Wagner Mutiny and Russia’s Future

This brief covers how the Wagner mutiny came to be in Russia, revealing what the future holds for actors with vested interests and proposes policy options to help steer through uncertainties

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August 19, 2023

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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As Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to wage his war of atrocity in Ukraine, internal actors are becoming less willing to stay by the autocrat’s side. In the most recent and severe instance of domestic discontent, the Wagner Group — a Russian paramilitary corporation — mounted and aborted a coup against the Kremlin. Such a direct challenge to Putin’s power has sent shockwaves across the world as countries work to understand what comes next. This brief analyzes how countries are beginning to make these assessments, reveals the repercussions of the revolt on the war in Ukraine, and provides policy prescriptions for moving forward.

Overview

In the most recent turn of events in Putin’s war in Ukraine, a powerful paramilitary group within Russia marched on the Kremlin, posing a credible threat to the governing regime. The Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, demanded the resignation of key government officials who they blamed for irresponsibly handling the lives of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. As the group moved steadily toward Moscow, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a truce deal between the mutineers and Putin as the group retreated.

Putin’s power remains stable, but the recent revolt is the most dramatic manifestation of the gradual increase in dissent within Russia. Putin’s war has strained the global economic system, cost as much as 50,000 Russian lives, and embarrassed the country in the international community. While the Wagner Group led the push, they were helped by Russians along the way, as citizens gave the mercenaries food and water to support their march.

Beyond Putin, Ukraine and their Western supporters are now grappling with what this means for the future of the Ukrainian conflict. It is far from clear that a violent overthrow of the Putin regime would be entirely in their favor, but faltering support for Putin’s war efforts within Russia should be a sign of encouragement for Ukrainians. Capitalizing on this critical moment will be key.

A. Pointed Summary

  • The mutiny calls Putin’s regime into question
  • Wagner gave Ukraine and the West a window of opportunity

B. Relevance

While the mutiny didn’t topple Putin, it certainly called into question the durability of his rule and provided the Ukrainians with a window of opportunity. For Putin, Wagner is a reminder of the past and a warning for his future. Coups in 1917 and 1991 did not bode well for Russian and Soviet rulers, only compounding the paranoia that drives Putin to watch the video of Gaddafi’s assassination on repeat. For Ukraine and its Western supporters, a collapse of the Putin regime would present both harm and benefits. However, for now, the power struggle inside Russia serves mostly as a distraction to the Russian war effort.

History

Just last month, Putin disclosed that Russia’s security services “stopped a civil war” during the mutiny launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries – whose wages and bonuses Moscow has funded to the tune of £800 million over the past year. In the wake of an end to the civil war, Putin appeared outside the Kremlin to pay tribute to his troops, seeking to repair the facade of political stability that the Wagner Group’s actions had severely dented.

Before hundreds of military personnel, Putin heralded the country’s armed forces, asserting they had proved their “loyalty to the people of Russia” in protecting the “motherland and its future.” The Russian leader maintained that Moscow had not been forced to withdraw troops from Ukraine and held a minute’s silence in honor of the servicemen killed when Wagner forces shot down Russian military aircraft, including helicopters and a communications plane, as they marched on Moscow. The mercenaries had halted their advance just 125 miles outside the capital.

Drawing parallels to history, it is essential to recall General Lavr Kornilov’s failed coup in Petrograd. In 1917, Kornilov marched his forces from the front on Petrograd, modern St. Petersburg, the capital at that time. This coup attempt in 1917 dealt a mortal blow to the already-debilitated Russian government, leaving it powerless to forestall the Bolshevik Revolution a month later. For Putin, such an outcome was very conceivable. It would be paramount to understand what led to Russia’s military maestro Putin breaking the trust of the loyal Wagner Group — a paramilitary group with unprecedented levels of autonomy within the Russian system that is both critical to the war in Ukraine (the only group to have made advances since the stalemate) and Putin’s venture around the world (Africa, in particular).

For months, Wagner’s head, Prigozhin, had accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence. The Defence Ministry’s perfunctory and heedless approach to dealing with his complaints led a frustrated Prigozhin to ultimately question the very rationale behind Russia’s war in Ukraine. “The Defence Ministry is trying to deceive society and the president and tell us a story about how there was crazy aggression from Ukraine and that they were planning to attack us with the whole of NATO,” Prigozhin said, in a video clip released on Telegram by his press service, calling the official version “a beautiful story.” “The special operation was started for different reasons,” he said. “The war was needed ... so that Shoigu could become a marshal and get a second ‘Hero’ (of Russia) medal. The war wasn’t needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine.” This latest allegation ran directly counter to the rationale for the war espoused by Putin, who declared when sending his armed forces into Ukraine that it was to stifle the Western alliance that wants to use Ukraine as a platform to destroy Russia.

