GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 702, 29 June 2023

Russia: Rise and Fall of the Wagner Revolt
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
Between 23-24 June, the Wagner group revolted against Russia, claiming an attack on its fighters and capturing Rostov-on Don and military facilities in Voronezh. Simultaneously, Moscow increased its security measures due to a potential threat from the Wagner group in Russia. In an address, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of punishing those participating in the revolt. On 24 June, Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, mediated a deal between the Wagner and Russia. The deal prevented the Wagner from marching into Moscow and exiting to Belarus in exchange for a withdrawal of criminal charges on Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group and a condition for those non-participating fighters to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence. 
On 26 June, Deutsche Welle reported on Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin's video release indicating the intention of revolt. He stated that the revolt was in protest against the Russian military leaders and not against the "political leadership." He said: "We started our march because of an injustice…we went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country."
On 26 June, DW quoted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: "The danger of being dependent on mercenaries. The events we saw unfolding in Russia over the weekend demonstrates the weakness and the fragility of the Russian regime." 
On 27 June, reported on Putin's meeting with the servicemen from the Russian Ministry of Defence. During the meeting, Putin expressed how Russia respects the fighters and those who worked in the Wagner Group. He highlighted that more than RUB 86 billion in support and incentives were given to the Wagner fighters. Putin added: "The maintenance of the entire Wagner Group was fully provided by the state - from the Ministry of Defence, from the state budget, we fully financed this group." On the same day, the Russian Ministry of Defence released a statement on plans to initiate the transfer of heavy weapons such as "tanks, anti-aircraft systems and attack aircraft" from the Wagner Group.

Issues at large
First, issues behind the trigger. The Wagner group is seen as the most effective unit among Russia's mercenary groups. From its role in Africa, Syria and during the Crimean annexation in 2014 to the battles in Soledar and Bakhmut in the Ukraine war, Prigozhin has been at Russia's forefront. Despite a minor clash over lack of ammunition during the Bakhmut fighting, Wagner was determined to proceed with the offensives to capture key parts of the western Bakhmut. In short, the trigger was the non-recognition of the group's efforts in the Ukraine war and its role in other regions. In Bakhmut, despite Russia's military and prisoner support to the Wagner, it failed to maintain control. In his address, Putin stressed that mercenary groups are viewed with respect. The Russian military's failure to acknowledge the group's contributions in the Ukraine war, coupled with Prigozhin's accusations about the Russian military's capabilities, has led to a mutiny.
Second, two primary reasons for the failure. The first is the Wagner group's decision not to break its relations with Putin. In Russia, such mercenary groups are considered illegal as per the constitution and require support from the state to exist and operate. Wagner's clash with the Russian military regarding ammunition and recognition tends to exist, but Putin's support is necessary for Wagner to continue its operations. The second reason is the fear of casualties. The group deployed in Bakhmut was exhausted in terms of resources and was not in the right position to afford more losses.
Third, the revolt on the war in Ukraine. 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 adds pressure on Russia's ground force which lacks essential training. The challenge for Russia now is replacing Wagner troops with Russian soldiers, resetting Rostov-on-Don, and getting back the heavy weapons from the group. 

In perspective
First, 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 on Moscow's agenda after Wagner warned of withdrawal from Bakhmut. The internal revolt could have triggered larger dissent within Russia against Putin.

Second, the impact on the Ukraine war. The revolt should give confidence to the West to strengthen Ukraine's defence considering emerging domestic problems within Russia. The internal clash is expected to benefit Ukraine's counteroffensive as Russia will have to look out for Wagner, recover from the losses in Bakhmut, and rework its ground command without the Wagner troops.

Click here for our recent coverage on the Wagner revolt in Russia:
"Russia: Anatomy of Wagner Revolt, and its Fallouts," The World This Week, Vol. 5, No.23

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