The abortive Wagner Group insurrection could have significant implications for Russia’s ability to react to Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
Even in such a fast-moving war, still some events have the ability to surprise. The decision by the leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to launch an apparent coup attempt, leading his troops into Russia, where he occupied the military headquarters in Rostov and was heading towards Moscow, appeared to have left the Kremlin floundering.
Then, with his troops reportedly only 200 miles from the Russian capital, Prigozhin announced they would make an about-turn and return to their bases, to avoid shedding Russian blood. Under the terms of the deal, apparently brokered by the Belarusian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Prigozhin was going to Belarus and would not face prosecution. Nor would any of his troops who took part in the abortive uprising. But the episode clearly unnerved the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who had appeared on state TV yesterday morning describing his former close associate’s move as ‘equivalent to armed mutiny’.
The Wagner Group has borne the brunt of much of the fiercest fighting, especially during the bloody battle for Bakhmut. The reasons for Prigozhin’s apparent mutiny are not yet clear. But his statements have explicitly been aimed against Russia’s military leadership and the Ministry of Defence.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Wagner Group boss claimed that the Wagner Commanders’ Council had made the decision to stop ‘the evil brought by the military leadership’ who neglected and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers. This appears to be a direct reference to Prigozhin’s claims during the Bakhmut campaign that his units were being deliberately starved of ammunition.
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In the past few weeks the Ministry of Defence—apparently with Putin’s backing—announced it would bring the Wagner Group and other irregular forces and militias under its direct control. The announcement was seen as an indication of Russia’s desperate need for manpower and the Kremlin’s desire to avoid full-scale mobilisation of the population. It was also taken as evidence of the growing animosity between Prigozhin and the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin flatly refused to sign a contract, but the Akhmat group of Chechen forces became one of the first to sign up.
Changing the law
The announcement, by the deputy defence minister, Nikolai Pankov, is significant. It was not until Putin signed changes to defence regulations in November 2022 that the inclusion of ‘volunteer formations’ was legalised for the first time.
Previously, Article 13 of the constitution of the Russian Federation had explicitly banned ‘the creation and activities of public associations, the goals and actions of which are aimed at creating armed formations’. Article 71 also states that issues of defence and security, war and peace, foreign policy and international relations are the prerogative of the state and therefore private companies cannot be involved. The criminal code further identifies mercenary activity as a crime, including the ‘recruitment, financing or other material support of a mercenary’, as well as the use or participation of mercenaries in armed conflict.
Putin’s amendments to the Law on Defence appear to change this. The amendments were implemented by Shoigu’s order of February 15th, which set out the procedure for providing volunteer formations with weapons, military equipment and logistics, as well as setting out conditions of service.
There have been signs of increasing prominence and acceptance of private forces within Russia. In April, the deputy governor of Novosibirsk announced that employees of private military companies would be able to use the rehabilitation certificate issued to state military veterans of the Ukraine war to gain access to a range of services. There have also been reports in the Russian media that Wagner recruitment centres have opened in 42 cities across the country (the group notoriously recruited heavily from Russian prisons).
There are a range of irregular forces operating in Ukraine, including Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, the Kadyrovtsy, which officially come under the command of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), alongside private forces such as Wagner, Redut, Patriot and Potok. These volunteer formations offer a more flexible force than conventional military forces, which operate under a notoriously rigid chain of command.
They also provide a convenient ‘cut-out’ for the Russian state: private groups and individuals bear human, financial and political costs which would otherwise be borne by the government. And the Kremlin can fudge the list of official military casualties—otherwise a source of considerable public anxiety directed at the government and its leader.
A force at war with itself
But the increasing visibility of these groups in Ukraine and the public infighting between the Ministry of Defence and the groups’ leadership is a reminder of the system of patronage and fealty which characterises political culture in today’s Russia. Turf wars are common, as rivals compete for resources, influence and, of course, the ear of Putin himself. One only has to look at the insults hurled at each other by Prigozhin and Shoigu.
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Prigozhin has been very vocal in his criticism of Shoigu and the Russian generals running the war, frequently accusing them of incompetence and corruption. The long-running acrimony between the pair reportedly stems from the defence minister cutting off Prigozhin’s access to profitable defence contracts.
This rivalry serves Putin’s interests to a certain extent: as long as any potential challengers are busy fighting each other, they pose little threat to his position. But it hinders the country’s combat effectiveness, as the fragmentation of forces makes command and control difficult, and means there is little unity of effort.
The move by the Russian defence ministry to bring volunteer formations under its control must be understood against this backdrop of fragmentation and in-fighting, as well as the continuing conscription round. The current conscription window, which opened on April 1st and closes on July 15th, has a stated goal of recruiting 147,000 soldiers.
But Prigozhin’s revolt against Russia’s military leadership and his seeming open defiance of his formerly close ally Putin will also have significant implications for Russia’s ability to react to Ukraine’s counter-offensive—as will become clearer in the days and weeks ahead.
Tracey German is a professor in conflict and security at King's College London. Her research focuses on Russian foreign and security policies, including Russia’s use of force in the post-Soviet space and the impact of NATO and EU enlargement on Russia’s relations with its neighbours.