Russia’s Internal Rift: A Brief Look Into Recent Events – OpEd


Rumors flooded the Internet late June 23rd night when international media began reporting that the Russian Wagner Group had taken control of the city of Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin, the Wagner chief claimed in a series of later audio recordings published on Telegram that the Russian military’s “evil” “must be stopped” and that his Wagner mercenary group will lead a “march for justice” against the Russian military.

Russia’s FSB security service responded by opening a criminal case against Prigozhin, for armed mutiny against the state. A thorough examination of the origins of the Wagner group is necessary to better understand the situation.  

What is Wagner group and who is fighting for it?

The Wagner Group is officially known as the Wagner Private Military Company. It is essentially a network of mercenaries, a de facto private army run by Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who was once closely associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The group came to prominence during the Donbas war in Ukraine, where it helped pro-Russia separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics from 2014 to 2015. At that time it was a secretive organization working mainly in Africa and the Middle-East, which have had around 5000 active fighters, mostly veterans of Russia’s elite regiments and Special Forces.  Since then Wagner group has acted to implement Russian foreign policy in the region from Syria to Ukraine prior to Russia-Ukraine war with plausible deniability for the humanitarian and economic cost of the interventions. With time its size and influence grew considerably.

Wagner group in Ukraine war

By the start of Ukraine war in 2022 the mercenaries group started recruiting in large number as Russian army had trouble finding new men.

According to UK ministry of defence, by January 2023 “Wagner almost certainly now commands 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign”.

About 80% of Wagner’s troops in Ukraine have been drawn from prisons, said the US National Security Council. Although the mercenary forces are illegal in Russia and globally designated as a transnational criminal group, the Wagner Group registered as a company in 2022 and opened a new headquarters in St Petersburg.

In the war with Ukraine, the Russian army was forced to rely on these mercenaries after a long battle and unable to capture the city of Bakhmut. The Wagner Group was heavily involved in the Battle of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. These militias successfully conquered Bahmut and greatly increased their influence and importance in the war. The Wagner group claimed that its 20,000 men lost lives in the fight for Bakhmut, demanding more funds and ammunition.  

How has Wagner clashed with Russia’s military commanders?

In recent months, Prigozhin scathingly criticized and accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the army in Ukraine, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence and of deliberately undersupplying Wagner forces in Ukraine.

By the end of June, companies like Wagner were required to legally co-opt into the Russian regular forces by signing contracts, per a directive from the Russian defense ministry. Although The Wagner Group was not specifically mentioned in the directive, it is believed that the government was trying to exert additional control over it.

Prigozhin issued a furious statement stating his forces would boycott the contracts.

The confrontation culminated on June 23, when Prigozhin accused a senior Russian defense official of bombing Wagner’s troops in Ukraine, causing dozens of deaths. He did not share the death toll or other details, but the next day his troops seized military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and carried out a threat to march to Moscow to overthrow the military leadership.

At first, Wagner troops were reported to be getting closer to Moscow, without encountering any resistance, as President Putin in his emergency address ordered security to be tightened across the capital and elsewhere. Putin called the Wagner’s move an high treason to the Russian nation and vowed a befitting response.

But with the dramatic escalation seeming towards a possible confrontation, Prigozhin made an unexpected retreat, announcing that he had agreed to leave Russia through the mediation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin versus  Prigozhin shows a time tested truth: Proxies and mercenaries, like the proverbial Frankenstein monster, invariably outgrow their creators, often turning on them: it happened in turkey with President Erdogan and the Gulenists, it happened with US and Afghan Mujahideen who later morphed into Taliban, and it has happened many a time in Pakistan.

Since April 2022, when Russia failed to achieve the desired outcome in the first 90 days of the war, there has been a major consensus among European foreign policy experts that Ukraine will be Russia’s next quicksand. A prolonged war in Ukraine would fulfill the West’s desire to weaken Putin’s grip on the Russian regime. And this loosening of this control would end the invincibility of Putin’s rule in Russia. The recent episode of unrest and crisis are signs of weakened Putin in Russia, where an ally had to negotiate him out of the crisis, something unthinkable just a few years ago.

Ahmad Ali

Ahmad Ali is a student of Conflict studies at National Defence University, Islamabad.

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