a device in our pocket, the risk of over-simplification is around the corner regarding the news. The main objective of this article is to give an overview of the attempted military coup in Russia by the Wagner group, by giving a holistic explanation of the event. It will therefore start by giving a context to the Wagner group, explaining its origin, its fit into the power structure in Russia, and its role in Russian military operations, including the invasion of Ukraine, and it will create a guide to understand future events as the tension is likely not to stop here.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner group, origin and goals
Wagner is a self-defined “private military company” (PMC) that acts in close ties with the Kremlin, the building in which the president of Russia resides. However, its private nature gives it a special role in Russian military operations. It is not known precisely when this company started to exist, but its first international appearance was in the first stage of the Ukraine invasion in 2014 (when a dispute over Donbass and Crimea was settled). After that, Wagner is reported to have assisted Russian military operations in Syria, Venezuela and various parts of Africa. Since we don’t know much about the origins of Wagner from the literature, we need to draw on the sanctions imposed by the European Union, in which Wagner’s founder is identified with Dmitry Utkin, “a former Russian soldier adorned with Nazi tattoos” (The Economist”). The economist reports he allegedly named Wagner after Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer.
However, as with every project, the Wagner group needed funds and that is where Prigozhin becomes relevant. Prigozhin started his career in the food sector, holding many restaurants and organising diplomatic meals for President Putin and the head of states that visited Russia over time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he took advantage of the wave of privatisations that Russia was undertaking to save its real economy and got involved in various businesses in the 90s that granted him a place of power in the Russian economic system. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that the role of Prigozhin in the Wagner Group was very lucrative at the very start, as he managed to take possession of oil fields in Syria and diamond reserves in Africa through Wagner and the involvement of his businesses (The Economist). Various violations of human rights have been reported by the Wagner Group as well, such as violence towards civilians and harassment towards peacekeepers and aid workers (Office of the high commissioner for Human Rights in the United Nations)
Wagner and the Russian military
Before putting into context the role of Wagner in Ukraine, and subsequently the causes of the rebellion, it is worth reflecting on the nature of the Russian state very briefly. In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a few portions of the population took advantage of the political situation and became extremely rich and powerful, including Prigozhin. These groups of people, usually referred to as the Russian oligarchs, therefore control certain sectors of the Russian economy and, as already stated, Prigozhin controls a very big part of the food industry in Russia. Most of these oligarchs want to maintain their wealth for as long as possible and they conveyed that the best way to do so is to support Putin’s regime, providing security in exchange for power. It is vital to understand that the power of Putin’s regime therefore comes from the legitimisation of the oligarchs, and that is why Wagner’s rebellion has been quite noisy in the news, as in the past oligarchs or influential people opposing Putin’s regime have not managed to undertake any concrete action and were often found dead in mysterious circumstances. However, this time Prigozhin, having behind this big network of private militaries and mercenaries who are not the direct dependencies of the Kremlin, and taking advantage of the involvement of the Russian regular army in Ukraine, managed to take control of Rostov-on-Don quite easily and start to move towards Moscow. This historic event in the Russian Federation is already relevant per se, but understanding where this comes from will help us to assess its importance for Russia, Ukraine, NATO and the West as a whole.
Wagner is deeply involved in the war in Ukraine, as it has fought in Bakhmut, determining the outcome of the battle (The Economist). Meduza, a Russian news agency based abroad and opposed to Putin’s government, reports that Wagner has been the most terrifying Russian military division for Ukrainians, as its determination, power and cruelty have been of great problems for the Ukrainian army (Meduza). Therefore, his high involvement in the battlefield in one of the most embarrassing wars for Russia in terms of military losses and outcomes made Prigozhin aware of battlefield issues amongst soldiers that weren’t necessarily clear to the Kremlin, such as the need for ammunition for the Russian military, especially in light of the heroic Ukrainian counter-offensive. Therefore, Prigozhin, which is protected by his private army, started to make some noise in the previous weeks to get what he wanted from the Russian minister of defence. A few days ago, though, what he received was a minefield on his way back to Wagner military camp in Ukraine and allegedly Russian planes striking over Wagner.
Another point to raise is that the Russian army receives orders directly from the minister of defence in Russia, Sergei Shoigu, which at that moment was in Rostov-on-Don; therefore, Prigozhin’s anger was likely directed at Shoigu as well and therefore the main reason why he headed to Rostov was to have his head with his own private military company. In addition to that, Wagner has been ordered to stop being a private military company and to be fully integrated into the Russian army, under the control of Shoigu himself.
Looking at Prigozhin’s words themselves, it is clear that he was aiming to cut off Shoigu’s power more than anything else as that constitutes a fundamental threat to his control of this PMC and his wealth; however, he never mentioned Putin in his speeches. At this point, while the world was looking at the news to understand what was happening in Moscow, Prigozhin suddenly stopped his move and headed to Belarus after the mediation of the president of Belarus Lukashenko, who somehow managed to convince Wagner to stop there. Although the reasons for this withdrawal are not yet clear, there are some things that this event helped us to understand.
Lessons to understand any future event.
The first and most obvious lesson we might derive from this event is that Putin’s regime is weak, as a PMC managed to march within 200km from Moscow practically without any resistance, a dissident oligarch managed to threaten the status quo, and most importantly, he managed to tell Russian people the reality about the war. It is important to understand that, in Russia, information is controlled by the government, and the narratives about the causes of the war are not quite the real ones.
To justify the war in Ukraine, Putin claimed that NATO and Ukraine were planning an invasion of Russia and therefore by attacking first, the Russian Federation would have made sure that this could have never happened. He also stated that he wanted to de-nazify Ukraine as Russia once managed (during the Soviet Union era), with the biggest “patriotic war”, as it is now called in Russia. However, Prigozhin, the day before the rebellion, released a short video in which he stated that these reasons were lies that high-ranked Russian officials and people in power were telling the world, providing detailed evidence for that. He said that Russia doesn’t believe in the mission of de-Nazifying Ukraine, as Russia released a big number of members of the Azov group (a part of the Ukrainian army that is usually associated with right-wing ideas) in exchange for Medvedchuck, a former Ukrainian pro-Russia MP who was supposed to become the new president of Ukraine if the murder of Zelensky took place. In that video, which was released on the 24th of June 2023, what we can notice is a powerful and influential man, who is somewhat expert on battlefields as well, accusing high-ranked generals and politicians to be “bastards that sent Russians to die because they wanted glory”. Using this rhetoric in Russia is quite unusual and dangerous, and the fact the entire Wagner went away without consequences and that fighting did not take place are all signs of weakness by the Russian state. This means that negotiations had to happen with the mediation of Belarus because Russian elites knew that they were not powerful enough to fight Wagner and the casualties would have been way too high, especially considering the war in Ukraine. The Russian government wouldn’t have had any problem undertaking a bloodshed in the street of Moscow if they thought it was worth it (if we think about the number of casualties amongst the Russian oligarchs that opposed the war in Ukraine we can presume that the Kremlin is not worried about sending killers to murder those who are aligned), therefore the fact that this did not happen and that all charges against Prigozhin were dropped, means that the Russian government is well aware of its weakness.
For Ukraine, this is good news, as it means that with the counter-offensive, which started a few days before the rebellion, and Russian weakness and confusion, they will be able to push back them even more and foster those kinds of rebellions inside Russia even more. As President Zelensky stated, victory for Ukraine means conquering back the entire land that was occupied, but to do so, the strategy is to push back the Russian military and politically, creating discontent. Therefore, the Wagner rebellion might be the first sign that the implemented strategy will be successful in the long term.