Russia’s war on Ukraine took a stunning turn on June 23 when thousands of troops belonging to the Wagner Private Military Company, a mercenary force linked to the Russian regime, crossed back over the border from where it had been fighting Ukrainian forces and started marching towards Moscow.
Calling the action a “March for Justice” rather than a coup attempt, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin — an oligarch and until then close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin — said his protests were directed against the Russian defence ministry’s handling of the war. In contrast, the following day, Putin denounced the move as an “armed uprising” and vowed to punish those on the “path of treason”.
For almost a decade, Wagner has operated as a paramilitary wing of the Russian state, playing a key role in Ukraine, as well as in various African nations where it has been deployed to protect Russian profits derived from gold mines. The bulk of the forces that comprise Wagner share a far-right and fascist ideology.
Disputes between the ministry and Wagner have recently come to a head over funding, with reported clashes between the two forces taking place inside Ukraine. Just days prior to the armed rebellion, Prigozhin denounced as a lie Moscow’s claims that the invasion was justified due to a supposed planned Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas region in February 2022.
Yet, almost as quickly as Wagner forces reached the city of Voronezh, halfway to Moscow, a deal was struck on June 24, in which it seems all charges against Prigozhin and Wagner forces involved in the rebellion would be dropped, with Prigozhin allowed to travel to Belarus and Wagner troops to return to Ukraine.
To help decipher these events, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to Russian leftist Alexandr Zamyatin. A former elected member of the Zyuzino Municipal District Council in Moscow, Zamyatin was barred from re-contesting last year’s elections by Putin’s regime due to a two-year old Facebook post.
However, together with anti-war activist and unionist Mikhail Lobanov, Zamyatin helped coordinate Vidvyzheniye (Nomination, but also meaning You Are the Movement), a platform of progressive candidates that succeeded in winning seats across Moscow. Zamyatin is a teacher and co-author of For Democracy: Local Politics Against Depoliticisation.
To begin with, could you give us a sense of the current mood on the streets in Russia following Prigozhin's attempted march on Moscow and the subsequent deal struck between him and Putin?
I can only speak in terms of the situation in Moscow, where I am. Today [June 25], there are no signs of any grandiose events taking place, though mayor [Sergey] Sobyanin has announced an unscheduled long weekend by declaring June 26 a public holiday. Apart from this, everything else is absolutely routine and normal.
How do you characterise the recent events and forces involved in them? Why do you think they occurred now? And are there any useful parallels that can be drawn with other similar situations, either historical or current?
There are many historical parallels that can be drawn, but I am not ready to emphasise any particular one of them. What this fact itself indicates though is that such rebellions are not so rare.
I recently wrote about the Prigozhin phenomenon, where I pointed out how it is driven by two contradictions. To me, the mutiny appears to be a logical development. It was clear to all observers that this situation was a ticking time bomb, though no one knew when it would explode.
The Wagner group is a private army led by a charismatic adventurer who has received huge resources and media coverage during the war with Ukraine. Prigozhin saw that an important contradiction existed between the elites and the lower strata of the army and decided to make use of this contradiction. At the same time, the Kremlin, which had supported him, had become increasingly concerned by Prigozhin’s rise and recently began to take measures to eliminate him.
Prigozhin realised this and decided it was time to go all in.
Why do you think the forces involved came to an agreement so quickly?
I think the parties quickly came to an agreement because they realised that their positions were equally weak. Prigozhin could not have taken power in Moscow because he had neither an administrative apparatus nor sufficient popular support. In Rostov-on-Don, the civil administration remained the same; he did not change it.
The Kremlin could have crushed Prigozhin's army with its own forces near Moscow, but such an action would have been very costly in terms of political support, because Putin's core electorate has a lot of sympathies with Prigozhin.
Both sides soberly assessed the futility of escalation and agreed to some conditions about which we know nothing. At the same time, I think that Prigozhin will at some point be deceived by Putin and killed.
The Western media has portrayed the events as clearly weakening Putin. Do you believe this is an accurate assessment, or is Putin likely to tighten his grip on power as a result of the outcome?
Political scientists have calculated that autocrats are much more likely to find their position strengthened after surviving a coup attempt, than see their position weakened or allow for a process of democratisation. But these are just abstract statistics.
In our particular situation, it is very noticeable that 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. Yesterday, 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.
In a recent article that you posted on your Telegram channel, you talk about the ‘80%’ that remain depoliticised in Russian society. Are there any signs that these recent events have heightened anti-war sentiment within Russia and, perhaps more importantly, could lead to sections of society taking a leap towards progressive political action against the regime?
Unfortunately, I don't see any such signs. On the contrary, yesterday we saw how many people took to the streets of Rostov-on-Don to joyfully greet the Wagner forces. This is very bad for the Putin regime, but it is not representative of anti-war or progressive forces. At the same time, we must understand that it was a small sample of people who came out to support those whom they consider their allies.
In contrast, for people with anti-war and progressive views, this situation generated a sense of being confronted with an existential threat and the need to escape, praying that the Wagner forces did not take power and come to their home.
In the event of further escalation, politicisation could affect broader stratas of the population, among which there is a lot of fatigue from the war and a demand for social, economic and political changes in the country.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to emphasise that both forces in this confrontation represent an extreme evil for Russia and for the majority of the people in our country. Neither of them can lead the country to anything good.
Therefore, progressive and anti-war-minded people can not empathise with either side. Many hoped for the success of the rebellion as a means to put an end to the dictatorship. But this is a misconception. It may not be obvious from the outside, but here, inside Russia, we know for sure that Russia will only lose out in this confrontation.