Date first published: 27/06/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: war on land; internal conflict; political instability
Late on 23 June the head of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, published a video in which he announced that his forces had crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia as part of a “march for justice” aimed at ousting Russia’s military leadership. On 24 June Wagner forces reportedly seized military facilities in the cities of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh and marched towards Moscow. The Federal Security Service (FSB) opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny. President Vladimir Putin accused Prigozhin of betrayal and warned of “inevitable punishments”.
Late on 24 June the Kremlin announced that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had brokered a deal with Prigozhin to end the mutiny. Under the deal, Prigozhin will move to Belarus with criminal charges against him being dropped and no Wagner personnel will be charged for their involvement in the rebellion. Following the announcement of the deal, Prigozhin ordered his troops to withdraw from Rostov and Voronezh.
Why it matters
While it is too soon to draw conclusions, preliminary analysis indicates that the mutiny exposed the weaknesses of Putin’s regime, further undermining it. First, Russia’s security forces were not prepared for such a development, posing only minimal resistance to Wagner’s advances. Wagner forces even destroyed five military helicopters. Second, the mutiny indicates that Putin’s grip on power is much weaker than previously believed. Although Putin is known to thrive on inter-elite infighting as it keeps different groups weakened, the rebellion suggests that he is not capable of preventing such infighting from escalating. Finally, Putin came to power following years of volatility and cemented his legitimacy on the provision of stability and security. The mutiny is a clear indication that he is no longer able to deliver on that, increasing the regime’s vulnerability.
When explaining the reasons behind the “march for justice”, Prigozhin stated that his aim was to “punish” those that had made mistakes during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pointing mainly at Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin and the military leadership have a history of disputes, with Prigozhin accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of not supplying his forces with ammunition during the fight for Bakhmut, particularly between February and May. Most recently, on 10 June Shoigu ordered all “volunteer units” fighting in Ukraine to sign military contracts with the Ministry of Defence, likely in an attempt to consolidate and unify the army to better face the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Many – likely including Prigozhin – interpreted this move as an attempt to subordinate Wagner forces into the Russian military. It is widely believed that Prigozhin saw the “march for justice” as the only option to save Wagner forces from being absorbed into the military.
Much remains uncertain, including the future of Prigozhin and of the wider Wagner Group. On 26 June Putin stated that Wagner forces who had not been involved in the mutiny had three options – retire, move to Belarus or sign a contract with the military. It remains to be seen how many will opt for which option, with 26 June reports indicating that a military camp for up to 8,000 soldiers was being built in Belarus. Prigozhin’s and the Wagner Group’s fate will likely determine the strength of the mutiny’s impact on the war in Ukraine and on Russia’s overall stability.