In a bizarre series of events, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the notorious Wagner Group, seemingly dared to challenge Moscow with what appeared to be a “mutiny” triggered by a rocket attack on Wagner camps allegedly “ordered by [Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu” and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) (T.me/concordgroup_official, June 24).
Prigozhin’s initial swift success in gaining control over the Southern Military District’s headquarters in Rostov and reaching as far as Voronezh—only 200 kilometers from Moscow—led to repressive countermeasures by the Kremlin. Most importantly it forced President Vladimir Putin to reportedly denounce Prigozhin for “treason” in a Tsarist-style public address (T.me/news_kremlin, June 24). Yet, Putin actually referred to the organizers as “them,” not ever mentioning Prigozhin by name.
By the end of day on June 24, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov announced (T.me/rian_ru, June 24) that, as a result of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Prigozhin “will depart to Belarus” with his criminal cases closed—though conflicting reports indicate his case “for mutiny” may still be open (Kyiv Independent, June 26).
In the weeks leading up to Prigozhin’s “march for justice,” the Wagner chief had levied an increasingly aggressive barrage of condemnations against the Russian military bureaucracy embodied by Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov (T.me/Prigozhin_hat, May 4). Moreover, he questioned the political goals of Putin’s war. (Vk.com/Mysli Vslukh, May 23). In response, the MoD passed a measure to force irregular military formations to enter formal contracts, which Prigozhin refused to do (T.me/concordgroup_official, June 17).
While it is still early to determined what exactly transpired between Prigozhin and the Russian military establishment, two key questions come to mind: (1) Is Prigozhin independent of Putin as political player, and (2) will he continue to target Russia’s military leadership with such public denouncements?
Before the events of the weekend, Prigozhin’s increasingly public criticism had caused some observers to conclude that he was anticipating the coming end of Putin’s rule and thus was seeking to disassociate himself from the war against Ukraine. On this, Russian analyst-in-exile Stanislav Belkovsky concluded that “most likely, Wagner will truly become a part of Ukrainian history” with Prigozhin shrewdly “exiting the Z special military operation game” (T.me/SBelkovsky, May 6).
In contrast, Kyiv-based analytical firm Ascolta voiced the notion that Putin has been backing Prigozhin all along (Ascolta, May 23). Thus, Putin’s congratulations to the Wagner leader on “capturing Bakhmut” was characterized by Russian political strategist Yevgeny Minchenko as the “ultimate legitimization” of Wagner (T.me/politburo2, May 21). Putin’s long-time close associate, presently in exile in France, Sergei Pugachev admitted that Putin was “not a leader” and was rather letting his associates try out new ideas (YouTube, May 13).
Others have characterized Prigozhin as an “underworld” businessman against the Russian bureaucratic state. Russian political scientist Ekaterina Shulman explained Prigozhin as a “loose cannon ball” for the Russian bureaucracy–anchored statist system (YouTube, May 19). Minchenko, in an analysis of Russian elite groups, called him the system’s “joker” (T.me/politburo2, May 20).
Despite seemingly growing political ambitions, Prigozhin’s close affiliations with the “A Just Russia” party pushed some to question whether he would ever be elected to the State Duma. Others, such as political analyst Kost Bondarenko, have argued that Prigozhin belongs to Russia’s “war party” (Author’s interview May 18).
Yet, despite Prigozhin’s past calls to fight the war against Ukraine in earnest, more recently, he also called for an end to the war that would see Russia hold onto seized territories (YouTube, April 30). As a result, some Moscow commentators have asserted that Prigozhin supports the notion of a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine, which some reportedly call “the party of armistice” (T.me/rusbrief, May 28)—and this may not be far from Putin’s potential “exit strategy” from the conflict.
For his part, in a strongly worded “pre-mutiny” speech (T.me/concordgroup_official, June 23), Prigozhin argued that there had been no real reason to start the “special military operation.” The Wagner chief accused Shoigu; Gerasimov; other officials of Putin’s administration, including Vladislav Surkov and Dmitry Kozak; and unnamed “oligarchs” of mishandling the conflict for eight years and sacrificing “thousands of Russian klads.”
To that end, Prigozhin may be in the game of preserving his share of the “market” as a war entrepreneur. For a time, Wagner had been cooperating with the Russian MoD, though relations were not always smooth. On February 24, 2022, various Telegram channels aired Prigozhin’s statement praising the “Ministry of Defense’s special military operation” (T.me/Prigozhin_hat, February 24, 2022). Yet, according to experts from Ascolta, in February 2023, Prigozhin’s relations with Shoigu’s informal inner circle, which includes Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov and the Kovalchuk brothers (Yury and Mikhail), broke down and have been irreparable since (Author’s interview, May 8).
Lately, while criticizing Shoigu and Gerasimov, Prigozhin has pushed for his “own” generals—namely Mikhail Mizintsev and Sergey Surovikin. He praised Mizinstev’s managerial agility and credited him for co-planning the approach to recruit convicts as assault troopers. He likewise gave credit to Surovikin for approving the Bakhmut “meat-grinder” operation (Vk.com/Mysli Vslukh, May 23). Prigozhin also claimed that Sergey Aksenov, the Russian Federal Security Service and Russian special forces commanded by Aleksey Dyumin were responsible for the “2014 success in Crimea”—not Shoigu.
After a stint as Russian deputy minister of defense for logistics, Mizintsev became Wagner’s deputy director. In a recent propaganda video, he visited Wagner positions in Bakhmut and endorsed the commanders and instructors there (T.me/brussinf, May 4). Politically, Mizinstev plays the part of Prigozhin’s “Shoigu alternative.” Thus, quite possibly, Prigozhin’s role is as a counterbalance in criticizing the Russian MoD’s poor management of a modern war and in placing sole blame for poor returns in Ukraine on Shoigu and Gerasimov.
Yet, Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev has noted that, realistically, Prigozhin has limited political influence and depends on the Putin regime (Meduza, May 24). He represents the type of politician that the Russian system has been trying to dispose of for the past 30 years: an authoritative entrepreneur with a rich criminal past and legalized assets who provides services to the government for something in return. Remarkably, in a recent interview, Mizintsev appeared to be rather diplomatic and conciliatory toward the MoD, despite politely admitting to its mistakes (Dzen.ru/WarGonzo, May 29). He also overtly dismissed his own ambitions to replace Shoigu as the new minister of defense.
Moreover, Prigozhin’s “mutiny” received varying reactions from prominent Russian generals, with Mizinstev staying out of the limelight. Indeed, Surovikin (T.me/milinfoliv, June 24), and, in a rare public appearance, First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant-General Vladimir Alekseyev (T.me/ok_spn, June 24) publicly supported Putin and condemned the “mutiny.”
Thus, while relatively peaceful—save for reports of seven downed Russian military helicopters and aircraft (T.me/rusbrief, June 24) along with 15 regular military personnel (T.me/readovkanews, June 24)—Prigozhin’s march has allegedly been “resolved.” At this juncture, the end results appear to support notions of Putin’s weakening rule, in which real change has not been achieved as all major players remain in the game. Yet, on the other hand, as this precise preservation of stability seemingly emboldens the Putin regime against potential widespread chaos and a change in power, the situation may in fact suit Putin—thus underlining the idea that the Russian president may have indeed played his “wildcard” in an attempt to salvage a losing game.