Before Vladimir Putin launched his illegal war on Ukraine, the Russian-funded paramilitary Wagner Group was an infamous, shadowy tool of Moscow’s foreign policy, advancing its objectives in the Middle East and Africa. After Putin’s February 2022 invasion, the private miliary company — led by Putin’s former chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin — became a critical cog of the Russian military’s war effort. But as cracks emerged across Russian society and within the elite over the war, Prigozhin has been one of the most outspoken critics, alienating his adversaries in Russia’s defense ministry. Eventually, Putin sided with Priogzhin’s opponents ordering Wagner to be officially subsumed within Ministry of Defense.
With Prigozhin feeling cornered and weakened, last weekend he launched a desperate offensive inside Russia, with his Wagner forces seizing a southwestern military base and marching toward Moscow. USIP’s Heather Ashby and Mary Glantz explain what led to Prigozhin’s dramatic maneuvers, what it means for Putin’s rule and his war on Ukraine, and where the Wagner Group goes from here.
What led to Prigozhin’s decision to capture a military base in southwest Russia and march on Moscow?
Glantz: The immediate cause of Prigozhin’s actions was the Kremlin’s decision to place Wagner under the control of the Ministry of Defense (MOD), essentially marking the defeat of Prigozhin in his months-long, very public battle with the MOD leadership (in particular, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valerii Gerasimov). On June 10, Russia’s deputy minister of defense announced that Wagner Group members would be required to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense — thus threatening to eliminate the main source of Prigozhin’s power.
This signaled that Prigozhin was losing influence in Kremlin circles and could be pushed out even further. In other words, he really had little to lose because he was already at risk of losing everything. Claiming the Russian military had shelled his troops in Ukraine, Prigozhin began a “March of Justice” on June 23 to take control of the Russian Southern Military District Headquarters in Rostov and, presumably, the Kremlin in Moscow.
What are the implications for the Russian state and Putin’s rule?
Ashby: Prigozhin’s accusations about the Russian government’s false pretenses for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Wagner’s capture of Rostov-on-Don and their advance north to 125 miles outside of Moscow are blows to Putin domestically and internationally. Putin and the Russian government have tried to rally the country for the war in Ukraine, but Prigozhin’s Telegram statements about the invasion and Wagner’s action further emphasize the strategic failure of the war for Russia and its detrimental impact on the state.
Internationally, the mutiny undermines the image of Putin as a strong leader with a firm grip on power. Though the Kremlin attempted to negotiate with Prigozhin on the evening of June 23rd, Wagner forces and Prigozhin still went ahead with their seizure of the Southern Military District Headquarters and advanced toward Moscow. The situation did not de-escalate until an agreement was reached between the Russian government and Prigozhin following the unlikely intervention of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
As Moscow prepares to host African attendees for its Russia-Africa Summit next month, the Russian government looks far from a stable state with a powerful military that could serve as a reliable partner for African countries to meet their needs. Russia is looking to strengthen and build relationships with China, India and countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America in the face of Western efforts to condemn and sanction Moscow for its war on Ukraine. The Wagner mutiny undermines this effort.
Glantz: On the one hand, Putin’s regime responded to Prigozhin’s mutiny as it was supposed to. Putin has long divided militarized and police forces among his elites, setting them up in competition with each other as a sort of balance of forces that would, he hoped, ensure that no single group or oligarch could topple him. It is notable that none of the elites joined Prigozhin. Instead, the Federal Protective Service (FSO), National Guard and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops took defensive positions outside key buildings in Moscow, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov mobilized his forces to march toward Moscow and Rostov to oppose Wagner.
On the other hand, Prigozhin’s mutiny revealed a significant crack in the unity of the elites around Putin and raises the likelihood of the emergence of even more fissures. By using his forces against Putin’s regime, Prigozhin has shown the other elites what is possible. In addition, and perhaps more damaging to elite unity, he has shown Putin that it is possible for someone to revolt. This may lead Putin to worry that others may try the same, which will only increase Putin’s distrust of those around him and make him even less willing to accept advice from others. In other words, Putin’s rule is more brittle now than ever.
The implications for the Russian state are somewhat different. The short answer is, as revealed by Russia’s disastrous war against Ukraine, the Russian state is already crumbling. The longer Putin and his system remain in power, the more the Russian state decays. He has set up a system of corrupt oligarchs that functions alongside the state and leeches away the state’s power and resources. There is no rebuilding the state without moving power from Putin’s unofficial coterie to the official institutions; and there is no way to do that without undermining the pillars of Putin’s regime.
How could these developments impact the war in Ukraine?
Glantz: It is really unclear how Prigozhin’s mutiny might affect the war in Ukraine. Wagner forces had already been pulled away from the front lines, so their march on Rostov and Moscow would not have resulted in an immediate depletion of battleground forces. That said, it is hard to imagine that having Wagner troops occupy the Southern Military District Headquarters or moving toward the Kremlin would not distract the military command from their operations in Ukraine. In terms of operations on the ground in Ukraine, it does not appear to have led to any significant Ukrainian gains in the short term.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see the impact of several separate issues. First, Prigozhin waged his personal war against the Russian MOD leadership. What will happen to Shoigu and Gerasimov in the wake of this? Will whatever happens to them have an impact on the fighting in Ukraine? Second, Prigozhin has released a series of scathing videos about the Russian military’s conduct of the war. Most notably, he released one last week that argued that all the Kremlin’s justifications for the war were lies. Will the Russian public and soldiers see this and will it have an impact on their will to fight? In other words, in the medium- to longer-term there could be very significant ramifications for the Kremlin’s ability to continue to wage war against Ukraine.
What happens to the Wagner Group now?
Ashby: The Russian government so far is continuing with its order that all private military companies sign MOD contracts by July 1. If executed, this order will result in Wagner fighters coming under greater oversight and control from the Ministry of Defense, effectively ending Wagner’s status as a semi-autonomous entity in Ukraine with Prigozhin as the head.
Wagner fighters in Europe have a few options. As Putin stated in a speech on Monday, Wagner fighters can sign the contract with the Ministry of Defense, move to Belarus following Prigozhin or return home to their families in Russia. However, there is another option that may emerge for some of these fighters. Wagner soldiers could travel to conflicts in the Middle East and Africa where the group already has a presence and lucrative contracts in extractive industries and with governments. Wagner operations in Africa and the Middle East will likely continue with minimal interruption, providing income for Wagner fighters and Prigozhin, who may need those resources more than ever before in Belarus and continue to share profits with the Kremlin to try to stay alive. Since Wagner and Prigozhin have relationships with various African and Middle Eastern groups and governments, time will tell whether there will be a substantial impact on Wagner operations in those regions.