Amid waging war on Ukraine, the Wagner Private Military Company, a Russian mercenary militia, declared itself in a state of mutiny and initiated a march on Moscow in late June. Its troops successfully took over two key cities in Russia’s south, Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, forcing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin to flee the capital and the city’s mayor to cancel all civic activities and order residents to stay indoors.
Within hours, an agreement was struck between Wagner and Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, which guaranteed amnesty for Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his troops — who will regroup in Belarus rather than be integrated into the Russian armed forces, as the Russian defence ministry had been proposing. The deal also impedes Putin from publicly retaliating against Prigozhin.
Although the deal put an end to the armed rebellion, Putin’s problems have only just begun. These events have initiated a new dynamic in the war that consists of: the material exhaustion of the invading forces; the opening of a crisis within Russia’s domestic front; and a clear sign — which all have witnessed — that Putin’s regime is not omnipotent.
Who is Wagner?
In a recent interview, Russian socialist Ilya Matveev explained: “Wagner is a private military company (PMC) that shares some of the same features exhibited by PMCs based in developed nations…
“Its activities in Africa are quite similar to those of other PMCs, namely destabilising countries and exploiting resources — a kind of combination of adventure capitalism and covert operations for the benefit of Russia’s geopolitical interests.
“Then, when the war in Ukraine started and Russia faced the same problem that the US had in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin turned to Wagner to supply soldiers. At its peak, Wagner troops in Ukraine numbered somewhere between 40–50,000 — almost a third of the entire force that invaded Ukraine.”
A criminal-cum-oligarch and close friend of Putin, Prigozhin’s activities were financed by the Russian state via illegal contracts: a setup that made this relationship dangerous to everyone from the outset.
Matveev notes that, “it involved an irregular military force that recruited convicts; was run by a rogue actor who specialises in provocations, assassinations, all kinds of shady stuff; and was financed through corrupt government contracts, despite these activities being prohibited by Russian law.”
Wagner played a key role in the battle for Bakhmut, a pyrrhic Russian victory that came at the cost of some 20,000 Wagner troops, according to Prigozhin. The fallout of the battle was part of generating the split between the mercenaries and the Russian defence ministry, which culminated in an armed revolt that had all the hallmarks of a coup attempt.
In all likelihood, the situation inside Russia will become even more tense, with Putin’s position becoming increasingly weakened. These events have exposed to all that, beneath the facade of a united regime, there are numerous warlords and patronage networks ready to attack each other at any opportunity.
Russian leftist Alexandr Zamyatin explained: “Putin has been left incredibly weakened. From the first days of his rule, there was a very important determination and brutality in Putin’s political style. [During the Wagner rebellion], he exposed himself as a king with no clothes.”
“Even if all this is just an external illusion and everything internally remains under his control, this illusion has been perceived by all observers, which cannot but represent a blow to his power.”
This does not mean that the crisis will necessarily lead to a progressive outcome, particularly as both forces in this confrontation — Putin and Prigozhin — represent a greater evil for the Russian people.
For now, it is not yet clear how the workers and youth, particularly of the oppressed nations within the Russian Federation, will react to all this, and whether possibilities exist for mobilisations that can help convert this scratch into a gangrenous wound for the regime.
Key in all this will be the extent of successes achieved by the unfolding Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In this context, international solidarity becomes all the more important. Active participation in the various solidarity and workers’ aid initiatives, alongside supporting socialist forces in Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe will be key to helping those fighting for a left path out of the crisis that benefits the peoples of Russia and Ukraine.
[A version of this first appeared in Spanish in Revista Movimento.]