Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group are deployed in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (Reuters Photo)

Wagner and the new Russian game

On June 23, 2023, the world experienced a great surprise when the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, revolted against the Russian government. Seemingly, the revolt arose due to increasing tension between the leader of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian Defense Ministry, especially Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

On June 23, 2023, the world experienced a great surprise when the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, revolted against the Russian government. Seemingly, the revolt arose due to increasing tension between the leader of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian Defense Ministry, especially Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Although Prigozhin has stated that the revolt was against anti-Wagner attitudes of the Defense Ministry, for him, an alleged attack on one of its rear camps by the Defense Ministry was the last straw. He soon released a video in which he harshly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

However, the ministry has denied Prigozhin’s allegations and the state institutions have not confirmed the claims.

Prigozhin initiated an armed conflict against the Defense Ministry, dismissed the Russian government’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine and blamed Shoigu for the military failures. He has also accused Shoigu of waging war for the interests of the Russian oligarchs rather than the state’s interests. He has pointed out that Ukraine has not posed a threat and NATO has not made plans to attack Russia.

Wagner launches seizure of Russia

The Wagner forces withdrew from Ukraine and began to seize the Russian territory. They took control of Rostov-on-Don, a Russian port city of the Southern Federal District, and the Southern Military District headquarters from the night of June 23 to June 24. After securing control of the city, they advanced toward Moscow on the morning of June 24. The Russian military intervened in the Wagner convoy and both sides suffered some losses. As the Wagner fighters continued to move toward Moscow, the city administration declared a counterterrorism emergency.

This action has caused great tension both in Russia and the world. The Russian National Guards and the military deployed armored vehicles in certain cities, including Moscow. On the one hand, many Russian high-ranking military officials intervened and tried to persuade Prigozhin and the Wagner fighters to stop the revolt.

On the other hand, President Vladimir Putin reacted harshly. He condemned Wagner’s actions as treason in a televised speech and assured the Russian people that Moscow would suppress the revolt. In response, Prigozhin has indirectly targeted the policies of President Putin. Many foreign observers have expected a large-scale military rebellion throughout Russia. Furthermore, the Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg were raided by the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service.

Belarus’ role

Unexpectedly, the revolt came to an end after negotiations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Although Prigozhin tried to negotiate with the top Russian officials, including Putin, the Russian president refused to speak with him. He asked Lukashenko to talk to Putin and brokered a resolution. After reaching an agreement, Prigozhin ordered the Wagner troops to stand down on June 24 and withdraw from Rostov-on-Don. The Wagner fighters agreed to stop their advance toward Moscow and returned to their bases in exchange for their safety. The Russian government has dropped all charges against Prigozhin and other Wagner members sent to Belarus. The government has proposed that the Wagner fighters who did not participate in the revolt sign contracts with the Defense Ministry or return to their homes.

Thus, the story of Wagner ended during the Russian-Ukrainian War. It was ironic to witness the end of the organization come at a place where its the birth of it, since Wagner, established in 2014, gained fame during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the very same year.

Lessons Learned

There are several conclusions and inferences that can be derived from the Wagner revolt. First, as one of the main short-term impacts of the Wagner revolt, Putin’s strongman image was severely damaged. The revolution has also revealed the weaknesses of the Russian security forces and the vulnerabilities of the unity of the Russian Federation. The Western countries have hoped that the revolt may have serious implications for the Russian state, which may result in the withdrawal from Ukraine. However, this expectation has not come true.

Second, considering that the Wagner Group has been operating in support of Russian national interests, receiving equipment from the Defense Ministry and training its fighters at the ministry’s installations, it is not groundless to claim that the group has been under the direct control of President Putin and the Russian government. However, the Wagner Group and its leader Prigozhin, who have been controlling vast amounts of resources, have no legal authority or responsibility. Therefore, it has become difficult for the Russian state institutions to control the group. After certain problems experienced with the Defense Ministry during the Battle of Bakhmut, they have increasingly begun to act independently. Eventually, Prigozhin started to criticize the policies of his own government.

Many observers interpreted the last action as the Russian state’s attempt to restructure the organization, probably under a new name. The international community, especially Western countries, heavily criticized the Wagner Group due to its violent activities in different countries. Therefore, some claim that the Wagner revolt was a conspiracy.

Third, considering that the Wagner Group had been operating with the tacit approval of the Russian government and President Putin as an effective instrument of Russian foreign policy worldwide, no one thinks Russia will dissolve the organization. It has played significant roles during the Russian military interventions in different regional crises such as the Donbass conflict, the Syrian crisis and the Libyan civil war. In addition, the Wagner Group has been engaging in warfare in third-world countries such as the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. The group is also known for exploiting natural resources in different countries for its services to governments in need of assistance against certain internal security threats and for its contribution to the funding of Russian warfare.

Fourth, the Wagner revolt has revealed the potential danger of the private military companies (PMCs) for the home as well as host countries. In other words, after controlling enormous powers, they may act independently. Probably, most countries will revise their perspective of PMCs, which have been used as actors of hybrid warfare by states to avoid responsibilities.

[Daily Sabah, June 28 2023]

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