Calm seemed to have returned to Russia on Sunday as Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin withdrew his troops from areas around the country, notably from a military base his troops seized in Rostov-on-Don, a port city housing a Russian military outpost that oversees operations in Ukraine.
Thanks to a truce that Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko helped negotiate, Prigozhin agreed to withdraw his fighters and leave for Belarus instead of marching on Moscow in a potential confrontation with the Russian military.
In exchange, the Kremlin will decline to pursue charges against Prigozhin while also guaranteeing immunity from prosecution for the Wagner mercenaries who participated in the armed uprising.
Although Moscow managed to avoid a full-blown crisis despite a rapid turn of events over the weekend, some analysts say Prigozhin’s failed rebellion has nevertheless revealed cracks in the foundations of President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the events on Saturday remains Prigozhin’s dramatic U-turn as his troops approached the capital for a showdown between the Wagner group and the Russian military establishment.
Seemingly determined to oust Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his right-hand man – armed forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov – Prigozhin had openly challenged Moscow’s military leadership and was on his way to Moscow before making the stunning announcement of retreat.
“The whole thing is a result of his [Prigozhin’s] isolation and relative weakness,” said Danilo delle Fave, military strategy expert at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona, adding that “there has never been, in recent times, such a military crisis in a major country”.
Engaged in a bitter months-long feud with Moscow’s army brass as his Wagner mercenaries spearheaded battles in eastern Ukraine despite a lack of ammunition, Prigozhin found himself increasingly isolated on Russia’s political landscape as the war dragged on.
Gerasimov was put in charge of the whole Ukraine operation, and Ramzan Kadyrov – the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader who has deployed forces to fight with Russia in Ukraine – has sided with the defence ministry, delle Fave noted.
Moreover, the Russian defence ministry published a decree in early June requiring all private mercenary groups to join the regular army from July 1, sounding the death knell for Wagner’s independence.
Not a coup, but a negotiating tactic
Without troops under his direct command, Prigozhin may have calculated that he would no longer be protected and could instead be prosecuted and imprisoned should the Kremlin decided to do so, said Jeff Hawn, a Russia specialist and non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical think tank. “Prigozhin was in a losing situation and feared that he would have been without protection against prosecution if his mercenaries were to be sent back to the army.”
“The new rule is a substantial threat to Prigozhin’s political influence and could even be a threat to his physical safety,” said Hawn.
As his troops marched to Moscow, Prigozhin took pains to describe the uprising as a “march for justice”. This was not a coup attempt but rather a negotiating tactic, said Will Kingston-Cox, Russia specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona.
“The important thing to understand is that the Wagner group didn’t attempt to take over political power,” he said. “It was to force Putin to negotiate the fate of Gerasimov and Shoigu.”
Hawn agreed, saying Prigozhin was hoping to convince Putin to take his side against the top brass at the ministry of defence. “In his mind, he didn’t have a choice,” Hawn said. “It is likely that he thought that if he made a strong enough statement, Putin would side with him against the ‘corrupt’ military.” The Wagner boss also hoped to be able to count on the support of certain factions that are hostile to Gerasimov to put additional pressure on the Russian president.
According to delle Fave, Prigozhin must have had some level of support from the intelligence and military communities, who would have noticed his movements in the days leading up to the rebellion as he moved men and materiel into Rostov-on-Don.
The rebellion could only have happened with “tacit support inside the intelligence community and/or army”, he said, adding: “Prigozhin must have been collecting weapons for some time in order to prepare … the intelligence community must have known of the movements of weapon and troops, and still they didn’t do a thing to stop it.”
But Prigozhin may have overestimated his chances of success. By Saturday morning Putin had clearly chosen to support Defence Minister Shoigu by calling the actions of Wagner mercenaries “treason” in a national televised address.
What happened behind the scenes of the negotiations that followed remains largely unknown, but Hawn suggested Prigozhin may have contacted Lukashenko to help him find a way out. “Prigozhin and Lukashenko have a close relationship, and I would guess it’s possible that he called all of the allies he had left to ask them to intercede in his favour,” he said.
Delle Fave added that all we know about the deal is what the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced: safety guarantees for Prigozhin if he goes into exile in Belarus and for Wagner soldiers if they return to regular army deployment.
“We don’t know what the details of the deal are,” he noted, adding: “I don’t know if, as Prigozhin, I would trust Peskov’s words.”
A raw deal for Wagner mercenaries?
While Putin seems to have avoided the worst for now, “this crisis is far from over”, Hawn said. “It’s not the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning.”
No one knows, for example, how Wagner mercenaries will react to the deal. “There might be an internal uprising against Prigozhin because some will feel that they have been played here,” he said.
Hawn predicted that any Wagner mercenaries who do end up joining the regular army won’t be treated well. “They are often former military, so if they go back they will be seen as traitors and be used as cannon fodder for the more dangerous missions,” he said.
Essentially, Prigozhin “sold out his mercenaries to retain some influence in the Russian power play and be somewhat safe” himself, Hawn said.
Meanwhile, Shoigu and Gerasimov remain in place – at least for now.
“It is rather surprising that [Prigozhin] stopped his march and there is nothing [reportedly in the deal] about Shoigu or Gerasimov resigning or anything,” said Kingston-Cox.
For delle Fave, the impact of the crisis on Putin’s regime will largely be judged by the fate of these two men. There may still be a “future shakeup” in the offing at the ministry of defence, he observed.
“If they are ousted, it will mean Putin went with what the [anti-Shoigu] faction wanted, meaning he can be pressured. If nothing happens, it will only make the anti-Shoigu faction more resolute,” which he said could risk weakening the government.
Prigozhin may well have failed in his power grab, but he has succeeded in opening a Pandora’s box of infighting.
“It shows a certain weakness in Putin’s case, because it was quite easy to start a mutiny in Russia,” Kingston-Cox said.
This article is adapted from the original in French.
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