NIAS Europe Studies

Photo Source: Prigozhin Press Service/AP Photo
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NIAS Europe Studies
Rise and fall of the Wagner Revolt: Four Takeaways

  Padmashree Anandhan

About the Author

Ms Anandhan is a Project Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. As part of the NIAS Europe Studies, her research focuses on issues relating to politics, protests, Brexit, economy, maritime and NATO' operations. 

In June, the Wagner group revolted against Russia, capturing Rostov-on Don and a military facility in Voronezh. Simultaneously, Moscow increased its security measures due to a potential threat from the Wagner group in Russia. The revolt, however was immediately called off after the Belarus mediation preventing Wagner’s march into Moscow. Putin allowed the group’s exit on the condition of withdrawal and signing of the fighters for a mercenary contract of choice.

Later, on 26 June, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin's stated that the revolt was in protest against the Russia’s military leaders and not against the "political leadership," but the statement was not convincing enough to accept the revolt act. In response, Putin expressed how Russia respects the fighters and those who worked in the Wagner Group and highlighted the financial support of RUB 86 billion and incentives given to the Wagner fighters. This indicates how the Wagner group has been solely dependent on Russia for resources and its development. In such a dependent equation it is important to find what were larger issues behind the trigger, reasons for failure, analyse the nature of Russia’s move and what is ahead for the Wagner group and the Ukraine War.

1. Wagner group in crossroads 
After the deal with Russia, the Wagner groups moved into Belarus. The satellite images released by Radio Free Europe reveal the structures installed by Wagner and the allocated place in southern Belarus. Prigozhin’s meeting with Putin after moving into Belarus indicates the attempts to revamp the equation and boost support.  For Russia, getting back Wagner will be advantageous in the Ukraine war, especially when its falling short of skilled soldiers, but not at the risk of domestic security. In the case of the Wagner group, despite the reputation of Prigozhin in heading many successful operations across regions, no one except Russia can give unwavering support.  Uncertainty pertains overall on who will choose Wagner over Russia, how far Belarus will be a favourable host for Wagner and what will be the state of the fighter groups in other regions.  If the Wagner looks for a re-entry into Russia, if not the mercenary contract, a mutual agreement similar will be mandated by Russia and this time Prigozhin may have to adhere to Putin’s rules.

2. Questions on Putin’s leadership and Russia’s geopolitical goals
The quick deal with Wagner's head prevented a larger revolt in Moscow and devoured Putin's reputation. This highlights Putin's challenges in handling the domestic crisis, but this could have been early detection by Moscow after the continued warnings of Prigozhin to withdraw from Bakhmut. Although the risk of losing domestic reputation was thwarted, the revolt has triggered concerns amongst Russia’s elites over personal security. Currently the support to Putin within the elites may have been promising after the revolt was averted, but over increased frequent threats may force Putin to shift the forces inside Ukraine into Moscow. This defeats the reason for the Ukraine war as it may hinder Russia’s larger geopolitical goal. 

3. Russia’s military in a challenging puddle 
Russia’s elite units include Federal Security Service (FSB), defence industries, and federal politicians who are highly pragmatic on the shift of skilled soldiers from Ukraine into Moscow. The state-owned and private companies which have been left unguarded may re-think installing units after the failed revolt. This is set to impact Russia’s strategy in Ukraine war. Given the limitations of shortage of skilled soldiers, restriction to launch another recruitment and pressure to uphold domestic security, the Russia’s military is up for challenging months. Unless and until Russia fixes its rusty command and communication and replaces Wagner fighters, the losses will supersede the success rate.

4. Ukraine to benefit in long run 
Russia's failure to advance in Kharkiv and Kherson led to the engagement of the Wagner group in the battle of Soledar and Bakhmut. The exit of Wagner fighters from Ukraine means additional pressure on Russia's ground force and communication lines, which have been tense.  The challenge for Russia now is replacing Wagner troops with Russia’s soldiers, getting back the heavy weapons from the group, and maintaining security at the domestic level. The revolt, which has been projected by the west as a beginning to the end of Putin, should give confidence to further strengthen Ukraine's defence as Russia deals with its internal problem. The internal clash will benefit Ukraine in the long run as Russia complex challenges to fix the communication, command, recoup its soldiers after completion of the ongoing signing of mercenary contract while the West upgrades Ukraine’s air defences.

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