International security expert parses mercenary leader’s conflict with Putin
June 27, 2023
As Yevgeny Prigozhin and members of his Wagner Private Military Company marched toward Moscow on June 24, in apparent mutiny against his employer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the rest of the world watched in bewilderment and worry. Though these mercenaries who had fought for Russia in Ukraine appeared on the verge of an armed insurrection in Russia’s capital, Prigozhin agreed instead to avoid the conflict by turning his troops back and taking refuge in Belarus.
The startling, open challenge to Putin’s power raises questions about the strength of his regime and the future of the Wagner group as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues. Virginia Tech international security expert Yannis Stivachtis shares insights on factors that led to the conflict and what to pay attention to as the consequences unfold.
Q: What led to Prigozhin’s mutiny against Putin?
“We do not know with certainty what exactly happened last Saturday and why, so we can only analyze the events from what we do know. There are two apparent problems at the root of last Saturday’s events. There has been debate in Russia as to whether to use the country’s full military to complete its campaign in Ukraine as quickly as possible, as Prigozhin wants, versus continuing the slow ‘war of attrition’ advocated for by Defense Minister Segei Shoigu and the Chairman of the Russian Joint Chiefs of Staff General Valery Gerasimov. Second, there are questions of if and how Wagner should be incorporated into the Russian Armed Forces and how it would be administered and controlled.”
Q: What power does Prigozhin wield after Saturday’s events?
“Prigozhin did not at first defy Putin. He instead tried to convince Putin to replace Shoigu and Gerasimov and change Moscow’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine. It was only after President Putin’s speech vowing to liquidate anyone who stabbed Russia in the back that Prigozhin spoke about ‘a new Russian President.’ Only a small part of the Wagner force was involved directly and openly in Saturday’s events, so it is difficult to say whether Prigozhin had the backing of all 25,000 Wagner fighters.”
Q: Has Putin been weakened in any way by Prighozin’s mutiny?
“Prigozhin’s actions did not receive any support from the Russian military forces, any political party, and certainly not the support of Russian society, so Putin’s leadership has not been strongly challenged. However, any perception of mistakes made in the management of the Ukraine conflict may undermine Russian society’s support and trust in his leadership.”
Q: What could be the most consequential developments to follow these events?
“Prigozhin’s actions raise questions as to whether Russia will change its military strategy towards the conflict in Ukraine, whether there will be a reshuffling in the Russian cabinet and armed forces, especially in relation to the positions of Shoigu and Gerasimov, and in how Moscow will rebuild or maintain the trust of its allies, as that trust among countries in the Global South can only be maintained if there is a continuity in the Russian leadership.”
About Yannis Stivachtis
Stivachtis is professor of political science and Jean Monnet Chair at Virginia Tech. He currently serves as director of the Center for European Union, Transatlantic and Trans-European Space Studies. His research is related to security/strategic studies with particular emphasis on European security and transatlantic relations, U.S. national security strategy, European global strategy, and the EU’s foreign, security, and defense policy. More on his background here.
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