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Moment that mattered: Russian mercenary group Wagner marches on Moscow

 

Members of the Wagner group patrol the centre of Rostov-on-Don, shortly before marching on Moscow, 24th June 2023

Members of the Wagner group patrol the centre of Rostov-on-Don, shortly before marching on Moscow, 24th June 2023.

When a detachment of some 5,000 heavily armed troops from the Russian mercenary group Wagner left the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and marched north towards Moscow as part of a mutiny – before turning back a few hours later –  Yevgeniya Gaber understood that things would not end well for its mercurial leader and financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“It was obvious that Prigozhin was not going to survive politically, even physically, and there were all the jokes, that he should stay away from balconies,” says Gaber, a former diplomat, foreign policy advisor to Ukrainian

prime minister Denys Shmyhal and current senior fellow at US think tank the Atlantic Council. “For Vladimir Putin, revenge is a meal to be served cold.” Two months after the mutiny a jet en route from Moscow to St Petersburg carrying Prigozhin, Wagner’s deputy leader Dmitry Utkin and eight others crashed into a field, killing all on board. Once seen as untouchable, Prigozhin’s reported demise was preceded by a hard, fast fall from grace.

His rise to prominence as a skilled military tactician, especially in Ukraine, and as an expert in the dark arts of propaganda and social media manipulation had seen the 62-year-old become a sort of cult anti-hero for many Russians. The former hot dog salesman had even been mooted as a possible successor to Putin. But his shock decision to march his soldiers on Moscow – ostensibly with demands to remove the defence minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin had clashed with and accused of being incompetent – was the most direct challenge to Putin’s rule in over two decades. The insurrection was a crucial moment for Russia, Putin, the war in Ukraine and, most immediately, for Prigozhin himself.

Prigozhin’s rise was as rapid as it was extraordinary. He grew up in St Petersburg and spent nearly a decade in jail for armed robbery and fraud. He met Putin soon after his release, during the wild post-Soviet ’90s. Prigozhin had reinvented himself as a restaurateur and, with Putin’s patronage, made a fortune securing government catering contracts for schools and the military.

He earned the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’, but his catering career masked a parallel existence: as a military strategist and propagandist. In 2014 he formed a highly effective, well-funded private army. Wagner would be deployed in Russia’s main theatres of conflict; in Syria, Ukraine and later Africa. There it would back authoritarian factions opposed to western policy in return for securing access to lucrative resources, especially diamond and gold mines. Back in Russia Prigozhin had set up a powerful troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, which was central to the online information war around the 2016 US presidential election.

He was showing he had the capacity to challenge Putin if he chooses”
Despite his involvement in the highest level of geopolitics, for years Prigozhin kept a low profile and the Kremlin refused to acknowledge that a group called Wagner even existed. “He [Prigozhin] was a tool in Putin’s hands,” says Gaber. “Africa, Syria and Ukraine are different theatres of the same Russian war on the west. You can escalate in one place or deescalate in another, you can increase pressure on governments, you can cause humanitarian crises, destabilising refugee crises. That’s the hybrid warfare that Russia has been waging for years.” Prigozhin publicly stated he was merely a misunderstood businessman. Then, in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and Wagner’s reputation went global. Amid a barrage of stories detailing the military incompetence of a poorly supplied and demoralised Russian army, Wagner notched up several notable victories and appeared to be motivated, well-armed, competent and, above all else, highly brutal. Finally, Prigozhin came clean. He proudly admitted to his role in trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 US election and placed himself front and centre of Wagner, recording Telegram videos on the frontline calling out the Russian generals who he believed were ineptly bungling the war in Ukraine. It was an extremely rare public rebuke for the Russian military, but one that seemed to be allowed by the Russian president.

“Putin could use him [Prigozhin] for his principle of divide and rule,” says Gaber. “Putin could play him against Shoigu or [chief of staff of the army Valeri] Gerasimov. That’s generally how things in Russia work because when you have different groups of interests, you want to make sure they are equally strong enough, and weak enough, to play one of them against the other.”

Wagner enjoyed some notable and high-profile successes, including the capture of the city of Bakhmut. But, according to Gaber, Wagner’s military effectiveness waned as Ukraine’s counteroffensive began in June. The cracks between Wagner and the rest of Russia’s military began to widen. Putin reigned Wagner in. A week before a deadline for them to submit to Russian military control, Wagner’s troops crossed into Russia from Ukraine and swept into Rostov-on-Don. They were greeted by the local population as heroes. Prigozhin criticised Putin directly for the stated rationale of the Ukraine war to “denazify” the country and demanded Shoigu and Gerasimov come to Rostov-on-Don to explain their failures. Then he made his extraordinary move on Moscow.

“I don’t think that the initial rationale for Prigozhin was actually to topple the government,” says Gaber, who believes that the move was designed to shore up his position in Russia, which the military leader viewed as being under threat. “I think his main grievance was money not being paid to him as promised and [he also wanted to] show other groups around the Kremlin that he has a say in what’s going on in Russia. He was showing he had the capacity to challenge Putin if he chose.”

The Wagner column swept north at speed and met with precious little resistance, which Gaber believes shocked even them. Putin, who had awarded Prigozhin the Hero of Russia, the country’s highest honour, just a year before, went on television looking flustered, raging against a “betrayal” by those using “terrorist methods”. Wagner got to within 200 miles of Moscow. And then the advance finished almost as soon as it had started. Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal to stop the mutiny if the safety of Wagner’s soldiers was assured. Gaber believes that Prigozhin was counting on the support of sympathetic generals to back him, which never came – at least not publicly. Shortly after the mutiny Russian general Sergey Surovikin was arrested, likely under suspicion of supporting Prigozhin. In September reports suggested he had been released.

Meanwhile Prigozhin and his soldiers agreed to move to semi exile in Belarus. Prigozhin returned to his interests: he had just travelled back from Africa when his plane crashed. “My first thought was to quote [Soviet-born British author] Peter Pomerantsev, ‘nothing is true, and everything is possible’,” says Gaber. Prigozhin was a master of misdirection who assumed multiple aliases and identities, and would often use body doubles when he flew. “You never trust Russian sources of information,” she added, “because this might well be a performance. Theatre. Staged.”

Gaber says there is a small chance that Prigozhin is alive. “I can see two options,” she says. “He was really killed by the Kremlin. Or it was staged, Prigozhin changes his face and then goes somewhere like Cuba to enjoy the rest of his life. What was important for Putin, though, was to publicly demonstrate that whoever dares to challenge him will end up like Prigozhin.” The Kremlin has said claims it ordered the Wagner chief’s death are an “absolute lie”. Denied a state funeral, Prigozhin was buried on 29th August in a private ceremony in St Petersburg. Putin did not attend.

Wagner is unlikely to survive. After Prigozhin’s death, Putin ordered that all its soldiers, and those from other private armies, submit to state control. But the model that Prigozhin built – of a decentralised fighting force able to further Russia’s interests while giving the Kremlin plausible deniability – is likely to remain in some form. “We should talk about the increase of private militaries in Russia, because it’s not only about Wagner. Now we have a number of different mercenaries and private armies, with new names and new faces,” says Gaber. “That’s a threat for Russian security in the mid-term, because of this decentralisation. Power and the use of military force used to be the sole remit of the state. Now it’s not.”

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