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Russia: Anatomy of Wagner Revolt, and its Fallouts

  Harini Madhusudan, Rishika Yada, Sneha Surendran, Prerana P, Sreeja JS and Padmashree Anandhan

What happened?
On 23 June, Prigozhin, a long-time ally of Putin and the leader of the private army Wagner Group revolted, claiming that the Russian military had killed many of his fighters in an airstrike. The Russian Defence Ministry denied these claims. Prigozhin said: "There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in this country." He also threatened to destroy checkpoints or air forces that got in Wagner's way. On the same night, security in Russia was tightened, and the internet was restricted while military trucks were spotted on Moscow streets. 

On 24 June, according to reports, the Wagner mercenaries had seized military facilities in Voronezh, a city halfway between Rostov and Moscow. Prigozhin said his fighters had entered Rostov-on-Don after crossing the border from Ukraine, and his men would destroy anyone who stood in their way. Further, the Wagner group proclaimed that its mercenaries had seized all military facilities in Voronezh and added that they would march on Moscow to topple the defence minister Sergei Shoigu. 

On the same day, President Putin made an emergency address, saying Russia was facing "treason." According to his statement: "All those who consciously stood on the part of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, stood on the part of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, before the law and before our people." Prigozhin responded, saying that his troops were "patriots of our motherland," and the president was "deeply wrong" to talk of betrayal. 

By 24 June evening, the Wagner fighters were advancing through the Lipetsk region, around 450 km from Moscow. The Wagner Group also announced that most Russian army units in the area were switching sides. There were also reports of Wagner fighters leaving the missions in Africa, and Syria, to join the revolt against Moscow. On the other hand, according to state reports, Russian air forces have struck Wagner convoys, and defensive positions around Moscow were set up. 

In a late-night development on 24 June, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko broke a deal between Russia and the Wagner Group. Prigozhin agreed to halt his advance towards Moscow and relocate to Belarus. Through a Telegram post, he had ordered his forces to return to their bases to avoid bloodshed. Following the deal, the Wagner fighters initiated their departure from Rostov-on-Don, which served as the starting point of their mutiny. The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, announced that the criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, and the Wagner fighters involved in the "march for justice" would not face the consequences due to their previous service to Russia. Non-participating fighters are expected to sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry by 01 July as part of efforts to centralize volunteer forces. Specific concessions made to Prigozhin remain undisclosed. 

What is the background?
First, the increasing tensions between the Wagner Group and the Russian military. The differences between the two had been growing over how the war has been fought in Ukraine, with the Wagner group's strong criticisms of Russia's military leadership in recent months. Prigozhin repeatedly mentioned Russia's failure to provide sufficient ammunition, resulting in enormous casualties for the Wagner Group. The Wagner had threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut and complained about Russian military authorities for their incompetence. Prigozhin also blamed the Russian military leadership for attacking his men. The present escalation came after Prigozhin accused Russia's military of hitting his group's base in Ukraine. He threatened: "We are going onwards and we will go to the end. We will destroy everything that stands in our way." 

Second, the Wagner complaints over the last few months. Since joining the Russian troops at Bakhmut, Prigozhin had complained against the military, accusing them of not supplying ammunition for his fighters. In February, Prigozhin shared an image of dead fighters and blamed the military leaders for their death. In March, in a video message, he claimed that his fighters were being "set up" as scapegoats to take the blame in case Russia lost the war. Also in March, he complained about not getting ammunition according to the agreement calling it: "ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal." As the battle for Bakhmut raged on, so did Prigozhin's social media rants against the military top brass. In one of his social media posts, he said: "The shells are lying in warehouses, they are resting there…why are the shells lying in the warehouses? There are people who fight, and there are people who have learned once in their lives that there must be a reserve, and they save, save, save those reserves…Instead of spending a shell to kill the enemy, they kill our soldiers. And happy grandfather thinks this is okay." In another post, he said: "There was only Wagner here...We fought not only the Ukrainian army here, we fought Russian bureaucracy." 

Third, the Belarus intervention. President Alexander Lukashenko, a close friend of President Putin, also has a long-standing personal connection with Yevgeny Prigozhin. He has played a mediating role in the agreement between Putin and Prigozhin. Initially, Putin had vowed to punish the mutineers, but the focus shifted towards avoiding further confrontation and bloodshed. Lukashenko's involvement in mediating the crisis highlights his influence and ties with Putin and the Wagner Group. 

What does it mean?
First, the fractured equation between Wagner and Russia. The Wagner group is considered Russia's most effective unit among the mercenary groups. From its extensive role in Africa, Syria, in the Crimean annexation in 2014 to the battles in Soledar and Bakhmut in the Ukraine war, Prigozhin has been at the forefront for Russia. The relations began to crack when Russia grew dependent on the Wagner group. Russia's shortage of personnel and constraints to restrict new mobilization delegated Wagner's head to deploy his forces. Wagner group's major role in Soledar and Bakhmut battles showcased its capability, while the Russian military was criticized for not giving enough ammunition and being ineffective in holding control. 

Second, the blow to bring the Wagner Group under the effective control of the Russian military. The Wagner's head did not accept the military's efforts to bring the mercenary units under one contract. The revolt could be seen as a reflection of unwillingness of the Wagner to work under direct Russian military command. This highlights an internal divide between supporters of Putin and Prigozhin and a more significant question to the leadership of Russia.

Third, the impact of the Wagner revolt on Russia's war in Ukraine. For Russia to fight in Ukraine, a new mobilization was launched to recruit more. The recruits and not-so-fully trained soldiers led to the gap between operations and command. Although there was not much awareness or objection against Russia on mobilization, Russia slowed down the recruitment to prevent domestic dissent. On the other hand, the Wagner was allowed to recruit prisoners across Russia and command better despite the shortage of equipment. Human resource is the strength of any war; Russia's operation in Ukraine will have consequences of Prigozhin leaving for Belarus. Ukraine will benefit from the recent development. The immediate impact will be on the Wagner units deployed inside Ukraine, which may pause their operations or stop fighting for Russia. The damage caused to the M4 highway, and Rostov-on-Don is crucial to Russia's offensive in southern Ukraine and can help Ukraine gain in its counter-offensive. 

Fourth, Putin's reputation. As stated by Putin, the motive of the Ukraine invasion was to bring back USSR or reinstall Russia as a geopolitical power, but the fallouts of the war have been nothing but a backfire. From Finland joining NATO to minor incursions into Russia, the Wagner group's revolt should question Putin's reputation within Russia.

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