On June 23, Wagner Group, a Russian private military organisation, under the leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin staged a military coup against the current Russian administration and Vladimir Putin. However, the coup failed when Prigozhin retreated his troops and reached a deal with Putin, meditated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on 25th June. Following the coup, the international chatter about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia took a new turn and Putin’s hold on his administration gets questioned.
History of Wagner Group and the Russian Government
The Wagner group emerged in 2014 as a private military group, a network of mercenaries, during the time of the Ukraine-Russian conflict in the Crimean Peninsula. Though advertised as a private group, the organisation was a de facto extension of the Russian military led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Involved in criminal activities at a young age and imprisoned several times for theft and robbery, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch famously known as the ‘hot-dog’ man, rose to fame by winning lucrative catering and construction contracts with the Russian government due to his close tie with Vladimir Putin. He was also believed to have several ties with Mafia and organisational crimes. Other than Ukraine this group has also helped Russia in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic, in Putin’s interest. It has fought for Assad in Syria and Haftar in Libya. It has also trained Sudan’s security forces, secured mining contracts in the Central African Republic, and battled Islamists in Mali and Mozambique.
However, the relationship between Prigozhin and Putin soared after the placement of Western sanctions on Russia, as his wealth was depleted. After the war started, the Russian administration started implementing policies that gave the President more control over Wagner, rather than Prigozhin. He also criticised Segei Sohigu, the defence minister of Russia for his exaggeration of Russian military might, when the war was prolonged for longer as opposed to Russian belief.
Prigozhin Rebellion – The Events Unfolded
Yevgeny Prigozhin has been critical of the war for several months, as he claimed that the defence ministry had duped Vladimir Putin into last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The choice had nothing to do with “denazification,” “demilitarisation,” or an impending NATO attack on Russia, which were the stated justifications for the conflict. He stated it was all about Shoigu’s desire for a second “hero of Russia” medal. He further accused Shoigu and commander-in-chief Valery Gerasimov of denying ammunition to his Wagner forces, sacrificing Russian men in catastrophic operations, and taking eastern Ukraine to pillage it. The disagreement erupted violently on June 10, when Shoigu stated that Wagner soldiers would be required to sign contracts with his ministry. Wagner would effectively cease to exist. Putin seemed to have agreed with the suggestion.
According to the New York Times, Prigozhin had been contemplating a mutiny for some time. US spy agencies picked up indications of a serious plot and the Intelligence officials briefed a small group of congressional leaders in Washington last Thursday. Moscow, by contrast, appeared to be in the dark about Prigozhin’s intentions.
On Friday evening, a group of Wagner soldiers passed the international border and entered the town of Rostov-on-Don, an important town for Russia’s war logistics, with citizens of 1 million. Saturday morning Russa woke to the town captured by Prigozhin and Wagner troops patrolling the city. He demanded Shoigu and Gerasimov’s removal and added, matter-of-factly, that if his wishes were not met, he would lead his mini-army to the gates of Moscow.
At 10 AM President Putin addressed the nation. He accused Prigozhin of endangering the constitution and committing treason and promised harsh punishment and legal measures against “mutineers”. The police barricaded the city of Moscow and armoured vehicles were sent to crucial administrative buildings. By midday, Wagner troops were headed to Moscow by M4 highway connecting Rostov to Moscow. Wagner stopped halfway along the road at a military installation near Voronezh. A combat helicopter was seen clattering over the city. It destroyed an oil terminal. In an attempt to halt the convoy, four aircraft bombs were dropped near a bridge. Wagner’s troops fired down a Ka-52 assault helicopter, killing everybody aboard. They blew up an Il-18 aircraft. At least 15 Russian soldiers were killed. The majority of them were fighter pilots. Events were moving at dizzying speed. There was a flurry of questions. Did Russia’s military and security elite secretly help the insurgents? And, if necessary, would regular troops shoot their Wagner comrades? The majority of the army was serving in Ukraine. The internal security branch, Rosgvardiya, was no match for Prigozhin’s seasoned warriors. Neither was Putin’s former intelligence service, the FSB.
Then around 8 PM another surprising development took place. The President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko intervened in the coup and declared that the rebellion was called off as both sides brokered a deal after a series of negotiations with his help. This information was later confirmed by Prigozhin himself, citing the reasons as he didn’t want any bloodshed among his troops. The Kremlin provided further information the next day. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, stated that no one from Wagner will be charged. Soldiers from the mercenary organisation might join the regular army. Or not. Most crucially, Prigozhin would be exiled to Belarus
Russia’s defence ministry said Sergei Shoigu visited troops in occupied Ukraine Monday, in his first public appearance since the weekend. Shoigu’s future had been called into question following the mutiny, but Telegram posts and media reports indicate that he remains in charge. After the announcement of the deal, there was no sign of Prigozhin on Sunday. It wasn’t immediately clear if he is in Belarus or somewhere else. According to Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, Prigozhin is a “Dead man Walking”, which on introspection is not far from the truth, if the fates of Putin’s previous adversaries are taken into consideration.
Since becoming President in 2000, Vladimir Putin for the first time faced a massive amount of dissent against him and this event has several complicated serious implications on both internal and external polity. During the coup Ukraine and its allies were gleefully celebrating as they discovered the most fatal flaw for the current Russian administration, i.e., Internal instability. This puts Putin’s grasp on its supporters and friends in question. Though Moscow gave the impression on Sunday that it was business as usual, the actual truth may differ vastly.