By Arab News
By Yasar Yakis
Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin last week initiated a quasi-rebellion, but fortunately it was short-lived. President Vladimir Putin’s quick reactions prevented the collision of two armies both formed of Russian fighters. However, though the crisis was short-lived, its consequences may remain on the agenda for a relatively long period.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko mediated between Russia and Prigozhin. This serious incident could have spiraled further out of control if Prigozhin had not decided to order his mercenaries to stop their march toward Moscow.
The most important aspect of the crisis is that it proved the validity of several questions that were previously known by everyone but not voiced publicly. They include a plethora of problems caused by the Ukrainian war, the strained relations between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Prigozhin, and the economic problems that have been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
When a powerhouse grows out of proportion, it has to be duly dealt with. In Wagner’s case, there were multiple reasons for the rivalry. One of them was a personal feud between Prigozhin and Shoigu.
Prigozhin frequently used belittling and insulting language toward Shoigu, especially after the Ukrainian war started to go wrong and many Russian mercenaries were killed. Another reason for the strained relations was that Wagner was not supplied with sufficient weapons or ammunition. This negatively affected Wagner’s performance in its fight with the Ukrainian army.
Now that the heat of the crisis is over, we will have to see what the future holds for both Russia and Prigozhin. It is highly unlikely that Putin will forget or forgive Prigozhin. They know each other well enough to take their respective positions for the future. The Russian army has much better potential to deal with Wagner than the other way round. However, Prigozhin’s acceptance of a move to Belarus will not be the end of the story.
A few days after the crisis ended, Lukashenko said he and Prigozhin spent the first half-hour of their conversation swearing at each other. In order to prevent a potential attempt on Prigozhin’s life, he was being accommodated in a hotel room with no windows. Everyone knows what this means in Russia.
In similar cases, Putin’s opponents have been eliminated one way or another. His hands can easily extend to a friendly country like Belarus. Prigozhin’s settling in Belarus will probably only be a provisional arrangement. The final arrangement will be what Putin decides.
Global markets were not greatly affected by the Putin-Prigozhin clash. However, the international oil market was an exception. It was affected more by the crisis because Russia is an important player in the oil market. The value of the Russian ruble went down less than expected because Prigozhin spread his capital across as many areas as possible, so that if one of his businesses sinks, the other will continue to float.
In the period of good relations between Putin and Prigozhin, Wagner benefited greatly from attractive contracts in various fields. Now that this period is over, Prigozhin cannot be expected to benefit from such favors.
He was Putin’s favored caterer and this helped him to finance the operations of the Wagner Group, first in the Donbas, Ukraine, then in many regions in Africa and the Middle East. In 2018, Wagner attacked US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. The US forces retaliated and killed about 100 of the mercenaries. In August 2022, the Wagner Group was using billboards to recruit new members in Russia. The following month, Prigozhin was reported to be recruiting Russian convicts to fight in Ukraine. He also admitted for the first time that Wagner mercenaries were involved in fights with Arab countries, as well as African and Latin American states.
In order to praise the Wagner forces, Prigozhin said last October that his forces were making progress in the fight against Ukraine. And during the fall of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Prigozhin used his performance in Ukraine to reap monetary and political advantages as a result of his mercenaries capturing the city on behalf of the Russian government.
Last week’s move by Prigozhin will have consequences both inside and outside Russia. Domestically, those who were active on Prigozhin’s side will be hunted down one way or another. And Putin will grow more sensitive about similar incidents. Security measures will be tightened. Anti-government protests will be more closely controlled and more severely punished. Additional measures will be taken to prevent similar incidents.
The concept of mercenary armies may be redesigned and their size may be limited. Further lessons will be drawn from America’s Blackwater mercenaries.
Prigozhin’s dirty linen and possibly even that of Putin may be leaked to the media and we will learn about another set of clandestine and unlawful affairs.
Lukashenko and Putin will cooperate more closely in order to decide Prigozhin’s future.
Hiring mercenaries is a practice that dates back to antiquity. For example, Nicomedes I, the king of Bithynia from 278 B.C. to 255 B.C., was disputing the throne with his brother. He hired 20,000 Galatian mercenaries, split them into two armies and one crossed to Anatolia through the Bosphorus, the other through the Dardanelles.
The area of security is regarded as sacrosanct in almost every country. Today, many intelligence organizations use paramilitary services to carry out certain specific services. They are integrated into state organizations to carry out their mission. This favoritism provides them a status that others envy, allowing them to be exempt from certain rules.
In Russia, Prigozhin overplayed his closeness to Putin. The money that was not supposed to be used in the security bureaucracy was used by paramilitary services. Sometimes, the companies that work as subcontractors in such services consider themselves to be above any sort of auditing. Many members of such companies use their status to quickly climb up the commercial hierarchy.
We may also presume that the intelligence services of the Euro-Atlantic community may have facilitated Prigozhin’s misguided decisions.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party.