When Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin declared mutiny against the Russian military as his troops marched towards Moscow this weekend, the world watched with bated breath at what seemed like the biggest internal threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule to date. The Russian leader in a televised address on Saturday declared the coup attempt as “a stab in the back” and vowed a tough response to the mutiny.
A former ally of the long-serving president, Prigozin had been at odds with the leadership of the country’s defense ministry, citing corruption and incompetence in the war against Ukraine, accusing the Russian military of targeting one of the company’s field camps in an attack and killing “many fighters”. Chaos ensued in some Russian cities during the 24-hour mayhem and Moscow was put under a state of emergency for the first time since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin also claimed his fighters were in control of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don’s military sites. The private military group had an instrumental role in the seizure of Bakhmut and Prigozhin, in the recent past, has also accused Russia’s military leadership of depriving his men of ammunition.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal between Moscow and the mercenary commander, after which the latter decided to withdraw his forces to avoid “shedding Russian blood”, halting the march to the capital. Though brief, experts have been calling the insurrection significant in assessing the actual prowess of Russia in the ongoing war with Ukraine, revealing internal weaknesses that could be capitalized by Kyiv.
The US termed the short-lived turmoil as an unprecedented challenge to Vladimir Putin, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stating the crisis “may not be over yet and could take weeks or months to play out”. The crisis in Russia exposed “real cracks” in Putin’s authority after he was forced into an amnesty deal, Blinken said. Top European Union Chief Joseph Borrell commented that the “monster that Putin created with Wagner is biting him now” while affecting the political system and jeopardizing Russian power. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed similar remarks and termed the mutiny a “big strategic mistake” by Putin, during a briefing in Vilnius where he arrived in preparation for the alliance’s summit in July.
Meanwhile, China stressed Russia’s national stability and termed the uprising as an internal matter, playing down the impact of it.
The incident took place a few days after Ukraine’s President Zelensky accused Russia of plotting a terror attack at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Russia is also largely blamed for blowing up the Kakhovka Dam, displacing thousands due to flooding and enabling environmental devastation.
Russian President Putin on Tuesday told gathered troops at the Kremlin that they had prevented a “civil war” after the revolt —covered extensively by international media — and held a minute of silence for pilots killed in clashes during the insurrection. And as Prigozhin arrived in Belarus, the Kremlin promised to drop charges against the mercenary leader as part of a deal negotiated by Belarusian leader Lukashenko.
As Kyiv intensifies the counteroffensive and with the state of Wagner participation being unclear in the Russian military, the war can take interesting turns. According to Ukrainian officials, their forces had taken back control of the village of Rivnopil, the latest gain since beginning the first set of attacks.
The paramilitary group challenged the Kremlin’s authority and plunged the country into chaos, albeit short-lived. The Wagner Group’s uprising could be an indication of a looming civil war and deep internal fragilities within Russia. Western pundits did look optimistic post the uprising and the Ukrainians hoped it could weaken their enemy. For a short period, the Russian generals too had to shift their focus on the revolt back home. It is, however, too soon to predict long-term implications of it, which could have far-reaching geopolitical consequences.