Prigozhin said the war was about fulfilling personal agendas, acquiring material assets, and bolstering the ruling elite. Although unprecedented for the Russian leadership, these statements coincided with the Wagner Group’s significant number of casualties. According to a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel, as of 20 May of this year, 22,000 Wagner fighters had been killed in Russia’s war in Ukraine — close to a quarter of the 50,000 paramilitary troops who’ve fought in the country.

Amidst incessant accusations on the top level, the Russian government decided to clamp down on the Wagner Group. To this end, a declaration was issued by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, stating that all private military companies, including Wagner, would be forced to sign contracts with Russia’s military beginning on July 1 and essentially be absorbed by the Russian Ministry of Defense akin to regular Russian armed forces. Even then, Prigozhin denied the declaration as a reason for the revolt and claimed that the Russian military carried out attacks against Wagner personnel. He posited this was the true motivation behind his revolt, later adding that he intended to save the Wagner Group from the Russian military leaders. However, this contradicts American findings. CNN reported that the U.S. had intelligence shared only with the closest allies, like the UK, showing that Prigozhin had planned the rebellion as soon as the declaration was published before alleged attacks by the Russian military had taken place. Under the terms of the deal that brought an end to the mutiny, Prigozhin was allowed to move to Belarus, and his fighters were given a chance to sign contracts with Russia’s regular armed forces or move to Belarus with him. As anticipated, Prigozhin deployed his troops to Belarus, and up to the writing of this brief, they persistently held their position, sending shockwaves across the Eastern European landscape. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov would not disclose exact details of the Kremlin’s deal with the Wagner chief. He said only that  Putin had provided Prigozhin with “certain guarantees,” intending to avoid a “worst-case scenario.”  

Although the mutiny has ended, and the Kremlin says the insurgency has not threatened Putin’s position, the meticulous way the “peace deal” has been brokered suggests otherwise. Several political analysts support this notion. For instance, Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, says, “The decisive challenge to his authority will undoubtedly weaken the Russian leader despite the apparent end of the mutiny.” Several Russian war bloggers have vented outrage at the government’s failure to prosecute Prigozhin and his troops for killing Russian military personnel. Indeed, The treatment afforded to the Wagner Group starkly contrasts the harsh jail terms handed out to opposition activists criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, it is crucial to understand that the Wagner private militia, which spearheaded the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, is Russia’s most effective fighting force, and maintaining good ties with them would be prudent and in the best interests of the leadership. The course they chart now could very well determine their survival in the tempest of war and their enduring grip on the reins of authority.

A. Current Stances

Internal

Putin initially responded to the Wagner revolt by calling Wagner’s action “a stab in the back of our country and our people.” However, Putin has shown remarkable tolerance to the revolt, demonstrated in how Putin claimed to have given orders to minimize bloodshed and provide the Wagner fighters time to realize the “mistake” of their actions. While Putin was tolerant, it raises the question of the ramifications of this approach on Putin’s credibility and image. It is understood by foreign policy specialists that by not having a strong reaction to the revolt, Putin opened the door for further escalation by Prigozhin. However, there is no consensus that Putin’s inner circle or any other Moscow elites support Prigozhin.

International

Ukraine: Ukraine has taken advantage of the revolt by launching simultaneous counter-offensives in multiple directions, according to Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister. In addition to launching the counter-offensives, Ukraine has taken advantage of the revolt to call out the “weakness” of the Russian government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated, "Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it.” Presidential advisor Mykhalio Pdolyak has also stated that the revolt would either lead to “a full-fledged civil war, or a negotiated Transit of Power, or a temporary respite before the next phase of the downfall of the Putin regime.

Washington and the West: The U.S. and Western officials have been careful in not responding to the revolt. Washington has avoided public statements such as alerting European forces to avoid signaling that the U.S. was trying to exploit the situation and play into the Kremlin narratives about U.S.-led attempts to weaken Russian security.

China: During the revolt, China monitored its proceedings closely, though Chinese media was reluctant to report on them. Any state media coverage that did occur portrayed the official versions of events as explained by the Russian government. On June 25th, China’s then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang publicly expressed Beijing's support of Putin and declared the events as part of Russia’s internal affairs and that China supported Russia in maintaining its national stability.

