Wagner's revolt, the reversal, and what it means for Russia's war on Ukraine
Labelled 'mutiny' by Putin, Wagner chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin's rebellion against Russian army captured Rostov-on-Don, raised fear in Kremlin in a single day, before his retreat
With the tables turned twice in a single day, who showed whom up in Russia is the question many are pondering the day after the Wagner 'mutiny'.
The Wagner Group, a 'shadow' mercenary group and Russian president Vladimir Putin's close ally in Russia's aggression against Ukraine, decided to revolt against the Russian government and army on Saturday, June 24.
Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, chief of the "notoriously private" army, announced the armed rebellion on Friday, June 23, claiming that Putin's attacked the group. "A missile attack was launched on the camps of Wagner Group. Many victims. According to eye-witnesses, the attack was launched from the rear, meaning the Russian defence ministry launched it," he said in a video released on Telegram. "This bastard will be stopped," he added, referring to Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
Early on Saturday, true to Prigozhin's word, Wagner captured key military facilities in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advanced 200 km into the capital city of Moscow.
Revolt that lasted less than 24 hours
However, in what turned out to be a short-lived rebellion lasting less than 24 hours, Prigozhin on Saturday night then retreated and withdrew his forces from Rostov-on-Don. (Though not before unsettling Kremlin with his advance in its direction.)
Catalysed by a deal with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin agreed to call off the revolt once Putin confirmed he and his mercenary soldiers would not be prosecuted. Prigozhin accepted the deal of 'voluntary' exile in Belarus, apparently to "avoid bloodshed".
"A Wagner column left Rostov and [is] headed to their field camps," Russian regional governor Vasily Golubev confirmed (again on Telegram) early on the morning of Sunday, 25 June.
Wagner's fighters were seen celebrating and rejoicing while camped at Rostov-on-Don. Images showed Prigozhin smiling and reaching out to grab supporters' hands as he was being driven out of the city.
Meanwhile, Putin stated that "decisive action" would be taken against former ally Prigozhin for his attempted "mutiny", calling it a "a stab in the back of Russia and its people". Doubtless, if nothing else, Wagner managed to show up Russia's vulnerable underbelly in the midst of a war that has it repeatedly sanctioned by the UN and the EU.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) opened a criminal investigation following Prigozhin's call for insurrection. "Prigozhin’s statements and actions are in fact a call to start an armed civil conflict on the territory of the Russian Federation and a stab in the back for Russian servicemen fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces," the FSB said.
How did conflict arise between close allies Putin and Prigozhin?
Simmering tensions had been building up between Putin and Prigozhin since the beginning of the Russia–Ukraine war in February 2022 — the Wagner chief has ever since accused Russian generals of overexposing his fighters, of failing to provide them with enough ammunition to defend Kremlin's offensive and of neglecting the soldiers' struggles.
"We were ready to make concessions to the defence ministry, to surrender our weapons, to find a solution on how we would continue to defend the country. But these scumbags did not calm down. We're going to figure out why there's chaos in the country... Everyone who is willing join us," Prigozhin declared on 23 June.
Emerging during Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, largely regarded as Kremlin's first full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the PMC Wagner Group was progressively strengthened in size and ammunition, and currently has 50,000 fighters.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) documentary Shadow Men: Inside Wagner, Russia’s Secret War Company reveals how the mercenary group has historically aided and abetted Kremlin's laundering of "riches and resources", pledging direct allegiance to Putin, and "becoming the face of the Russian assault in Ukraine".
WSJ also reported that the Kremlin has used Wagner to exert its influence in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique.
"Russia's weakness is obvious"
Putin's grip on the Ukraine invasion — what he described as a "walk in the park" a year ago — has been progressively dwindling as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to accumulate global support in the form of ammunition and sanctions. The Wagner 'mutiny', however short-lived, has managed to burn a bigger hole in Kremlin's offensive.
"Russia’s weakness is obvious," declared Zelenskyy. Taking to Twitter, he wrote: "Full-scale weakness. And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later. It is also obvious Ukraine is able to protect Europe from the spread of Russian evil and chaos."
"Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself. Who sends columns of troops to destroy the lives of another country and cannot stop them from fleeing and betraying when life resists. Who terrorises with missiles, and when they are shot down, humiliates himself to receive Shahed drones," the Ukrainian leader added.
"Those who said Russia was too strong to lose: look now. Time to abandon false neutrality and fear of escalation; give Ukraine all the needed weapons; forget about friendship or business with Russia. Time to put an end to the evil everyone despised but was too afraid to tear down," tweeted Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Wagner's revolt to 'tarnish' Putin's image
Ukraine's military said that it could "greatly benefit" from the situation in Russia. 'One such move could be an order to invade western Russia to bypass massive defence installations on the 1,000-kilometre-long front line in eastern and southern Ukraine, according to Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko,' reported Al Jazeera.
"Such a plan looked like a fairytale just a day ago, but the panic and disarray in Russia as troops of the Wagner private military contractor march on Moscow may provide Kyiv with a perfect opportunity to deliver the least expected blow," the top military official said.
Experts and analysts concur that Prigozhin's emergence as a powerful rebel tarnishes Putin's image both domestically and globally.
"The current unravelling of the seeming Russian political stability reflects the internal pressures and the fault lines of a country that waged an unjust and disastrous war with its neighbour," Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
"[Putin] has never appeared weaker. He’s searching around for success [and] probably getting ever more paranoid about people within his inner circle. At the end of the day, it’s not possible for Russia to marginalise Wagner. It is a key component of how Russia operates in the world and this rift has exposed some real divisions in Russia's command and control," Colin Clarke, an expert on Russia and security told Al Jazeera.
Putin is rumoured to have left Moscow for an unknown location some time on Saturday. He hasn’t yet publicly commented on the Lukashenko-brokered deal that resulted in Wagner's withdrawal — observers and analysts deem it as "immensely humiliating" for the Russian president to have an 'outsider' play such a direct role in halting Wagner’s advance.
The Kremlin has been left, despite the 'retreat' and the 'exile', in a deeply uncomfortable situation. The Lukashenko deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and the Russian defence ministry, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Washington DC, said in a report.
With no clear victory in sight for Russia in Ukraine too, already burdened by multiple sanctions and growing political instability at home, Wagner's revolt further undermines Putin's position at home, in the war, in the EU and possibly (to an extent) globally.