Putin’s Own Making crisis Wagner group

June 24, 2023

On Friday evening, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, accused the Russian military of ordering an aerial attack on his forces in Ukraine, and vowed a “march for justice” to stop the Russian military’s “evil” leadership. Prigozhin may have claimed that his main enemies were defense officials, not his longtime patron and protector, Vladimir Putin, but the effective battle lines were clear. The state security agency, the F.S.B., opened a criminal investigation against Prigozhin for “organizing an armed rebellion.” By the next morning, Wagner units controlled the center of Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia that is home to more than a million people and the military headquarters overseeing the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin was inside the garrison, appearing to negotiate with top generals. From there, Wagner units claimed to take control of Voronezh, a city three hundred miles from Moscow, and a column of Wagner troops and armor sped off toward the capital, the main target and prize, where Prigozhin’s gambit would succeed or be put down.

Prigozhin had always been a man on the make. He turned his past as a small-time bandit into a successful restaurant and catering business—in the early two-thousands, he hosted Putin and high-profile guests at his St. Petersburg establishments—which grew into a business empire that earned millions on contracts to provide meals to the Russian military and public schools. He was clever, nasty, boorish, with a shade more personality and spunk than most operators who nurtured their fiefdoms in the shadows of the Putin system. In 2013, he launched the Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the St. Petersburg troll farm, which came to employ hundreds of young people who spread propaganda, engaged in influence operations, and otherwise caused mischief on social networks, including in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the U.S.

David Remnick on how Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed the Russian President.

For a long while, Prigozhin looked like the solution to Putin’s problems. In 2014, when Russia launched a proxy invasion of the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, the military campaign was officially denied by the Kremlin. This presented a challenge: How to prop up so-called separatist forces without relying too obviously on the Russian Army? Private militias, de-jure independent yet de-facto subordinate to the Russian state, looked like an attractive answer. They could fight the Ukrainian military, seizing and holding territory, all while Putin could deny there were any Russian troops in Ukraine at all.

The murkiness of the Donbas war provided an opening for all manner of opportunists and would-be warlords, part of what the British Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti calls Russia’s “adhocracy.” This model, Galeotti has written, “generates flexibility and initiative, but at the cost of duplication and control. Ambitious and cynical figures work to what they believe Putin wants, or else find ways to justify their own interests as being in line with those of the state.” Prigozhin, by then an oligarch of middling rank, saw an opening.

The precise origin of Wagner remains little more than a myth—a tale with more innuendo than hard facts—but it appears that Prigozhin offered himself as the moneyman and C.E.O. of a new mercenary outfit. Its military commander would be Dmitry Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in the G.R.U., the Russian military-intelligence agency. Utkin’s alleged proclivities for Nazi ideology and cultural ephemera gave the group its name: “Wagner” was once Utkin’s call sign, apparently in a nod to Hitler’s favorite composer. (Wagner members and supporters often refer to the group as the “orchestra” and its fighters as “musicians.”) Putin gave his consent, which meant that, even if parts of the regular Russian armed forces resented the idea, they had no choice but to get on board. Wagner recruited fighters among veterans of élite Russian military units. They were provided with a training and operations base in Molkino, in southern Russia, next to a similar facility that belongs to the G.R.U.; Russian military transport aircraft fly in supplies for Wagner fighters on their deployments.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in September, 2015, served as Wagner’s public début as a fighting force and recognizable brand. Putin pitched the campaign—supposedly to fight isis, but mainly to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad—as a counterterrorism mission, and a way to restore Russia’s geopolitical presence in the Middle East. But he was also clear that it should be a cost-free enterprise, with no mass mobilizations or televised coffins flying back to Russia. The Kremlin would rely on the Russian Air Force to bomb from the sky and Wagner fighters to seize territory on the ground.

Wagner’s forces played a key role in the capture of the Syrian city of Palmyra, in 2016, which the Kremlin celebrated with a concert featuring musicians from the Mariinsky Orchestra in the city’s Roman-era amphitheatre. The legend of Wagner grew, as did its utility in the eyes of Putin. Prigozhin developed the commercial side of Wagner; after all, a mercenary outfit, even one with obligations to its political masters, should make money. Companies linked to Wagner and Prigozhin signed contracts with Syrian counterparts that provided these firms with shares of the profits from oil fields they managed to seize from isis control.

