Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Aborted Mutiny: Implications for Russian Domestic Politics and Ukraine

By Sarah Baughn, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

On June 27, 2023, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program hosted an online roundtable about the consequences of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny for Russian domestic politics and the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin was later killed in a plane crash on August 23 2023, although that had not yet happened at the time of the conversation.

Arik Burakovsky, the program’s Assistant Director, opened the discussion. He said, “Initially, on the surface these events look like a military coup, but I think it’s important to understand that they were actually more like a mutiny or a rebellion.” The events that took place over the weekend of June 24 were a “culmination of an escalating feud” between Prigozhin and the military top brass.

Chris Miller, Associate Professor of International History and Co-Director of the program, commented,“I think a lot of uncertainties still remain,” but that it all clearly started as “a conflict between the Wagner Group and the Ministry of Defense along with military leadership.”

Miller disagreed that the events were an attempted mutiny, stating, “It’s not a common mutiny tactic to march straight to seize power.”

“I think the most interesting question is not who fought on which side, but who among the different generals and security services was on nobody’s side,” Miller concluded.

The floor was then turned over to Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar with the program, who opened by reminding the audience, “You remember that I always told you that there is no phenomenon like a private military company in Russia.”

Instead, Luzin analyzed the conflict between the Wagner Group and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and other Russian military elites. He discussed the different institutions and agencies that the Wagner Group affiliated with, along with the lack of response from different offices of power within Russia.

Luzin believed that the lack of Russian military response was due to the concept of “manageable chaos,” which he defined as a positive outlook on a certain level of state instability. Some high-ranking generals were informed about Prigozhin’s preparations and could have encouraged Prigozhin to act for a variety of reasons.

“This may be a conspiracy theory, but this could also show that Russia is already a failed state,” Luzin commented further. 

Luzin also stated that the police forces in Rostov started an official plan called “Fortress,” where members of higher standing in the police force isolated themselves in their offices and did nothing. He speculated that someone likely gave the order for that, but it is impossible to know who at this point. Regardless, police did not execute their duty.

Luzin then began to ask, “What did the deputy minister of defense do? What did the head of the air and space forces do? All of them were there but didn’t prevent Prigozhin from his actions. Prigozhin is not a combat planner, he’s just the leader of the Wagner Group.”

Characterizing Prigozhin’s attempt as an “icebreaker” in the Russian political system, Luzin ended by saying that this was a “struggle for Putin’s heritage.”

Maxim Krupskiy, another visiting scholar with the program, took a different view of the situation, saying “I don’t think Prigozhin had any ambitions to become a leader in Russia, president or otherwise. He probably realized that the Wagner Group was about to be liquidated and decided that the only way to save himself was to stage this meeting to save his profitable enterprise.”

About the response from the Russian people, Krupskiy commented that Prigozhin is being compared to Stepan Razin, a famous rebel from the 17th century in the Russian Empire, and that people’s views of Wagner were largely  “positive.”

“Legally speaking, the Wagner Group actively committed armed insurrection,” Krupskiy said. “The fact that it was immediately forgiven by Putin is the first hugely obvious time that the entire public can see how corrupted Putin’s regime has become.”

“If the root of the legal tree is poisonous, then the branches that shoot out from the tree are worthless,” Krupskiy commented. He concluded by pointing out that regardless of the ultimate outcome, Prigozhin’s actions laid bare the illegal realities of Putin’s regime.

Once the floor was opened for discussion, the audience asked questions relating to the recent announcement of missile strikes by Russia on Syria, the role of Belarus, and how the developments may impact Russia-China relations, and more.

One audience member asked, “Why did Prigozhin give up so easily and publicly?”

Krupskiy responded, “There’s a mechanism used by Russian human rights defenders here. If someone is tortured, for example, you try to send this information to the media, to make it public, and to use that public attention as a kind of protection for himself.” Prigozhin’s public announcement at the beginning of the insurrection was similarly made in order to protect himself, and Prigozhin likely gave up because he thought that protection would be enough, Krupskiy explained.

The session ended with Burakovsky commenting, “Only time will tell what happens to Prigozhin and where Russian domestic politics will go from here.”

Many experts now say that Prigozhin’s plane crash in August was a direct result of the June insurrection, with Prigozhin’s untimely death being attributed to the Putin regime. It is undeniable that Prigozhin’s insurrection will continue to be a major point of discussion regarding the war, though the long-term effects remain to be seen.

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