B. Tried Policy

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary group, agreed to go to Belarus as part of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko between the Wagner Group and Vladimir Putin. The agreement states that Putin would drop the criminal case against Prigozhin and that the Wagner forces would face no “legal action” for marching to Moscow. In addition, Wagner fighters would sign contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense. 

According to Ukraine's SBU intel, there have been reports that the deal may have entailed the dismissal of the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top military officials in exchange for ending the mutiny. Regardless of whether the reports are correct, by July 7th, it appeared as if the deal had fallen apart. Lukashenko appears to have distanced himself from Prigozhin, and Prigozhin's location is unknown, as it is not clear whether he is in Belarus or Russia. In addition, the Wagner forces have refused to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense and return to the front lines. For now, the Wagner mercenary group has not been participating meaningfully.

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders

The Wagner Group’s revolt poses significant implications both domestically and internationally. Putin sees the coup as his biggest fear – given Russia’s long history of coups and revolutions. Indeed, Prigozhin’s rebellion has shattered Putin’s facade of stability and weakened Putin’s grip on his own people. Weakened perceptually and politically, Putin may grow more dependent on China. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, sees the mutiny as a threat to his iron-fist at rule in China, and analysts have started to question whether Beijing needs to begin disassociating its political and economic ties from Moscow.  

On the Ukraine war front, a humiliated Putin may act more recklessly in Ukraine to reestablish his credibility. Already, Moscow has intensified attacks on Ukraine’s military infrastructure and intensified bombings on Ukraine’s ports, threatening the global wheat supply. Russia escalation would also warrant greater sanctions from the West, further crippling Russia’s failing economy. On the other hand, if the Wagner Revolt instigates a political collapse in Russia, Ukraine’s chances of successful counter offensives will likely increase as Putin is distracted from the Ukraine war effort. Yet, while the short-term civil conflict will increase Ukraine’s chances, if a more aggressive Russian regime can consolidate power quickly, the Ukraine war may continue to be dragged on.   

B. Nonpartisan Reasoning

As mentioned briefly, the Wagner Revolt was followed by an immediate military response from both Russia and Ukraine. Though domestically unstable, Russia has fiercely resisted Ukraine’s intense counter offensives. While Ukraine reports that it has reclaimed some ground in the Eastern and Southern fronts, Russia is firmly holding onto their defense and has responded in kind with near-constant strikes on Ukraine’s grain supply. 

Nevertheless, based on historical precedent, failed coups have often preceded the collapse of the Russian regime. For instance, a failed 1991 Soviet coup led to the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by undermining Gorbachev’s political standing, accelerating the collapse of the USSR. To repair his image, Putin has already begun to crack down on dissent, independent media, and free speech, demanding loyalty from Russians. Moreover, Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, argues that it would be improbable that the Russian military will overthrow Putin, given his closed political system. Nonetheless, if Putin’s escalation in Ukraine leads to greater macroeconomic destabilization and intensified sanctions, Russia’s political elite may deem his overthrow necessary.

If a coup, akin to Wagner, is successful, there remain several dilemmas to consider. For one, Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. And, though the weapons are armed with safeguards, internal instability during the power transition may create chances for outside actors (perhaps the rebels) to exploit Moscow’s nuclear forces. As previously mentioned, a new regime might even double down on the Ukraine offensive to appeal to the public, especially since 75% of Russians said they supported Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, according to a survey by the independent institute Levada Center. Regardless which scenario plays out, for the time being, the war shows no sign of ending, as military fighting is as intense as ever. 

Policy Options

Since the latest tri-brokered deal between Lukashenka, Putin, and Prigozhin to drop charges on troops and retreat them to Belarus, the status of Wagner Group’s operations has been ambiguous. The mutiny was a failed coup attempt and Prigozhin’s actions unveiled cracks in Russia’s internal security forces. In this scenario, the U.S. command should be strategic in restricting movement of private military companies (PMCs) into foreign territory like the Wagner Group and detaching its counterparts of the Russian government. Executing these policies also requires the consideration of two horizons: Europe and Africa.

