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The Wagner Group Mutiny Shows Weaknesses in Putin’s Regime

The theatrical mutiny staged by oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, was short-lived but damaging for Putin’s regime.

Claudia Cinatti

June 30, 2023
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On the left, Vladimir Putin. On the right, Wagner Group leader Prigozhin.

Last week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group, staged a mutiny against President Vladimir Putin’s regime. By the end of the day, however, unity was maintained around Putin and Prigozhin did not achieve his goals, such as the ousting his two main enemies: defense minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of general staff in charge of the war in Ukraine. 

But the fact that this mutiny even occurred — an event unheard of since the final days of the Soviet Union —- has exposed dangerous vulnerabilities in Putin’s regime that will have a direct effect on the course of the war in Ukraine. Now that this critical moment has passed, Moscow has launched an operation to symbolically repair Putin’s authority, and by extension, the Russian state itself.

The Kremlin’s official version of events is more or less as follows: Putin was in control of the course of events from beginning to end. If the Russian army wasn’t able to suppress the Wagner militia convoy’s march from the southern city of Rostov to just outside of the capital, Moscow, it was a conscious decision in order to avoid a bloodbath that would weaken the army in the midst of Ukraine and NATO’s counter-offensive. 

Nevertheless, there were some clashes and casualties, for which Putin praised a group of regular army soldiers. And it was Putin himself who commissioned his ally-servant, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko (whom Putin saved from a popular rebellion), to negotiate with Prigozhin to stop the so-called “March of Justice” to Moscow and go into exile in Belarus.

Putin’s political and rhetorical strategy is to lessen the impact of the attempted rebellion by this private, quasi-state militia and declaring victory over the seditionists, behind whom the Kremlin sees the influence of Western powers. As politics is also about appearances, Putin’s over-acting of authority in his television appearances is a way to compensate for the weaknesses in his regime, showing its contradictions.

According to reports, neither Prigozhin nor his subordinates face criminal charges, though Putin has accused them of nothing less than treason. The government and state security services halted the investigation, and the mercenaries will be allowed to integrate into the regular army. This from a regime that sentences opponents, conscientious objectors, and even those who dare refer to the war as a “war” — not a “special military operation” as the Kremlin calls it — to at least 15 years in prison 

Even the Wagner Group — a lucrative capitalist enterprise which, in addition to its role in the war in Ukraine, outsources other wars and military operations — will be allowed to continue operating in service of the Russian state in Syria and Africa. 

In an audio broadcast on his Telegram channel, Prigozhin gave his version of events. He maintained that his aim was not to do a coup d’etat nor question Putin, but to preserve the Wagner Group’s autonomy. Russia’s Ministry of Defense had announced that as of July 1, the group would have to submit to the ministry’s authority, basically dissolving the group. He also denounced the Russian army’s “friendly fire” against Wagner fighters, and the lack of munitions and arms supplies that the group was receiving.

In recent months, especially since the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September 2022, Prigozhin has been harshly attacking Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom he believes are responsible for Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine. He even made military extortions, given the prominent role the Wagner Group has been playing in the war. In early May, standing in front of piles of corpses, Prigozhin threatened to abandon the battle for the city of Bakhmut, although he did not end up doing so, only withdrawing after having captured the city at great cost.

Throughout the course of the war, Prigozhin was one of the most vocal war-mongers, going as far as to suggest North Korea as an example to follow. But in an about-face, he questioned the grounds under which Putin launched the invasion, with populist speech typical of someone with political ambitions. He proclaimed that the “special military occupation” only benefited a sector of oligarchs close to the regime, although he himself is an oligarch. 

Until now, Putin’s incendiary diatribes were able to neutralize power disputes between different military factions, the security apparatus, and the government bureaucracy, which make up the “ecosystem” of the Russian regime. As correctly defined by Richard Sakwa in his book The Putin Paradox, the Russian “regime-state” — in which Putin is the central figure, but must maintain a balance between “horizontal pressures” — emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin and was perfected as Bonapartism under Putin. 

However, this time Prigozhin went too far, in both actions and words. For now he is out of the game, unscathed, but some speculate that he will be treated to a tea with polonium-210

As expected, this opaque event adds density to the “fog of war” that makes it practically impossible to know the truth. There are all kinds of speculations that correspond roughly to the interests of the sides in conflict. Western media serving the Ukraine/NATO war effort were quick to herald “the beginning of the end for Putin” and put the spotlight on the weakness of the Russian regime, due to its strategic miscalculations in the Ukraine war. 

