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One year on, the Wagner revolt changed nothing

A makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin in Moscow last year. Credit: Getty

June 24, 2024 - 1:25pm

On 24 June 2023, 200 km away from Moscow, Yevgeny Priogozhin gave up. Having led his mercenary army on a march towards the capital, he reasoned that he wanted to avoid spilling more Russian blood. When the head of a coterie of violent rapists and murderers is one of the better shots your country has at political change, you’re already in a bad place. Now, one year on from the Wagner Group’s aborted midsummer rebellion, Russia seems in a more pathetic state than ever.

It was exactly two months later that Vladimir Putin appeared before an audience on state TV, smiling against the backdrop of an orchestra as news of Prigozhin’s death in a mid-air plane explosion came through. The President’s authority had been temporarily dented, and he made a public spectacle of taking it back. Since then he has further consolidated it.

There have been few, if any, significant internal challenges to Putin, though there have been small pockets of single-issue dissent such as Put Domoy, a movement against Russian men being mobilised for the war, and January’s protests in Bashkortostan in support of a jailed activist. The Kremlin has also stamped out other major threats, most notably opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny who died in suspicious circumstances in February after a difficult winter in an arctic prison colony.

It’s not just Prigozhin’s loss that has deflated any remaining confidence among dissident Russians. The country has been in a state of political ennui bordering on nihilism for years, egged on by a state propaganda machine which has encouraged the public to trust nothing and nobody.

While some Russians are against the war, support consistently stands at around two-thirds of the population. Putin’s domestic popularity actually increased in the aftermath of the invasion. People aren’t challenging the regime, largely because they don’t want to. Even Prigozhin and his supporters were irate that the Russian army wasn’t killing Ukrainians effectively enough. Those who oppose the conflict are either powerless or reluctant to do anything about it, and many Russians are simply more concerned with their own standard of living than the fact their country is conducting acts of terror abroad. Some view themselves as the “real” victims.

Politically, Putin’s regime is reorienting. The central syndicate remains the same, just reshuffled into different positions of seniority, while the slightly lower-downs are the fall guys, of whom the internal security apparatus makes an example in an attempt to cow others into submission. And the President has clearly seen the need for some actual changes if he wants to stand a chance of fighting a protracted war. Ironically, it seems that Putin is finally starting to realise that Prigozhin may have been right about the flagging war effort.

Last month, Putin finally replaced longtime defence minister Sergey Shoigu with a technocrat, Andrei Belousov, in order to improve the war’s economic efficiency. Russia is trying to prove that it is not completely isolated on the world stage — an attempt somewhat undermined by having recently reached out to the hermit kingdom of North Korea as an ally.

Wagner, too, has changed shape. While some Prigozhin loyalists were reluctant to start cooperating with Russia’s official structures, many were easily integrated back into the country’s system under the control of the Ministry of Defence, the National Guard (Rosgvardiya), or other affiliated paramilitaries. Wagner is still active on the African continent, albeit under the new name of “Africa Corps”, and with different leadership. Old habits die hard, however: a rare recent piece of reportage documented how Russian paramilitaries have been drugging and raping teenage girls in the Central African Republic.

The regime has continued to crack down harshly on the few meaningful acts of resistance, as well as media freedoms. Russian-American Ksenia Karelina, for example, is currently on trial for donating $50 to a pro-Ukraine charity. Russia has lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Ukraine, either dead or wounded, and its brightest and best have fled abroad.

The outlook remains bleak for ordinary Russian people. But Putin doesn’t care. As long as he gets to continue his Ukrainian campaign, it doesn’t matter. In Russia, nothing matters.


Aliide Naylor is a journalist and the author of The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front

Aliide_N

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
28 days ago

“Those who oppose the conflict are either powerless or reluctant to do anything about it, and many Russians are simply more concerned with their own standard of living than the fact their country is conducting acts of terror abroad. Some view themselves as the “real” victims.”
This does not align with what I know from the Russians I have spoken to.
Their assessment is that their country is wrongly being targeted by Western powers, and that Putin, like him or not, is their best bet for fending off an attempt to dissolve their country into its constituent parts.
So this article is utter propaganda and rot. The fact is, Putin is very popular right now in his own country. Most Russians agree with his approach. If anything, there is a vocal minority of nationalists who think Putin is too restrained – ironically they use the same ‘Chamberlain’ rhetoric that is directed against anyone in the West who calls for peace.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Yes this piece does seem like a rather obvious puff piece for the anti Russian, pro war lobby.

