Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin left the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin overplayed his hand by directly challenging the Kremlin and taking control of Rostov-On-Don.
Moscow has in the past funded and equipped the Wagner Group and given it free rein to conduct its business around the world as a private military force. At times there has been an evident partnership between the group and the Russian state, including during the ongoing war in Ukraine.
For months Prigozhin has called out the Russian military and its perceived failures on the frontlines. The Kremlin initially indulged these outburst but has now drawn a line and demanded that the Wagner group fighters be put under the command of the Russian military. Prigozhin refused to accept this and, instead, directly challenged the Kremlin and threatened to march on Moscow.
Many states find it convenient to run, enable or allow forms of armed forces outside of their formal authority, but none can tolerate this kind of direct attack on their authority. We do not yet know the details of how a deal was struck to persuade or force Prigozhin to stand down, but his turn to open rebellion has been halted and a deal struck for him to depart Russia for Belarus.
It is clear, though, that Putin now faces a new challenge, a challenge of the sort that he has not previously confronted.
Along with the proxy war with Nato and the West that is being fought by contending armies on the plains of Ukraine at a terrible cost to the people of Ukraine, he is also operating in a much wider and indeed global battle space that includes the economic realm, the financial system, the diplomatic sphere and, of course, the intense international contestation over information and narrative that plays out everywhere from universities, to NGOs and newsrooms in Johannesburg to New York, London and elsewhere.
Putin has always faced domestic dissent, and the war in Ukraine has escalated some forms of dissent. But he has never faced anything like a rebellion by a powerful armed force integrated into the Russian state and Russian society; and led by a man with a considerable public profile and an evident yearning for power.
Although the West has long had their own issues with Prigozhin, and certainly won’t see him as a potentially pliable leader of a smaller Russian state under Western control, there will be much private rejoicing at this turn of events. Now that the slowly widening fracture between Putin and Prigozhin has become a sharp break, the West will see an opening to push more firmly for regime change in Russia, which has been its primary aim in encouraging and prolonging the war in Ukraine.
It was unclear if the Russian army would have been able to protect Moscow had Prigozhin tried to make good on his threat to march on the capital. The Russian army has faced 16 months of war, seeing its resources in terms of people, money and weapons being rapidly depleted. It’s also unclear what the popular response would have been to a rebellion led by Prigozhin.
It is clear, though, that for Putin the direct challenge by the Wagner Group leader to the Russian military and the Kremlin cannot be allowed to go unanswered, and that answer needs to extend well beyond the deal brokered to stop the advance on Moscow. Failure to act will be seen as a major weakness and an invitation for Putin’s other enemies to make their own moves.
The simple imperative of survival will mean that Putin’s response must be swift and decisive. But it must be simultaneously measured as he allowed the Wagner Group free rein for years, had a hand in supporting its accumulation of power and credited some of Russia’s recent triumphs in Ukraine to the organisation, and to Prigozhin’s leadership.
His public endorsement of the Group’s role in the war in Ukraine has elevated its stature and popularity amongst ordinary soldiers in the Russian army and the general public. There is, therefore, a risk that a harsh response could ignite open warfare amongst Russians if a substantial number of ordinary Russian soldiers, acting with substantial public support, join with Wagner.
Perhaps the deal reached with Belarus to take Prigozhin and for the Kremlin to drop its charges against him and the Wagner Group will enable Putin to thread the eye of the needle. However, we don’t yet know how ordinary Russians will respond and despite promises that nothing will befall Prigozhin once in Belarus, past experiences of how the Kremlin has dealt with its enemies even when on foreign soil makes this appear unlikely.
The celebratory mood in Western capitals should not be uncritically replicated in Africa, or across the Global South. For one thing we all know the results of the history of the West supporting dangerous ideas and forces against its enemies, including the Islamicists that it backed against Soviet Russia during the last Cold War.
Moreover, a cornered bull is always dangerous, and sometimes even deadly if it has nothing to lose. The Western attempt to generate global panic about Russia’s nuclear arsenal at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, sometimes enabled by Putin’s own sabre rattling, was always overblown. But Russia does have more nuclear missiles than any other country in the world, and there is always a risk that the commander in chief of a nuclear power could be tempted to do the unthinkable when faced with military defeat. It is not impossible to imagine that if Putin were cornered and facing a real chance of defeat, he may see the use of a nuclear weapon as a means to show decisiveness, to show that he is still in control and to end the Ukraine war in order to focus on the threat at home.
The prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries is deeply alarming. The Global South is likely to be a casualty of whatever ends up happening in Russia, the West’s response to it and its long-term effects. This will be more than a matter of the current crisis continuing the neglect of the urgent issues of the Global South that were pushed to the backburner during the Covid-19 pandemic and then further marginalised after the war in Ukraine became the focus of global attention.
There is also the danger that a resurgent West will be able to restore its waning domination of the Global South. Putin is certainly an authoritarian, and hardly offers a model that any society would choose for itself. But politics is complex and an inevitably contradictory terrain, and it is also true that Putin has been a strong leader in the growing movement to challenge the West’s dominance over most of the world, and to put an end to the unipolar power of the United States. If Putin were to be dragged into a civil war or fall in a coup d’état Russia would be seriously weakened as a global power, with a resulting weakening in the Brics project to create a multipolar world.
If Putin fell to Prigozhin, or to some as yet unknown concatenation of forces emerging from the current crisis, the global power of the US in particular and the West in general would be boosted, and the struggle to develop a multi-polar world significantly set back.
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with global history or Russian culture and society will know Russian people, in and out of arms, have often demonstrated an extraordinary patriotism, for which many have paid a huge price in various wars.
Right now, the critical question is how this deep patriotism and willingness to fight for it will play out. Will people support the state against the leader of a mercenary outfit who is not likely to go quietly into the night or someone else that seeks to use the chasm that has been opened in Putin’s armour despite their disagreements with its government? How will people make sense of the simultaneous internal issues, the war in Ukraine, the pain of sanctions and the encirclement by the West?
The only thing that we know for certain is that, with the suddenness that shapes certain pivotal moments in history, Russia will never be the same and Putin will never seem invincible again.
But Putin is not a man to be underestimated, and those who are celebrating the end of Vladimir Putin may well be celebrating a descent into a very, very dangerous period for Russia, Ukraine and the wider world.
Hlela works for Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is seconded to the office of the National Security Advisor as a researcher. She writes in her personal capacity.