This model, in which geopolitical interests, paramilitary action, and commercial pursuits readily intermingled, reached its apex in Africa. Wagner sold its services to the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, and Sudan—states with autocratic leaders whose shaky holds on power were being challenged by rebel groups and insurgencies. Wagner propped them up, often relying on brutality and indiscriminate violence toward the local population; in exchange, Wagner-related structures took control of natural-resources assets, whether mining or timber. In the Central African Republic, Wagner affiliates even tried to take over the local beer market. All of this pleased Putin, who had set a priority of returning Russian influence to Africa. Prigozhin was delivering.

Wagner was not initially included in Russia’s invasion plans for Ukraine. Putin and a close circle of advisers had envisioned a “special military operation,” essentially a blitzkrieg strike to decapitate the state. But Kyiv did not fall, and Russian troops became bogged down. Prigozhin could yet again present himself as a solution to Putin’s problems. By the spring of 2022, Wagner soldiers were in the fight, advancing in the Luhansk region, where they had begun eight years earlier. Wagner helped capture Popasna in May and made a push west, toward Bakhmut. Throughout the summer and fall of that year, Wagner was recruiting foot soldiers in Russian prison colonies, arming convicts and sending them to the front. Prigozhin, avoiding euphemism or political correctness, made the logic plain: “It’s either prisoners or your children. You decide.”

In January, Wagner captured Soledar, a town just northeast of Bakhmut, giving Russia its first tangible military victory in months. The Bakhmut “meat grinder,” as it came to be known, continued apace. Wagner threw waves of ex-convict recruits at Ukrainian positions, advancing, at most, by several metres a day. Prigozhin oversaw the war’s most gruesome and bloody operation, with tens of thousands of casualties, while also nurturing a reputation as a straight-talking truthteller. His approach to P.R. was tailored for the average Russian: war is ugly, but at least I’ll tell you how ugly, unlike the Defense Ministry, who lie to Putin and lie to you. He came to symbolize a camp in Russia that grew in influence the longer the “special military operation” dragged on: the so-called party of war, the part of the population that wants Russia to fight harder, more aggressively, to strike Ukraine with even less mercy and to mobilize the Russian people for the hardships of a drawn-out fight. That faction clearly has sympathizers in the military and security services.

The more high-profile Prigozhin became, the more his rivalry with the Defense Ministry deepened. His main nemeses were Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff. Theirs was partly a corporate conflict over power and resources. Each wanted the glory of Russia’s limited military successes; more important, neither wanted the blame for the many failures. Prigozhin fought openly and crudely, deploying a degree of media savvy that set him apart from his bureaucratic rivals. He also has something Shoigu and Gerasimov lack: personality. Prigozhin is a deeply unpleasant, even revolting, character, but he is undeniably a character. He forced himself into the center of the Russian war effort, regularly calling Shoigu and Gerasimov idiots, traitors, motherfuckers.

Ukraine held on to Bakhmut far longer than many expected. In hindsight, this strategy may have rested on the knowledge—or at least the hunch—that the meat grinder was exacerbating tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian military, and those tensions might explode into something damaging for Putin. As the fight for Bakhmut stretched on, Prigozhin became ever more vocal in his criticisms. In May, he accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of purposefully withholding munitions from Wagner units. He recorded a video in a field littered with the bodies of killed Wagner fighters. “They came here as volunteers and are dying so you can sit like fat cats in your luxury offices,” Prigozhin said, his voice sulfurous with anger. He implied Russia’s top military officials were guilty of treason.

Putin, meanwhile, did nothing, at least not publicly. This is Putin’s classic personnel-management strategy: not only does he tolerate internecine rivalries among various power centers, he welcomes them. In this way, he remains the system’s only credible arbiter. No one gets too strong; Prigozhin, for example, keeps the military in check and, in turn, they keep Prigozhin from growing too big in stature.

