The Anatomy of Prigozhin’s Mutiny and the Future of Russia’s Mercenary Industry (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 118

(Source: Rudaw)

*Read Part One.

On June 23 and 24, the notorious Wagner Group and its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin conducted an unsuccessful revolt against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and its ultimatum that Wagner, and other entities like it, had to sign a contract (by July 1) to forfeit its autonomous status (see Part One). Assuming that the mutiny came as a result of intensifying competition between the so-called “Kremlin towers”—forces close to President Vladimir Putin struggling for power in a new environment shaped by the unsuccessful war against Ukraine and growing economic difficulties (Moskovskij komsomolets, July 4)—it is therefore pertinent to explore which actors could have stood behind Prigozhin’s actions. Overall, three scenarios underline the possible forces supporting Wagner’s moves.

First, Prigozhin’s mutiny was the result of the mounting fragmentation of the Russian elite and preparations for a post-Putin Russia. According to Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network and a Ukrainian military expert, the “show” (Prigozhin`s mutiny) was planned and orchestrated by “people from Putin’s circle” to demonstrate his weakness. “These people [i.e., Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko] do not want to end up with Putin”; thus, they “may already have started communicating with the West, simultaneously considering way(s) of taking power” (RBK, June 26).

A somewhat similar idea—that the mutiny was masterminded by Kiriyenko and the Kovalchuk brothers (Yury and Mikhail) —was supported by Russian “military-patriotic” blogger and former “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk “people’s republic,” Igor Girkin (Strelkov) (, June 29). Girkin, who took an aggressive and public anti-Kremlin stance after Russia’s losses during the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year, has been quite vocal against the oligarchs and Prigozhin. He openly accused Prigozhin of “not being a Russian person,” pointing to his Jewish ancestry (, accessed July 17) and berated the oligarchs for selling out Russia—two groups that have been widely blamed in Russia for the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, most recently, Girkin was arrested and charged with “extremism” based on his open criticism of the Kremlin’s response to the mutiny and ongoing struggles in Ukraine (Meduza, July 21).

Second, Prigozhin’s march was instead a result of a struggle for influence between the Russian MoD (Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov) and other forces within the siloviki bloc. This theory was promulgated by Russian-American historian Yuri Felshtinsky (author of the much-debated book, Blowing Up Russia), who stated that Prigozhin’s mutiny was “a doing of the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service], and Nikolai Patrushev—as the second-in-charge in Russia and the former head of the FSB—and Alexander Bortnikov [current head of the FSB] as well as their colleagues from the FSB” (Unian, July 15). According to Felshtinsky, Prigozhin, who is known to have served time in a Soviet prison at least on two occasions and might have consorted with the KGB (the FSB’s predecessor), could have been used as a tool by Patrushev and the FSB leadership to prove Putin’s weakness.

The historian also argued that “Putin’s decision to transfer the Wagnerites from Prigozhin’s control—the FSB, in other words—under Shoigu’s jurisdiction [Putin’s personal control] was an attempt to pre-empt the mutiny. … In other words, Putin’s ultimatum to sign a contract with the MoD by July 1 meant two things. … First, that Prigozhin, aka the FSB, would have lost control over the Wagner Group, and second, and most important, that the FSB would have lost the budget [financial means] earmarked for the Wagnerites” (Unian, July 15). Similarly, Andriy Yusov, a representative of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, pointed out that, during the initial (most acute) phase of Prigozhin’s mutiny, key members of the siloviki—Patrushev, Bortnikov and Sergei Naryshkin, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service—chose to stay silent (, June 29).

The third scenario involves seeing Prigozhin’s mutiny as an indication of internal developments in the MoD and its struggle for greater influence. Seemingly controversial, this theory has many notable proponents. Ukrainian military expert Alexander Musienko stated that, in his opinion, the MoD might have stood behind the mutiny, as Shoigu seems to be one of the main beneficiaries of the unsuccessful revolt. In truth, the Russian defense minister is now authorized to form a “reserve army” that will be personally loyal to him and has demonstrated that he can deal with a coup. Putin, on the other hand, as the man in charge, has instead demonstrated his weakness (, June 28).

A similar idea was expressed by Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, who dismissed Prigozhin’s exclusive role—as he de-facto has no knowledge of Russian military affairs—in preparing the mutiny. Podolyak argued, “Those people who were preparing the mutiny were seeking to dislodge Putin. However, at a certain stage, Patrushev started to take matters into his own hands; yet, for Russian elites he is not a consensus figure,” that is why the mutiny did not continue (, June 29). Podolyak also speculated that the mutiny was most likely planned by the Russian General Staff, which “was seeking to compensate for their losses when Putin made a bet on the FSB and the FSO [Federal Protective Service]” (Meduza, July 8).

Well-known military expert Yury Fedorov also argued that the mutiny could have resulted, at least in part, from a conflict within the MoD—pointing to Prigozhin’s strengthening ties with General Sergey Surovikin (who was made a scapegoat for the losses in Kherson) and the former deputy minister of defense for logistics, General Mikhail Mizintsev, who after being dismissed, became deputy commander of the Wagner Group. Those generals and other members of military-political circles might have induced Prigozhin to act decisively; yet, when the lack of support from other military formations became apparent, these figures sought to distance themselves from the mutiny (Current Time TV, June 28). Notably, investigative journalists from also pointed out the potential involvement of parts of the MoD, even coming up with a list of military units and formations that were allegedly ready to join the mutiny on Prigozhin’s side (, June 25).

While Prigozhin—especially following Wagner’s relative successes in Ukraine and the dismal performance of the regular army—may indeed have acquired certain confidence and ambitions, most likely, his mutiny was part of a bigger game between powerful actors within the Russian state who may have already started thinking about a post-Putin Russia and are thus searching for any way of escaping responsibility for Moscow’s crimes in Ukraine.

*Read Part Three.