Russia’s Mercenary Coup and the Threats To Putin’s Rule
Updated: Jul 26
The revolt by the Russian mercenary group Wagner represents the largest-scale challenge to Putin’s power in his 23-year reign (Wikimedia Commons).
The Russian mercenary group Wagner staged a coup on June 23 against the Russian government. The rebellion, which lasted about 23 hours, ended when the leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, negotiated a retreat with Putin.
What is Wagner?
Before the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Wagner was a 50,000-strong mercenary group of approximately 10,000 contractors and 40,000 former inmates of Russian prisons. The group offered freedom to conscripts who survived service for six months.
Since 2014, the group has been concentrated on one of the most intense fronts of the Russo-Ukrainian war, bearing the brunt of the fighting in the Ukrainian city of Bakhut. After months of conflict and a self-reported 20,000 casualties, they finally raised a Russian flag over the city. However, Wagner has been active since long before the war, especially in Africa, where it has reportedly taken extreme measures to maintain control in gold mining towns.
For years, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin served as a close advisor and event coordinator for Putin, earning the name “Putin’s Chef.” While mercenary groups are technically illegal in Russia, his close connections to Putin enabled him to bypass restrictions. For years, Prigozhin denied connections to Wagner, suing anyone who tied him to the group. However, once Wagner arose as a force in the Ukrainian conflict, he emerged as the leader of the group.
An Overview of the Revolt
Marching from Bakhmut to Moscow, Wagner took control of two cities: Rostov-on-Don, a military headquarters that oversees operations in Ukraine, and a smaller city closer to Moscow. According to Prigozhin, both were taken with little resistance, and no Wagner lives were lost. Putin has not disclosed how many lives were lost on the Russian side, but BBC estimates that six of their helicopters were brought down.
However, as they marched toward Moscow, Prigozhin made negotiations with Putin and unexpectedly ordered all Wagner troops to retreat. Under the agreement, Prigozhin will live free of charge in Belarus, and all Wagner troops that did not participate in the revolt will be offered military contracts. Troops who did participate in the coup will choose between returning home, signing a contract with the military, or being relocated to Belarus.
Experts say this is the biggest threat that Putin has faced in 23 years. Unsure of how deep support for Prigozhin runs, the Kremlin has ordered interviews to test the loyalties of hundreds of Russian military personnel. The Hill’s Brad Dress notes that “shake-ups in Russia’s military command could further impact the leadership overseeing the war in Ukraine, analysts say, while Russian soldiers already struggling with a morale issue are now exposed to political infighting and questions about loyalty.”
Build Up to the Conflict
The revolt is the boiling point of months of tension between Prigozhin and the Russian military. Prigozhin has been outspoken in his complaints on Telegram, a social media app popular in Russia. Throughout the war, Prigozen would criticize the “inadequacies” of the Russian military, complaining that their troops were undersupplied and thrown into a “meat grinder.”
On June 10, Wagner received orders to come under contract with the Ministry of Defense as Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov announced all “volunteer formations” would be contracted. The proclamation, according to Matt Murphy, was “vaguely worded” and “believed to target the [Wagner] group.”
In a statement, the ministry reasoned that the contracts would be required to “give volunteer formations the necessary legal status, create common approaches to the organization of comprehensive support and the fulfillment of their tasks.” However, the Russian media alternatively speculated that the contracts were a way to bring the Wagner group under control.
Responding to the announcement, Prigozhin asserted that Wagner would boycott the contracts. Referencing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin told BBC, “Shoigu cannot properly manage military formation.”
On June 23, Prigozhin posted videos accusing the Russian military leadership of attacking Wagner troops with air strikes and killing 2,000. While he provided no evidence for these claims, he vowed a “march for justice” to stand up against alleged corruption in military control. In response, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSS) opened a case investigating Prigozhin for organizing an armed rebellion.
Sources & Further Reading