A year and a half of war, however, broke this model. Prigozhin grew ever more escalatory in his attacks on Shoigu and Gerasimov. “You fuckers who aren’t giving us ammunition, you scum, you will eat their guts in Hell!” he screamed in the May video filmed over his unit’s dead. He tried to blackmail Putin, perhaps successfully, into providing more munitions to Wagner, by claiming that the group’s forces were prepared to pull out of Bakhmut. When Wagner finally did take Bakhmut, last month, Prigozhin was quick to rush for the exits. He handed control of the city over to regular Russian units, likely because Wagner forces were depleted and the Ukrainian military was launching counterattacks along the city’s flanks. Every time Ukraine managed to take back a Russian position, Prigozhin’s tone was something between apoplectic and boastful, as if to say, Only I can bring victory, the rest of the Russian Army are a bunch of fools and wimps.

Putin’s continued silence, a strategy that may have worked in peacetime, was becoming untenable. Shoigu, more of a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic player than a public brawler like Prigozhin, came up with a plan to put Prigozhin in his place. Earlier this month, the Defense Ministry announced that all independent “volunteer” units—meaning Wagner most of all—had until July 1st to sign contracts that would fold them into the larger military structure. Putin signed off on the plan. Prigozhin had been protected because he was needed—his Wagner troops were the only ones advancing across the Russian front in Ukraine. But, if that advance is over, and Wagner were to answer to Shoigu, then what’s the necessity in keeping Prigozhin around? Prigozhin must have felt the danger growing.

Thus the move to mount what, by all accounts, looked like a military coup—albeit one led by an ostensibly private mercenary outfit. But, just as suddenly, on Saturday afternoon, Prigozhin announced that he and his forces were standing down. “Right now, the moment has come when blood could be spilled,” he said. “We are turning our convoy around and going back to our base camps.” The reversal was as unexpected and bizarre as the uprising itself. Before long, news emerged that a deal brokered by Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus and a Putin ally, would see Prigozhin leave for Belarus without facing criminal charges. Wagner fighters who had participated in the short-lived coup attempt would also be effectively amnestied.

What, then, was this all about? Prigozhin may have planned the operation as a means to get Putin’s attention and to tip the balance of behind-the-scenes power and influence back in his favor. The July 1st deadline must have looked ominous, not just for Wagner but for Prigozhin personally. He may have genuinely believed that a network of supporters and patrons in the military and security services were rooting him on and ready to emerge from the shadows. Certainly the speed and ease with which Wagner forces effectively captured Rostov-on-Don on Saturday morning was startling. Still, Prigozhin blinked, and this may well be the apex of his influence and role in Russian politics, though the strangeness with which this episode ended suggests its true finale may be yet to come.

Even if Putin, with Lukashenko’s help, managed to defuse the crisis and keep his rule intact, he is the clear loser in this drama. In an address on Saturday morning, he called Prigozhin’s actions “internal betrayal” akin to treason. For Putin, traitors are a category that he treats with far more contempt and mercilessness than even his foreign enemies. He gave rhetorical sanction, if not a promise, that Prigozhin would be destroyed. By that same evening, he agreed to let a supposed traitor walk without consequences, after he seized a Russian city with a million-person population for the better part of a day, and boasted of shooting down Russian military helicopters along his march to Moscow.

Such a reversal by Putin is not the behavior of a secure, confident autocrat.

In his address, Putin cited a historical analogy that should bring little comfort. “Such a blow was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country was waging the First World War,” he said, referencing the notion of stolen victory and “a stab in the back of our country and our people.” But that story of revolutionary subterfuge during wartime did not end well for the tsar. Not only did Nicholas II fail to reconstitute his power and continue to rule, he lost control of the country, setting up the disintegration of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Bolsheviks. Wars abroad have a way of unleashing uncontrollable political processes at home. Power everywhere, but especially in an autocracy such as Putin’s Russia, is ultimately a myth—a kind of collective agreement, often subconscious, to acknowledge and abide by the authority of a given individual. Putin, at least for now, appears to have put down the Prigozhin coup, but the myth that undergirds his rule will have taken its most serious hit yet, and the echoes of 1917 may prove far closer than Putin would like to imagine. 

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