This weekend’s rebellion attempt in Russia by Wagner Group mercenary leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, has left us with many questions. We do not even know whether this was a real threat to Putin’s rule or a sham rebellion meant to bring further light on the ineptness of the Russian army and its shortcomings in Ukraine.
Putin has temporarily disappeared from public view in an apparent attempt to keep an arm’s length distance from Wagner and Prigozhin’s power games with Russian military elites. Prigozhin’s public criticisms have been mainly directed at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Army of General Staff Valero Gerasimov. Perhaps this situation is best described as Godfather Putin managing a squabble among his mob bosses. It certainly shows some cracks in Putin’s control of his regime. The rapid resolution of the rebellion, with the exiling of Prigozhin to Belarus and the supposed forgiveness of those involved, is not entirely convincing.
The Wagner Group is a mercenary private security force operating in numerous countries. Its growth to a force of around 25,000 soldiers had previously been encouraged and supported by the Putin regime. This number is much higher than the 12,000-strong private force of Chechen, Ramzan Kadyrov, but dwarfed by the approximately 830,000 soldiers who form the active “regular army” under the Military of Defense.
Wagner began operations around 2014 when it was involved in the annexing of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula. One could describe it as a military contractor group doing the dirty work of Putin and committing atrocities along the way. Besides Ukraine, these Wagner security forces have operatives in countries like Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Sudan, Chad, Yemen, and Mozambique.
Much of Wagner’s work involves providing “security” to oil and gas and natural resources interests, including diamonds and other rare earth gems. Prigozhin’s reputation has been described as the leader of “thugs and war criminals.” The Wagner Group works closely with the Russian military, and supports security services for Russian oil and gas companies Rosneft and Gazprom.
Personally sanctioned by the US Government, Prigozhin and his numerous companies were mentioned in the Mueller Report as being involved in a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, which was involved in active measures intended to disrupt the 2016 US election. Last fall Prigozhin became the public face of Wagner when he began recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in the Ukrainian war. The Wagner group forces in Ukraine have been a shining star of the Russian counter-offense, having won the battle for the City of Bakhmut.
Time will tell how Putin will attempt to manage this situation and whether he, Prigozhin, and other Russian military leaders will survive these internal conflicts. At the very least, the ‘strong men’ of Russia look a bit weaker following the events of last weekend. The reactions of the markets so far have been modest, but it is still much too soon to conclude that the consequences of the rebellion are understood.
Gary B. Martin