Bruni Schling
Bruni Schling
27 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Yes, that is precisely the impression I am getting from a number of Russian friends

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
26 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

You don’t take issue with any of the specific points made of the article or just declare it “utter propaganda and rot”. Lots of Germans supported Hitler too! And anti regime feeling is probably greatly understated because of the real threats to anybody opposing it.

I don’t think some of you guys actually believe your own propaganda. Modern Russia is a pretty terrible place, and the absurd distorted narratives of grievance mongering of Putin is largely responsible.

No-one has ever convincingly explained to me why Putin is fundamentally different from Hitler, especially in fostering these paranoid false narratives, which directly threaten neighboring countries. (The history of Russia and Ukraine is complex but the idea that Ukraine has for most of its existence been simply a part of Russia (actually, Muscovy) is abject nonsense. For hundreds of years it instead formed part of Poland Lithuania.

Putin might be more cautious than Hitler – but we have nuclear weapons to thank responsible for that as it’s unlikely he wants
a shooting war with the Americans. However he has threatened their use enough times in a totally irresponsible way, and even China has had to reign him in. Oh, and we have had a direct poisoning attack which might have killed thousands of British citizens, so that he could bump off some powerless exile.

Putin is utterly ruthless at home domestically – anyway anyone opposing him is either murdered or disappears quickly into the vast prison system dies their pretty quickly anyway. As to the narrative that it’s all West’s fault, this has some heavy lifting to do, since Russia has attacked Ukraine now on three separate occasions, having recognised its borders and it’s terrible independence in 1991.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

“You don’t take issue with any of the specific points made of the article or just declare it “utter propaganda and rot”.”
I literally responded to a specific point of the article – namely the mischaracterisation of the public mood wrt their president.
As for your jump to Godwin’s Law, congratulations for debasing the thread so quickly.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
28 days ago

I don’t know a lot about Russian politics but Prigozhin’s aborted coup struck me at the time as little more than an extremely convoluted suicide attempt.
Presumably he was either expecting other parties rising up against Putin as he marched his army towards Moscow. Or he had just taken leave of his senses.
The mid-air explosion two months later was the most easily predicted turn of events in some considerable time.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago

Yes almost as certain as a Tory aide betting on the election date…

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago

The “aborted coup” was one thing, but why Prigozhin got into a plane in Russia is completely beyond me. The guy clearly had a death wish.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
28 days ago

We all know Putin sucks. Don’t tell me obvious mistruths like Putin is isolated on the world stage. It undermines the rest of the propaganda..

B. Timothy S.
B. Timothy S.
28 days ago

Respectfully, What?

One year on, the Russians have entirely blunted the western-backed “counter-offensive offensive,” which resulted in nothing but Ukrainian casualties. Putin has sown more chaos in Asia (I know the Euro-Centrics could care less
) by soon giving North Korea the ability to launch missiles to anywhere in the world in exchange for gaining a major military supplier as ally. Awesome news for the guarantor of South Koreas and Japans freedom. This is also a headache for China, as is Russias embrace of Vietnam.

Putin has continued to purge the Russian Ministry of Defense, using the war as his ATM of political capital. The attempts to cripple Russias economy has obviously failed, and the continued brain drain has had little noticeable effect.

I think we see a USA leadership which has no strategic thinking whatsoever, allowing the Euros and their tribal feuds to dictate our response to world events. And for what?

Allies who either won’t or can’t help us anywhere else in the world that actually matters? Of course, assuming they’d even be much help in their own theater.

Why would Putin end the war?

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago
Reply to  B. Timothy S.

If what Putin is doing is a “headache for China”, China might do well to do something about him.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
26 days ago

No surprise there. The Soviet Union still lives.