It was a shocking provocation in a country where Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a firm grip on power: a convoy of militarized mercenaries advancing on the capital Moscow calling for the resignation of top defense officials.
The weekend march by the Wagner Group ended before a possible confrontation with Russian forces. But experts say it revealed weaknesses in Putin’s regime and raised questions about the fate of the private military company that has been key to some of Russia’s successes in conflict zones across the globe.
The mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in an audio message released Monday that Wagner’s goal was not to topple the Russian government but rather to protest the elimination of the private military company and call attention to the failures of Russian military leadership in Ukraine.
The mercenary group didn’t want to fight the Russian military, he added, and only fired on Russian troops after they attacked Wagner fighters from the air.
Prigozhin also noted that the ease of a Wagner column’s march on Moscow — when he said his forces came within 120 miles of the city — highlighted disarray at the Defense Ministry.
In Prigozhin’s words, his forces had conducted a “master class” in how Russia’s armed forces should have taken Ukraine when they invaded in February of 2022.
Prigozhin said he ordered his forces to turn back outside of Moscow late Saturday because going further could have meant fighting Russian forces.
Nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin was once a close confidant of Putin, and the Wagner Group has been an indispensable part of Russia’s military engagements in Ukraine and other parts of the world, including Africa and South America.
But Prigozhin’s weekend rebellion against Russia’s top military brass may have upended the soldier’s fortunes.
Prigozhin won’t face charges for the mutiny, according to the Kremlin, but he’s been branded a “traitor” by Putin and Russian officials said he would head to neighboring Belarus.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the Wagner Group will be disbanded and what impact such a move could have in Ukraine and other places where Wagner mercenaries have been operating.
President Biden said Monday that he was working with allies to coordinate their response to the situation in Russia and that the U.S. was not involved in the rebellion, saying the U.S. had “nothing to do with it.”
A feud between the Wagner Group and Russian defense officials preceded the uprising
Long before the weekend, the Wagner Group and Russia’s Ministry of Defense had been engaged in a war of words.
Prigozhin accused Russian military leaders of bungling the war effort in Ukraine and claimed that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and others withheld ammunition from Wagner fighters out of bitterness.
Earlier this month, Shoigu announced that members of private military companies, including the Wagner Group, would be required to sign contracts with the military by July 1.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank, told NPR that Shoigu’s order likely motivated Prigozhin to organize the march on Moscow.
“Prigozhin said that he would not obey it, and clearly as the clock was ticking toward July 1, he was desperate to try to think of ways to stop that order,” Alperovitch said.
Wagner had been planning to return some vehicles to the Ministry of Defense when it came under fire from the Russian military, Prigozhin said, which allegedly left 30 Wagner fighters dead and prompted the march on Moscow.
He added that Russian military aircraft attacked the Wagner convoy along its route, forcing the mercenaries to fire back.
Other Russia experts saw Prigozhin’s gambit as a bid to gain more resources for his fighters and increase his influence over the military strategy in Ukraine.
“He staged this very theatrical rebellion that clearly threw the Russian leadership off balance. I don’t think they were expecting anyone to challenge Putin’s authority this much head on,” Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told NPR.
“But at the same time, the core goal was not to overthrow the Russian regime. It was to unlock more standing and authority for Prigozhin himself.”
After the public spectacle, the Wagner Group’s fate is uncertain
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said late Saturday that authorities would drop charges of “inciting an armed revolt” against Prigozhin.
Wagner forces that took part in the march would also not be prosecuted, and Wagner forces that didn’t participate would sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Kremlin added.
But it wasn’t immediately clear if Russia could afford to suddenly disband the Wagner Group, which has helped the country achieve gains in its war against Ukraine. The private military company was responsible for the high-profile capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last month.
Others say the Wagner Group gives Putin and other officials deniability, and turning a blind eye to the losses suffered by the mercenaries allows Russia to hide the true costs of war.
“They became Russia’s weapon of choice between 2014 and today,” Sean McFate, a professor at National Defense University, told NPR’s Morning Edition.
However, Prigozhin is unlike Putin’s other political rivals who have spoken out against the country’s leadership because has a “powerful army at his back,” McFate said, and it is not uncommon for guns for hire to stage rebellions against the governments that hired them.
“Mercenaries are the second oldest profession,” McFate said, “and there’s a long history of mercenaries turning on their masters.”
The Wagner Group has been dubbed a “transnational criminal organization” by the U.S. Treasury Department and faced sanctions — including against Prigozhin himself — for waging war in Ukraine.
Weiss said Putin had created “a bit of a Frankenstein monster for himself” in the Wagner Group, which operates as a de facto fighting force for the Russian state but with more autonomy than the military.
“There’s no easy way for Vladimir Putin to defang or demobilize the Wagner units,” Weiss said. “The challenge is always going to be: will they play ball with the Russian military leadership and act in coordination with them in pursuit of Putin’s military objectives in Ukraine?”
Prigozhin’s spokesperson told the Russian media outlet RTVI on Sunday that he “says hi to everyone” and would take questions once he got better cellphone reception.
The episode may have little impact on Wagner’s involvement in Ukraine
Weiss said the Wagner Group could continue to play a key role in the war in Ukraine, where the mercenaries have conducted offensive operations against Ukrainian military forces.
Alperovitch suggested that there had been “minimal impact” on the war in Ukraine following the Wagner march on Moscow and noted that Prigozhin himself said operations would continue despite his spat with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
But Alperovitch stressed that the saga is not yet over. A weakened Putin will be left to respond to the failed rebellion, he said, and Prigozhin has yet to make any public comments since the Kremlin announcement that he was going to Belarus.
“Prigozhin is still there. Wagner still exists. They have a lot of arms. They’ve shown themselves to be highly capable, and the Russian Ministry of Defense have shown themselves to be incapable of defending Russian territory,” he said.
“It’s really important for us to reserve our judgment and see how things play out over the coming days, and in particular to watch what Prigozhin is going to say and where he’s going to pop up in the coming days.”