The weekend mutiny launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group will have numerous wide-ranging consequences that analysts are still trying to sort out. However, more attention should be drawn to the fact that one of main reasons for this insurrection’s rapid failure was the complete disregard of regional issues by Wagner’s leaders.
In his rather panicky televised address on the morning of June 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin actually admitted that the Wagner Group had captured the city of Rostov-on-Don, where the Southern Military District’s headquarters are located. There, according to Putin, “the work of civilian and military authorities was blocked” (Kremlin.ru, June 24). Moreover, the locals largely welcomed the rebels rather than trying somehow to resist the mutineers—offering them food and drink as well as taking pictures with them (Ngs.ru, June 25).
Rostov oblast is a fairly large Russian region with a population of over 4 million people. Like many other regions and republics within the Russian Federation, it has its own regionalist sentiments and dissatisfaction with Moscow’s hyper-centralist policies, which take most of the revenue from local taxes. The region even has its own mythology, which is reflected in the films of the famous Russian director and native of Rostov, Kirill Serebrennikov (Kinopoisk.ru, accessed June 28).
However, Wagner was not interested in any regional specifics. It did not have a succinct plan in mind to gain a foothold in Rostov and establish contacts with the local population. In the case of such a regional consolidation, the Wagnerites would have likely managed to keep a hold on the region, even in the face of the Russian army, which clearly emphasizes the Russian military’s weaknesses in Ukraine. Had such an approach been taken, the events of this war could have taken a completely different turn.
Yet, Wagner units instead preferred to march on heavily defended and fortified Moscow and, upon realization of this task’s futility, opted to end their campaign and stand down (RBC, June 27). Thus, Moscow-centrism, traditional for the Russian imperial consciousness, which believes that all the main issues of the country can be resolved only in Moscow and not in its many regions, has worked for now.
The same problem is present with other paramilitary units, which stand in stark contrast to Wagner as they are fighting on the side of Ukraine. These are the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and Freedom of Russia Legion (RDK), which in May 2023 launched several raids into Russia’s Belgorod region on the border with Ukraine. However, similar to Wagner, these units have also made almost no contact with the local population, let alone try to clearly express their interests. Thus, as of yet, these short-term raids on individual villages, from where almost all civilians have been evacuated, essentially have not led to any real results (Svoboda, June 5).
The RVC and RDK essentially share the same Russian nationalist and centralist beliefs as Putin’s Kremlin; at the moment, the two sides are really only competing on the battlefield. For now, the Kremlin is winning because it has far more resources at its disposal than these opposition volunteers do. Regionalism could become an alternative to this approach; however, militarily, the anti-Kremlin units do not declare such ideas (Region.expert, June 4).
This situation brings to mind the Russian Civil War of 1918–1922. In this conflict, the primary reason for the defeat of the White Army, which opposed the Bolsheviks, was that its commanders also ignored factors of regionalism and supported the imperial slogan of “one indivisible Russia.” On the contrary, the Bolsheviks adopted a federalist approach, which attracted the sympathy of various regional movements.
For example, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who fought in Siberia, did not advocate for a new Siberian Republic, rather he proclaimed himself “the supreme ruler of Russia” and fought not only with the Bolsheviks but also with nationalist regional movements, such as the Bashkir. Generals Anton Denikin and Pyotr Wrangel, who fought in the south of Russia and Crimea, also did not form new republics in these areas, nor did they try to achieve their international recognition. Denikin and Wrangel believed that the main focus should be on “a campaign against Moscow” only, though they did not have enough resources for such an undertaking.
The successful White Army leaders of that era were only those who defended the independence of their countries—namely, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (Finland), Jozef Pilsudski (Poland) and Johan Laidoner (Estonia). However, their characterization as “Whites” can only be done so conditionally, as they and their countries eventually left the context of the Russian Civil War.
Before the situation with Prigozhin and Wagner, only one attempted military coup was known in the history of post-Soviet Russia, though it was not fully proven. It is believed that in 1998, General Lev Rokhlin plotted to overthrow President Boris Yeltsin, but was himself suddenly assassinated (Rusrep.ru, July 19, 2011). Nevertheless, this, too, was a centralist project—that is, an attempt to replace the “bad” Kremlin Tsar with a “good” one. Therefore, Rokhlin failed to arouse any support among the inhabitants of Russia’s many regions.
In truth, possibly the only true regionalist general in the post-Soviet Russian army was Alexander Lebed, who also mysteriously died in 2002. In 1996, he signed the Khasavyurt Accords with Chechen General Aslan Maskhadov; the agreement ended the First Chechen War and effectively recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Later, in 1998, Lebed was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk krai—at the time, free gubernatorial elections still took place in Russia. In this position, the Russian general actively criticized the Kremlin’s centralist policy, asserting that such a process economically robs the regions.
On the whole, one can sum up these experiences with the following: So long as anti-Kremlin projects, whether military or civilian, themselves remain centralist and ignore regional issues, they are unlikely to succeed. Residents of the various Russian regions simply will not see the point in changing the Kremlin’s power structure if the opposition still intends to maintain their status as de-facto colonies—and not transform them into equal, self-governing political entities.