Increasing sanctions on Wagner

The U.S. leveraged sanctions against Russia during the War on Ukraine, but the sanctions should be directed to more specific entities like the Wagner Group through executive orders. Although the deal to end the mutiny was announced, the status of Prigozhin and troops stationed in Belarus remains unclear. However, it’s clear that Wagner Group wouldn’t remain autonomous under the pressures of the Russian military and could potentially fall under the arms of Russia. Non-participants of the mutiny are being offered a deal to sign contracts with the larger Ministry of Defense in Russia, allowing for the larger incorporation of private military groups into national defense lines, although questions remain. At the same time, such PMCs – Russia – have operating power beyond its currently serving one and, thus, could easily register as a legal organization such as in Belarus and incorporate it as his own to further provoke NATO and the EU. Such a scenario, although unlikely, requires a strategic method of strangling PMC’s initially, as they are prone to incorporation to an authoritarian system maintained by the loyalty to leaders. Even in the case that both countries choose to dissolve Wagner as a part of its military operations, Prigozhin’s key resource would surely mount a larger, potential threat, thus sanctioning Wagner Group, and its dominators will be essential in keeping the domestic peace. 

Strengthening international law on PMCs

Wagner’s lingering continuity can have extensive implications, not limited to just the situation in Ukraine but also for Africa. Currently, Wagner operates in several African countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and Sudan, allowing for rapid expansion of Moscow’s influence through means of direct military support and security services. As 5000 troops are currently stationed in African countries, Russia’s main goal is clear: building up diplomatic connections in an effort to wage leverage in combating Western influence and the United Nations. In 2018, approximately 1,000Wagner troops helped CAR defend the administration of President Faustin-Archange Touadera. Similarly, in 2019, Wagner forces aided in the fighting in the Cabo Delgado Province in Mozambique. Outside of military presences, PMC Wagner poses a threat in the spread of disinformation: Prigozhin owns the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC), which allows for outsourcing of work to Ghana and Nigeria for polarizing political divisions in the U.S. and promoting anti-colonial and anti-Western messages. All actions and efforts of Wagner considered the U.S. alongside the U.N. should work to deter PMC’s from continually operating outside its borders and influencing decision-making of other foreign countries. Building a strong framework with African countries undergoing human right violations and political turmoil would be most beneficial in order to mitigate Wagner’s sphere of influence and any other PMCs that could emerge.

Fostering use of regional security groups

When considering the vast operations that Wagner carries in African countries, deterring private military companies should begin with securing regional security groups. Even as Wagner’s status remains murky at the moment, it is likely that inaction against the continuing foreign policy tool of the Russian PMC will only aid in furthering instability around the world outside of Ukraine. Furthermore, recent reports indicate that the Wagner group will focus on Africa and Belarus, although they will not be recruiting any more fighters. In 2019, Wagner troops were accused of committing killings in civilian areas alongside the Libyan National Army. Also with the ongoing military takeover in Sudan, it was reported that the group was supplying arms to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces militia . Consequently, the U.S. must look into strengthening diplomatic ties in Africa more so than ever. Specifically, they should focus on regions like Burkina Faso, and Sudan, as they are less footholded by the Wagner group. When doing so, such actions would require not just military infrastructure but also weighing in on issues created by extreme regimes in the Sahel. Addressing these gaps in society are likely to be more effective than simple military cooperation and combat.

The overt “March for Justice” the Wagner group this time highlights not just the insecurity lying within Putin’s regime but also reveals a new problem in regulating the PMC movement. With the grip Wagner has abroad and has displayed through Ukraine and Africa, the policies today must focus on the diplomatic tools a country like Russia uses to control other foreign policy issues like those of Africa. By focusing on restructuring the underlying issues abroad with the movement of PMCs, the U.S. and the West may be able to expose truths in underlying conflicts and pressure Russia better into stopping conflict. 

Acknowledgment

The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.

Works Cited

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Kendall Carll

Policy Analyst

A first-year at Harvard studying Government and International Relations with a Secondary in History, Kendall is interested in American security policy, particularly nuclear, great-power, and East Asian issues.

Chanhee Joy Park

Director, Policy Media

Chanhee (Joy) Park is a Foreign Policy Co-Lead based in Texas and Michigan, specializing in the history and politics of East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Sanjay Karthikeyan

Lead Analyst, Foreign Policy

Sanjay Karthikeyan is a high school senior based in Singapore and the Co-Founder and CEO of GovMetrix, a youth-led, solution-oriented organization that strives to solve the world’s most pressing problems through collaboration, incisive analysis, and candid discourse.

Michelle Liou

Senior Vice President, Policy

Michelle Liou is currently a student at UCLA, studying Business Economics and Statistics. She hopes to attend law school in the future, and seeks to develop her interest in policy making, leadership, and business.