The events of June 23-24 amounted to a mutiny, not a coup d’état. Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s objective was to renegotiate the terms of his contract with Putin and the Ministry of Defense, never to topple the regime. That’s how it is in modern Russia. Events solved elsewhere by lawsuits in hushed courtrooms are fixed with automatic rifles and bombastic social media tirades.
Prigozhin has found himself in a difficult spot in recent weeks, and needed a way out.
There were two reasons for this. First, the slow progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive was showing the public, and to the Kremlin, that the Russian army could fight — albeit in simple defensive operations — without Wagner, so disproving Prigozhin’s claims to the contrary.
Less than a month ago, Prigozhin was arguing that his Wagner was the only unit capable of winning the war or thwarting the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and many, including in the army, were inclined to trust his judgment. Now that the Russian army has continued to engage Ukrainian forces, and shows few signs of collapse, the greatly over-hyped role of Wagner in the capture of Bakhmut is becoming a distant memory. Wagner has no role in countering the Ukrainian offensive.
Second, the Ministry of Defense realized it was a good moment to renegotiate its relations with private military companies, most importantly with the Wagner group. The military received Putin’s blessing for the change. Prigozhin could keep sabotaging the signing of a contract with the Ministry of Defense and insult Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and head of the armed forces Valery Gerasimov, but Wagner’s growing irrelevance in the most important battle of 2023 had weakened his negotiating hand. Finally, it dawned on him that Shoigu and Gerasimov used Wagner all those months to preserve and increase the fighting capacity of the regular army. Wagner is still needed, but Russia’s senior leaders are no longer willing to pay the price he demands.
Like some medieval condottieri in 15th century Italy, Prigozhin chose to renegotiate his terms with the prince right in the middle of the battle, and using the same logic — the bigger the crisis, the better his cards.
Prigozhin’s raid on Rostov-on-Don was so outrageous and brazen that it reminded the Russians of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Chechen militants walked into hospitals, towns, and schools, taking everyone hostage and demanding the Kremlin stop the war in exchange for civilians’ lives.
This may seem strange from the former convict and restauranteur, who has been the president’s confidant and lackey through the years. But he acted because there is some truth in his self-depiction as a hard-handed Ordinary Ivan who finds himself in the snake pit of Kremlin intrigue (Prigozhin really is no Machiavelli) and because he had the means of revolt at his fingertips.
As the leader of a mercenary army, where personal loyalty is everything and Russian army authority nothing, Prigozhin repeated the ploy used by a Chechen warlord many years before — he launched an attack on a civilian town to force the Kremlin into a deal. This was a naked exercise of personal power; there was no higher cause at issue, just the private interests of one man.
To make his point, Prigozhin marched into the nerve center and logistical hub of the Russian war effort in the war in Ukraine. He met no resistance, despite a heavy military presence in Rostov-on-Don, and the presence of the FSB’s military counterintelligence operatives within Wagner’s ranks. He took several high-level hostages — deputy defense minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov, and the first deputy of the GRU military intelligence agency, Vladimir Alekseev (we wrote in May 2022 about how Alekseev had been tasked with leading Russia’s intelligence effort in the war on Ukraine.)
While Yevkurov and Alekseev chose to stay in Rostov-on-Don and fell into the hands of Wagner, the Rostov department of the FSB barricaded itself in its city headquarters. As for its military counterintelligence operatives assigned to Wagner, they did nothing.
In Moscow, the FSB responded to the crisis in a very peculiar way – issuing a call to Wagner’s soldiers to arrest Prigozhin. There was no explanation for why the FSB decided to delegate this job to Prigozhin’s people — and it’s worth remembering that arrests in Russia can be conducted by law enforcement agencies and the security services. There’s no need to delegate the task to mercenaries.
The response of the army was equally baffling. From all the forces that the Ministry of Defense had at its disposal in the region, which are significant, only air elements were ordered to stop the Wagner column advances northwards. They lost several helicopters, and at least 12 pilots died, and failed. In the background, there was the National Guard, Rosgvardia (including the Chechens), who were spotted wandering across the Rostov region, taking care not to cross paths with Wagner.
This doesn’t mean the Wagner mutiny caused a collapse or disorientation in the Russian army — at the same time Prigozhin was invading Rostov-on-Don, the armed forces kept fighting its Ukrainian foes.
The Russian army and the secret services just failed to respond to Wagner’s challenge. The reasons for that are hardwired into the way Putin built his political system. At the very moment Prigozhin was insulting Yevkurov on this now-infamous video with the three of them – Prigozhin, Yevkurov and Alekseev — in Russian HQ in Rostov-on-Don, the two Russian generals were probably asking themselves — what if this maverick still has direct access to Putin?
And if so, what if the two of them decided to make a deal? Or if they responded with force and there was then serious bloodshed? Who would Putin blame — his pal, or the generals? It’s a tricky question given the traumatic history of Russian army involvement in political crises, most famously in the October 1993 shelling of the parliament building in Moscow.
And the generals were right. This is exactly what happened – Putin and Prigozhin, two pals from St Petersburg, made a deal. All criminal charges against Prigozhin were dropped, and he was allowed to leave for Belarus.
The deal has made Putin look weak for many reasons, not least that it put to question his cherished sovereignty – after all, he let his minor partner, Lukashenko, fix his internal political problem.
But the deal also left the army and the Russian secret services with a set of difficult questions. What about the 12 or more Russian pilots killed by Wagner? What can be said to their relatives? What if next time it’s Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov? Or some big shot on the Security Council?
And it also poses one absolutely central problem for Putin and his continuing rule; the security agencies he trusted with the protection of his regime now know that it’s better not to interfere in a dispute within the leader’s inner circle. That’s a conclusion that any sensible security forces officer now has scorched into his consciousness. It can’t be unlearned, and it could prove fatal.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.