La rebelión de Wagner, ¿el ocaso de los dioses?

Wagner's rebellion: The decline of the gods?


25 | 06 | 2023


The war in Ukraine is entering a new, uncertain phase, which could precipitate its outcome and put Putin's own leadership at stake.

In the picture

Yevgeny Prigozhin, on June 24 in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, in a video recorded by his organization [Wagner].

In a perhaps surprising, though not entirely unexpected way for anyone who has closely followed the saga of group Wagner's relations with the Russian Defense Ministry, the war in Ukraine has just taken a turn that places it in a new, uncertain phase that may precipitate its outcome and put at stake nothing less than the leadership of President Vladimir Putin himself.

Throughout the day of June 24, the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner culminated a long period of friction with the main commands of the Russian Ministry of Defense with a mutiny in which its leader, Yevgueni Prigozhin, marched with his forces to the Russian towns of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, where he occupied some military objectives, and from where he began a threatening progression towards Moscow, foreshadowing even a civil war.

The uprising occurred after months of disagreement with the Russian military chain of command in Ukraine, with which Wagner coordinates its action, but in which it is not fully integrated, on account of issues such as the distribution of resources, which the PMC considers detrimental to it; the behavior of the regular units in the capture of Bajmut, or the attribution of the leading role in its final conquest.

The behavior of Wagner's mercenaries has been generating suspicion among many Russian generals, who are increasingly distrustful of the group, which they have tried to bewitch by seeking its full subordination amidst increasingly undisguised protests. The straw that would have broken the camel's back and moved Prigozhin to rebellion could have been the decision to withdraw the PMC from the Bajmut front and, above all, the bombardment of the position it occupied in the rear and which, according to Prigozhin himself claims, would have been the responsibility of Russian regular units.

Wagner's decision has seriously destabilized the Russian military apparatus in Ukraine. The PMC's occupation of military targets core topic in Rostov-on-Don could have had fatal consequences for Moscow, given that the city is the headquarters of the Southern Military District Headquarters, whose 58th Combined Arms Army is engaged in defensive operations in Ukraine at a delicate moment when Russia is trying to contain Ukraine's recently launched offensive efforts in the Donbas region. In addition to this, the rebellion, had it been massively supported by the Russian civilian population, could have plunged the country into civil conflict and eventually brought down the Putin regime.

It is too early to make an exhaustive assessment of what is happening in Russia before our eyes. However, a few statements can be made. First, if Prigozhin's early statements are anything to go by, Wagner's move, despite its potential to do so, was not aimed at overthrowing President Putin; it was not even trying to question his legitimacy. It was specifically aimed at the military hierarchy advising Putin and directing the war effort; in particular at Defense Minister Shoigu, and General Gerasimov, head of the Russian armed forces, who are accused of the ills afflicting Wagner and of having embarked Putin on a war of no benefit to Russia. In other words, technically it would not be an attempted coup d'état but, rather, a new example of a mercenary group forcibly claiming his professional privileges, as has happened so many times throughout history. Nihil novum sub solem'.

The point is that, despite not being on the receiving end of Wagner's wrath (very much in line with the Russian historical idea that the tsar - in other words, the ruler - is a beneficent element - the myth of the "little father" tsar, of the 'tsar-batiushka' - who dispenses justice and watches over his people, but who is sometimes poorly advised and supported), President Putin has been faced with the dilemma of whether to support his chain of command or a group who is doing so much for the Russian war effort, and to whom he owes so much in other continents (Africa, for example). And in that situation he has decided to align himself with his Defense Ministry, abandoning Prigozhin, declaring his action a betrayal and a "stab in the back", and declaring his unequivocal intention to crush the movement. Thus, what began as a mutiny has been transformed, therefore, into what could be a checkmate to President Putin; into something that resembles a coup capable of shaking the foundations on which the power of the current tenant of the Kremlin is based, who could even be swept away by the events.

On its own, it does not seem that Wagner would be able to bring about a regime change: the group depends on the Russian armed forces, more powerful and with more means, for its support; the loyalty of the mercenaries to Prigozhin is not absolute and is conditioned by different factors that Putin can manipulate in his favor; moreover, the mutiny has not been massively supported by the Russian population, which may perceive that Wagner follows corporate interests, not those of the population.

In purely military matters, the open divorce between Putin and Wagner illustrates one of the great weaknesses to which those who decide to outsource their security by means of resource to private companies are exposed, ceding, in passing, part of the monopoly on the use of force which, legitimately, corresponds to the state. No matter how much they present themselves as groups imbued with a deep patriotic sentiment, the PMCs are outside the military chain of command, they are still driven by the profit motive, and obey agendas that do not necessarily coincide with those of those who hire them. They need results that enhance their reputation and assure them future contracts, which sooner or later leads them into confrontation with their contractors, whose objectives are not commercial but political.

What is also clear is that Ukraine, and its supporters, is preparing to exploit and encourage for its own purposes the vulnerability that Russia has voluntarily decided to open up as Kiev launches an offensive that, although it is not having, for the moment, the fulminating results that some predicted, has put the Russian forces in a compromising status . It is not strange that Putin has labeled this rebellion as a betrayal of the Russian cause.

The status is fluid and uncertain at the moment. Thanks to the mediation of President Lukashenko, Prigozhin has agreed to stop his advance two hundred kilometers from Moscow, and to return the units to his instructions while he withdraws unpunished to Belarus to avoid "bloodshed", a euphemism that would conceal the recognition that his pulse to the 'establishment' has escalated to a level he himself did not want, that he did not have the support of the Russian population -if he has ever sought it, which is doubtful-, and that the challenge to the government has backfired on him.

Despite this twist, the incident is far from over; rather, it opens or leaves open some questions that may have a significant impact on the course and outcome of the war. First of all, sample the existence of cracks in the domestic front that, conveniently exploited, may tip the balance of the war in favor of Ukraine. Putin's authority is called into question, which leads one to think that the incident has been falsely closed and that the president will try to reinforce his damaged authority by some direct or indirect means. Regardless of other measures, and given the Russian modus operandi in other cases of dissidence, Prigozhin would do well to worry about his physical integrity.

The future of Wagner and, for that matter, of any other PMC, whose relations with the Ministry of Defense, if it continues to count on them, will undoubtedly be different and much more restrictive. Russia has relied on Wagner for an important part of its international effort in Africa, so that the immediate dissolution of group does not seem a realistic option, at least in the short term deadline. Rather, a redefinition under a new leadership that accepts from the government more draconian conditions to operate, or a direct integration of its units into the Russian armed forces, could be envisaged.

In conclusion, it is not yet clear what direct impact the rebellion has had on Russian command and control over operations, how it alters its defensive plans, and how Ukraine will exploit the vulnerability that its enemy has gratuitously offered it. What is certain is that Kiev has watched the mutiny with delight, and will try to widen the rift to its advantage.