The Wagner revolt will not be easily forgiven in the Kremlin
When Lenin commented that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen,” he had not considered how much can occur in the space of a day.
Late on Friday, mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin announced a “march for justice” by his fighters in response to an alleged deadly attack by the Russian military on Wagner troops in Ukraine. Yesterday, however, he went from leading an insurrection which had claimed the city of Rostov-on-Don and set its sights on Moscow to rapidly pulling back his forces in return for passage to Belarus and all charges being dropped against him and his rebel army.
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A great deal still remains unknown regarding yesterday’s events, not least the full details of the deal made with Prigozhin and the motives of the hotdog seller-turned-warlord at the centre of this debacle. Prigozhin may have been using his revolt as an exercise to seek concessions from the Kremlin, such as the toppling of his longstanding rivals and targets: namely, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
However, having presumably not sparked a mutiny with the ultimate goal of enjoying a quiet retirement in Minsk, it is perhaps most likely that Prigozhin misjudged the level of support he would enjoy. Indeed, he may have simply lost his nerve on the approach to the capital, having launched the rebellion in response to attempts to bring Wagner and other irregular formations under the control of the Ministry of Defence.
What can be assumed is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be angry and — even more dangerously — embarrassed. He has learnt a bitter and very public lesson about the loyalty of mercenaries and, no matter what happens now, there was a moment when the President of Russia was forced to appear on television rallying against “a deadly threat to our statehood” and urging mutineers among his own citizenry to lay down their weapons.
As a further sign of Putin’s weakness, the one who came to his aid and brokered the deal was Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. It was the Russian leader who rescued his counterpart back in 2020 after protests against Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime broke out in Belarus.
Now Putin has faced the most serious challenge to his own rule, watched by the West, Ukraine and Russia’s divided but perhaps newly-galvanised opposition. The unspoken contract between Putin and Russia’s elites, whereby they traded compliance for enviable living standards and stability, is now shattered, and the President’s ambitions in Ukraine having brought Moscow sanctions, drone attacks and the prospect of armed insurrection. Putin is likely to lash out in the coming days to demonstrate his clout, whether through increased attacks in Ukraine or by reasserting his control over the organs of the Russian state lest any contenders be inspired by Prigozhin’s feats.
As for the rebels themselves, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov confirmed last night that Wagner fighters who had not taken part in the uprising would sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence and those who had participated would not face charges over their actions. The Kremlin will now most likely try to eradicate Wagner as an organisation and bring its personnel under the remit of the Defence Ministry.
This provokes questions about the implications for Russia’s presence abroad and especially in Africa, where it has relied on mercenaries as a means of achieving foreign policy objectives and projecting influence beyond its borders. It also raises questions about how amenably Wagner fighters will accept their new home and the military their new compatriots, given that tensions between the two sides were sliding into violence on the front line well before yesterday.
“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe,” cautioned Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince. It is a lesson that Russia’s own Prince should have heeded much earlier. It will be difficult for Putin to forget the ease with which military personnel surrendered to Wagner and Prigozhin’s wrath became a revolt. In the coming days, the world will see the reaction of a man who fears nothing so much as revolution.