How Prigozhin’s Baby Coup Weakened Everyone in Russia
“Everybody who's anybody in Russia would try to have a private army now”
The short-lived rebellion of Russian mercenary fighters against the Russian government this weekend exposed the Kremlin’s dependence on private military contractors it can’t control. That’s a boon to Ukraine, but also a big problem for all the Russians involved, Russia watchers told Defense One.
Recap: On Friday, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner mercenary group, claimed Russian military forces had fired on Wagner positions in Ukraine. Prigozhin vowed “justice” against Russian defense officials for their mishandling of the war. Prigozhin’s claim came after Wagner forces did most of the heavy fighting—and dying—to secure small, strategically insignificant gains in the Bakhmut area of Ukraine. Prigozhin, commonly referred to as “Putin’s Chef,” had been sparring publicly for months with the Russian defense ministry, claiming they weren’t offering enough support for his efforts, and often taking direct aim at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin enjoyed some popular support among rightwing Russian military bloggers for his hardnose tactics and visible social media presence on the battlefield.
On Saturday, Wagner mercenaries entered Russia with little resistance from border guards. Prigozhin marched into the Russian Southern Military District headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don.
The event was not bloodless. The casualty count was 13 Russian pilots, six Russian helicopters, and an Il-18 command and control aircraft on the Russian military side—plus an unknown number of Wagner mercenary combatants, according to Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses.
President Vladimir Putin pledged to punish the mutineers. And by Saturday evening in Moscow, the Kremlin announced it had struck a deal with Prigozhin: He’d exile to Belarus and the Wagner forces that mutinied would face no punishment. “Some of them, if they wish to do so, can later ink contracts with the Defense Ministry” Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state-backed media outlet TASS.
Perhaps the most important revelation to emerge from Prigozhin’s coup attempt is that Russia is too dependent on Wagner mercenaries to effectively confront them, Mark Voyger, the director of the master's program in global management at the American University in Kyiv and senior fellow at Center for European Analysis, told Defense One. “The fact remains that these are still the best trained, the most motivated, the most cruel, the most brutal but still the most capable…forces that the Russian command currently has at their disposal…The Russian military cannot conjure up new forces in the foreseeable future capable of doing, you know, even a portion of what Wagner was doing.”
That’s in large part because Wagner forces could operate according to their own rules, unlike the Russian military, Voyger said. The force is composed of veteran fighters, but also convicts straight from prison. That will make it very hard for the Russian military to fold the mercenaries into formal service, he said, though the Russian military had stated plans to do precisely that by the end of the summer—likely the main catalyst for Prigozhin’s march in the first place.
“Most of them are hardened criminals and murderers. How is it done? What is it going to do to the morale of the Russian troops?...Imagine the officers trying to run such a motley crew? Indeed, those people have their own chain of command,” Voyger said.
The hybrid nature of the Wagner group has also made it more valuable to Putin, who won’t be able to replace the mercenary group’s global reach with formal Russian military groups, said military analyst and Russia-watcher Rob Lee. “They are somewhat private in nature, but they're also public … and they depend on the Russian government for operations in Africa,” and elsewhere. But, said Lee. “There's no way Putin wants to give up that kind of influence.”
But that doesn’t mean the Wagner group, or Prigozhin, are in a great position now, Lee said. “By doing this, right when [Russia] is defending territory, when Russian soldiers are fighting, and under this really tough situation, the optics are really bad. It appears Wagner shot down a bunch of Russian aircraft and killed a lot of airmen. If that’s true, how is there a workable solution going forward? Because Wagner depends on the Russian air force for a lot of things.”
Bottom line, Lee said, “I think it probably weakens everyone on the Russian side. Putin has been weakened because of the direct challenge to him. And even after a kind of betrayal, Prigozhin is probably not going to jail right now ...The Russian [Ministry of Defense or MOD] looked weak for allowing this to happen, for having Prigozhin talk down to senior Russian MOD officials in Rostov earlier today. And for Prigozhin, this might be a short term kind of win, but not long term…what has happened is that basically, Prigozhin has kind of made himself this public potential threat to Putin himself.”
Still, Saturday’s events do not foretell the imminent collapse of Putin’s regime, the experts said. There simply is no political challenger for anyone to get behind. Even Prigozhin wasn’t aiming his anger directly at Putin, which is why analysts were reluctant to name the march a proper “coup.”
But the “chef’s” future is as persona non grata, said Sam Bendett, also an analyst at CNA. “He openly challenged the state. He cannot now go back to normal, whatever that normal was. That's no longer possible.”
Putin, too, had lost something essential as the smoke cleared, Bendett said. As a head of state, he “was unable to fully exercise monopoly on forced violence and control.”
Bendett, Lee, and Voyger agree that Ukraine was the main beneficiary of the weekend’s events, and that Prigozhin’s future prospects are dim. But, Voyger said there is another beneficiary as well: any power brokers in Russia who may choose now to start their own private military.
Because the Russian state doesn’t have much power over such groups, regional factions and even corporate petroleum entities may now look to build their own mercenary forces for protection from rivals, Voyager said.
“Everybody who's anybody in Russia would try to have a private army now. Because effectively Prigozhin showed them all that if you put enough pressure on Putin, he's gonna yield and cut a deal with you. And you may even walk out alive, and then your people may enjoy some kind of some kind of…deal with the Russian state.”