At the other extreme, there are those who take as an example the purge launched by Recep Erdogan in Turkey after having put down the attempted military coup in 2016. Others turn further back in history, to the “doctors’ plot” that served as an excuse for Stalin to unleash his last purge, and contend that Putin will emerge stronger from the Wagner mutiny. There are even conspiracy theories circulating that it was actually Putin himself who instigated the event to consolidate his control and discipline the various rival cliques bidding for shares of power in the upper echelons of the Kremlin.

Regardless of whether or not it was Prigozhin’s intention, the mutiny was effectively not a coup. Even though sectors of the army, where there is plenty of discontent over the course of the war and lack of perspective, let the mutiny run — or at least did not put too much effort into repressing it — it did not break the high commands that remained with Putin. Without at least a fraction of the army, a private militia cannot carry out a coup alone, in the first place because it is not a state power. Having said this, it is convenient to specify the particular relationship of the Wagner Group with the Russian State.

Under neoliberalism, the tendency towards the privatization of war has deepened. Private Military Companies (PMCs) were invented by imperialist democracies and had their debut during the Angolan war in the 1960s. The most widespread example is that of Blackwater (now known as Academi), the military enterprise that collaborated with the U.S. government during the war and occupation of Iraq but was disgraced due to its horrendous war crimes, But this private army, which signed million-dollar contracts with the Pentagon, never established a parallel military command. 

By contrast, the disproportionate role that the Wagner Group has had in the Ukrainian war and the increasing influence of Prigozhin in the decision-making scheme, speaks to the vulnerabilities of the Russian army and the strategic miscalculations of Russia’s political and military command, which amplify as the impact of the “war of attrition” in Ukraine is felt more intensely. Although on a tactical level Russia has achieved some victories, these are not decisive, and strategically, the war has tended to transform Russia into a junior partner of China. 

Wagner’s mutiny had international repercussions. China, Russia’s main ally, aligned with Putin — although the Xi government, in line with Beijing’s traditional policy, treated it as an “internal matter” over which it has no interference.   

In public, President Joe Biden and the leaders of the NATO powers who are playing a big role in the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive encouraged Zelenskyy’s camp to seize the window of opportunity opened by the mutiny crisis. Nevertheless, that opportunity vanished quickly. 

Overall, the mutiny did not change the dynamics of the much-heralded counteroffensive, which despite counting on a significant arsenal provided by NATO, is proving much slower and more expensive than what was predicted in the military models. In four weeks, the Ukrainian army has hardly made any significant advance.

If NATO thought that this Ukrainian counteroffensive would define the course of the war, they should recalculate their plans. The prolonged war of attrition has a high cost both for Russia and for Ukraine, but given the asymmetry of the two sides, and that the war is being waged in Ukrainian territory, it is the latter that bears the biggest brunt. 

Western powers, in particular the United States, have been generously arming the Ukrainian army because it allows them to further their own interests — weakening Russia, redoubling their hegemony over Europe, and enlisting allies against China — without putting their own soldiers on the ground. But these powers have been petty when it comes to repaying Zelenskyy’s sacrifice. They collect the war’s astronomical debt and already have on file the possible reconstruction deals. If the conflict follows this course, the emergence of Ukrainian “Wagners” cannot be ruled out.

The most important thing is that, in private, the Wagner Group rebellion set off alarm bells among the western powers against a possible chaotic crumbling of Putin’s regime. It is precisely this danger that has been pointed out by lucid and experienced counterrevolutionaries, like Henry Kissinger, as well as other exponents of “realistic” conservatism, who advise taking advantage of China’s involvement to negotiate an end to the war. The logic of this sector is that the strategy of the “proxy war” that the US is employing to weaken Russia has a limit, and that it would be be inadvisable to precipitate a “regime change” in the world’s second nuclear power, which would pose an immediate security threat to Europe and to the world in general.

As we have been arguing, the Russian war is reactionary. Behind Ukraine is NATO and the interests of the United States’ imperialism. Behind Russia and China lie their own capitalist interests and great power ambitions. That is why we propose that the alternative to positions that from the Left align with the Ukraine/NATO side, or those that see the Russia/China bloc as a lesser evil in the face of North American imperialism, is to confront the war and imperialist militarism from an internationalist and socialist position.

Originally published in Spanish on June 27 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Molly Rozensweig and Raura Doreste

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Claudia Cinatti

Claudia is an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina.

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