Monday

4th Mar 2024

Column

What we learned so far from a short-lived mutiny in Russia

  • Locals photographing Wagner forces on the streets of Rostov on Saturday 24 June (Photo: Gordey Gaponov, Sergey Zorin)
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To paraphrase an old joke, it's only a coup d'état if it comes from the coup d'état region of France — otherwise it's just a sparkling mutiny.

And a sparkling mutiny it was.

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  • Yevgeny Prigozhin was seen as a rebel from within the Vladimir Putin regime and, thus, had legitimacy granted by the Kremlin itself (Photo: Anton Shekhovtsov)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who used to offer catering to dinners featuring Vladimir Putin and foreign leaders, and who would later create the Wagner private military company, forcefully challenged the Russian military and political leadership, as he threatened to march on Moscow 48 hours ago.

The so-called March of Justice was eventually aborted but not before the Wagner group disarmed dozens of Russian soldiers, took military facilities in Rostov and Voronezh under its control, and shot down several Russian helicopters and one airplane killing over a dozen of Russian military personnel.

The mutiny began on Friday (23 June) with Prigozhin accusing Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu of attacking the Wagner troops who had conducted some of the most successful Russian military operations in Ukraine.

And it ended the following day with the Wagner group and the Russian leadership agreeing to end hostilities. Prigozhin was offered a safe passage to Belarus, a criminal case against him over charges of organisation of armed mutiny was apparently dropped, and Wagner fighters were granted amnesty.

Prigozhin's mutiny was preceded by months of conflict between him, on the one hand, and Shoigu and chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov — on the other.

The tolerated war lord

Prigozhin, the most rebellious Russian irregular military chief, vehemently criticised the regular military leadership for corruption and wasting Russian soldiers' lives. And while Russian opponents of war could easily be arrested for "discrediting" Russia's army with their harmless anti-war posters, Prigozhin was tolerated even when he publicly contradicted the Kremlin key narratives on the aggression against Ukraine arguing that Nato was not planning to attack Russia and that there were no Nazis in power in Ukraine.

We should, of course, have no illusions about Prigozhin: he is neither an opponent of the Russian aggression against Ukraine nor a friend of the democratic world.

His Wagner group, consisting of professional murderers, brutes and criminals whom he recruited from Russian prisons, is responsible for some of the most inhuman and heinous war crimes in Ukraine. And his attacks against the Russian military leadership aimed at making the Russian war machine more, rather than less, efficient.

Prigozhin was increasingly popular beyond the Wagner group, but it would be a mistake to think that his popularity was based solely on the disagreements about army management. Prigozhin is also a populist, and his bashing of the Russian elites enjoying carefree life while sending Russian soldiers from lower social classes to die en masse in Ukraine resonated with many a Russian ordinary person.

Russia is, after all, one of the most socially-unequal countries in the world, and the war, for which the Russian authorities have preferred to recruit from the poorest and most depressed regions while avoiding to mobilise residents from the rich urban centres such as Moscow or St Petersburg, only made social injustice more salient.

The Russian population is extremely de-politicised — that was one of the long-term objectives of the Putin regime — but there is a clear demand for social justice.

As no real politics exist outside of the political environment rigorously controlled by the Russian authorities, Prigozhin's anti-elitist rhetoric was a breath of fresh air for many in Russia. Moreover, unlike the Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and his team, whom the Kremlin taught the Russian population to distrust, Prigozhin was seen as a rebel from within the Putin regime and, thus, had legitimacy granted by the Kremlin itself.

It was the demand for social justice, rather than thoughts about army management, that was at the root of the popular welcome of the Wagner troops as they occupied Rostov, and this demand remains strong in Russia despite the apparent end of Prigozhin's mutiny.

In addition to the growing anger at the social injustice, the mutiny exposed the cowardice of Putin and utter weakness of his regime. His apparent flight from Moscow in an unknown direction on Saturday (24 June) as Wagner fighters were "marching" on Russia's capital, drastically contrasted Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and the top Ukrainian leadership who fearlessly remained in Kyiv when hundreds of thousands of Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The fact that the Wagner group met little resistance from the Russian law enforcement either in Rostov or Voronezh or on their way to Moscow demonstrated that the Russian police was only good at beating up unarmed pro-democracy activists, but was useless when facing armed battle-hardened soldiers.

And it actually did not take a great number of Wagner fighters to deal the greatest blow to Putin's authority so far. Prigozhin claimed that he had 25,000 fighters, but in reality the number was unlikely more than 10,000.

As he fled Moscow, Putin showed to the Russian elites that in times of real crisis he was unable to protect them, and they had to make their own security arrangements booking flights to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. And while a few top officials were apparently instructed to voice their support for the Russian political and military leadership, the Russian population maintained a resounding silence: no-one went out to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin.

Putin's regime has long rested not on love or respect but on fear. But now, Putin's cowardice and the fragility of the Russian state structure have likely forever compromised fear as the main fuel of the Kremlin's political control.

But what is perhaps even more important against the background of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine is that Prigozhin's mutiny has dramatically undermined the already low morale of Russian soldiers and officers.

This development may become one of the key factors determining the Russian military defeat, with potentially far-reaching implications not only for the Putin regime but also for the Russian state.

Author bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Vienna and author of three books: New Radical Right-Wing Parties in European Democracies (2011), Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (2017), and Russian Political Warfare (due 2023).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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