On June 23 and 24, the notorious Wagner Group—Russia`s most well-known quasi–private military company (a mercenary army)—headed by its chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, carried out the so-called “march for justice.” Its declared goal was to teach a lesson to Russia’s corrupt and deceitful military leadership, whose blunders in managing the war against Ukraine has resulted in huge losses (Meduza, June 23). The mutiny, which ended as rapidly and mysteriously as it started, has, however, given analysts much food for thought, exposing multiple fissures in the Kremlin’s military-political architecture.
The seeds of the conflict between Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)—which became the declared root cause of the mutiny—were sown during the Syrian and the Libyan civil wars. The first serious conflict between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu occurred in 2018, when tens (if not hundreds) of Wagner fighters in Syria were decimated by an allied strike (the so-called “Deir ez-Zor Massacre”)—reportedly an outcome of disagreements between the MoD and Wagner leadership (see War by Other Means, December 18, 2019). The conflict continued in 2019, when a number of Wagnerites were hit by a strike in Libya losing dozens of battle-hardened fighters (Meduza, October 6, 2019). Later, however, the conflict was said to have been mitigated between the two sides.
Yet, this was only a mirage: The next major regional conflict involving both actors exposed deep animosity between the two—most likely fueled by financial considerations and personal grudges (Meduza, July 12, 2022). When Russia`s poorly executed invasion in Ukraine began to drain its elite forces, the Russian authorities turned to Prigozhin as an unscrupulous but effective manager, whose Wagner forces had achieved palpable results in several regional conflicts since 2014. In addition to generous financial compensation—Russian President Vladimir Putin recently confirmed Moscow’s allocation of $1 billion in annual support to Wagner and another $1 billion to Prigozhin’s business contacts (Kommersant, June 27)—Prigozhin received the exclusive right to recruit convicts (see EDM, August 18, 2022).
A combination of so-called “human wave” attacks and a larger-than-average supply of arms and munitions resulted in Wagner successes in the battles for Popasna, Lysychansk, Soledar and Bakhmut, which marked the zenith of its accomplishments in Ukraine. Huge losses of personnel (T.me/superdolgov, May 23), the “normalization” of ammunition supplies (Wagner started receiving a comparable amount of ammo to other MoD-subordinated formations) and the inability to recruit convicts (Politeka.net, May 29), which impeded Wagner from rapidly replacing fallen fighters, further strained the conflict between Prigozhin and the MoD. As such, Prigozhin, and his fighters, began to openly threaten and humiliate various Russian defense officials. Additionally, the Wagner chief presented an ultimatum that he would withdraw his forces from the frontlines if ammunition supplies were not dramatically increased and General Sergey Surovikin was not appointed as the liaison between Wagner and the MoD (T.me/Prigozhin_hat, May 7).
Meanwhile, the Chechen leadership joined the MoD-Wagner conflict on the side of the Defense Ministry (T.me/ilyashepelin, May 6). As a result, the Chechen side received an unexpected response from a semi-legendary Wagner commander (who had not spoken publicly before), Dmitry Utkin, who covertly threatened the Chechens stating that “we have known each other since the First and Second Chechen wars” (Tsn.ua, June 2); Utkin took part in the Chechen conflicts on the side of the Russian federal troops. Later, a Wagner social media account posted an image of destroyed Grozny with the unambiguous inscription, “We can repeat.”
Interestingly, Prigozhin not only accused the MoD-subordinated volunteer formations for deserting their strategic positions in Bakhmut (Meduza, May 9), he also ridiculed the Gazprom-created PMC “Torch” for surrendering its positions following its first encounter with Ukrainian forces (BBC News Russian, May 10).
However, Prigozhin’s claims and threats were seemingly not heard by his main target audience, namely Putin. Moreover, the Russian president explicitly took the MoD’s side in supporting Shoigu`s demand for all “voluntary” formations (primarily Wagner) to sign a contract confirming their subordination to the MoD by July 1 (Meduza, June 11). The Chechen Akhmad Kadyrov regiment was the first military formation to sign such an agreement (Gazeta.ru, June 12).
The public conflict, which had been gaining momentum since at least December 2022 (Istories.media, February 22), entered its most acute stage when the MoD`s ultimatum to sign a contract to de jure do away with Wagner’s uncontrollable status in the hierarchy of the Russian Armed Forces was officially declared. Understanding that compliance would likely result in the end of Wagner (as an autonomous mercenary formation) and, potentially, Prigozhin himself, on June 23, the Wagner leader posted an interview comprised of several sharp (and by the Russian Criminal Code legally punishable) statements, including (YouTube, June 23):
- The war in Ukraine happened because the Russian MoD had intentionally deceived the Russian people and Putin about Ukraine’s upcoming Western-supported offensive.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was ready for negotiations, but the Russian leadership ignored this being confident in the success of its armed forces.
- Since 2014, the Donbas region has been plagued by officials from the Presidential Administration, with Russian authorities there acting not as saviors (as portrayed by Russian propaganda) but as occupiers.
- The real losses of the Russian army are catastrophic and far higher than the officially published numbers.
On the evening of June 23, a video (rumored to be fake and denied by the MoD) of Russian Armed Forces targeting Wagner’s military base was published. Prigozhin, accusing the MoD of supporting this action, declared his intent to punish Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, whom he had previously accused of enabling the “genocide of the Russian people” (BBC News Russian, June 23). Henceforth, events began to unravel quickly: a large number—Prigozhin claimed 25,000—of Wagner fighters crossed the Russian border and managed to de facto seize Rostov-on-Don (approximate population of 1.1 million) with little resistance. Simultaneously, several columns of Wagner fighters moved toward Voronezh, Lipetsk and Moscow oblast (Meduza, June 24). While the local authorities and siloviki stayed practically aloof, Wagner forces destroyed several aircraft, causing the deaths of between 10 and 20 pilots (Ukrainska Pravda, June 24). Particularly mysterious was the reaction of Russia’s top-level officials: While Putin publicly appeared on June 24 issuing a rather weak statement (Sib.fm, June 24), Shoigu did not make his first public comment until July 3 (Rosbalt.ru, July 3).
The Wagner mutiny ended as rapidly and unexpectedly as it started: On the evening of June 24, Prigozhin—after negotiations with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka—declared an end to the “march for justice.” Later, Putin`s press secretary Dmitry Peskov (Interfax.ru, June 24) and then the Russian Federal Security Service (BBC News Russian, June 27) stated that the criminal case against Prigozhin had been dropped. On June 26, Putin in another public statement offered three options for Wagner and its leadership: go to Belarus, sign a contract with the MoD and remain in the warzone, or “return back home” (Izvestiya, June 27).
Leaving Rostov, Prigozhin—who looked neither discouraged nor terrified—made two interesting statements. First, he declared that the “result [of the mutiny] was normal. We have shaken everyone up” (Info24.ru, June 26). Second, in once again mocking the Russian MoD, he said that, in Rostov, “we have demonstrated a master class. That is how February 24 should have looked” (News.rambler.ru, June 26). And with reports coming out that Prigozhin and some of his men met with Putin in Moscow on June 29, there is a good chance that this story is far from over (The Moscow Times, July 10).