Wagner’s March on Moscow Left Unresolved Challenges in its Wake

Turned around? Wagner's rebellion reflects Russia's underlying problems. Image: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Wagner represents a wider problem for the Russian military as to how it generates effective but politically apathetic troops to sustain its war.

On 23 June 2023 Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that he would embark on a ‘March for Justice’ at the head of his Wagner Group. Within 24 hours his personnel were being bombed by the Russian Aerospace Forces only a few hours from Moscow. Then – somewhat baffling international observers – the Wagner forces halted and made their way back to Ukraine. Understanding the significance of these events requires looking at Wagner within its broader Russian context, as an instrument amid ongoing tensions at the heart of the Kremlin.

Wagner Versus the State: A False Dichotomy

The framing of the events of 23–24 June as a struggle between the Wagner private military company (PMC) and the Russian state is a false dichotomy. Established as a volunteer battalion in 2014 to fight in Donbas, Wagner has become a way that the Russian state can deploy forces around the world without committing the Russian military to defined objectives or the state to political causes. In Ukraine it has become a concentrated pool of quasi-professional troops, able to generate units that are largely more capable than those of the conventional Russian military.

Wagner is not, however, simply a mercenary organisation. Its finances and equipment for the most part come from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, the GRU. GRU officers use Wagner units as cover and are deployed with their forces around the world. In Ukraine, transfers of equipment to Wagner were arranged through the 22nd Special Service Brigade of the GRU. When Wagner pioneered the mobilisation of convicts to regenerate disposable combat mass after the Russian Army expended that from the populations of Luhansk and Donetsk, Wagner received its recruits with the blessing of the Russian Ministry of Justice which permitted Wagner to recruit from Russian prisons. Almost every aspect of Wagner’s activities therefore was enabled by and intimately integrated with parts of the Russian state. Many of its personnel are also employees of Russia’s special services.

Wagner is not simply a mercenary organisation

The officer responsible for much of this process of Wagner’s maturation over its nine years of existence was first deputy head of the GRU, Lieutenant General Vladimir Stepanovich Alekseyev. It is noteworthy that someone who has largely avoided publicity during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – while being instrumental to many parts of Russian operations – was one of two Russian general officers to make a public statement when Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his ‘March of Justice’. That Prigozhin subsequently entered the command post of the Southern Military District and sat down with Alekseyev, who plenty of Prigozhin’s personnel work for, means that negotiations were ongoing throughout the subsequent movement of troops towards Moscow. Given much internet speculation founded on a few messages released on Telegram, it is important to acknowledge how much was not known by external commentators as to what was happening throughout 24 June. The question, therefore, is negotiations to what end?

Controlling a Cause

Wagner is not just an instrument of power but the stalking horse for how some factions within the Kremlin believe the Russian military should function. Individuals such as Yuriy Kovalchuk – one of the few people still in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle – and Sergey Kirienko, first deputy chief of the Presidential Administration, have pushed hard for the regeneration of Russian power through ideological mobilisation. The dynamism of a volunteer organisation, its nationalist ideology, and having the necessary financial stability through revenue generation make the Wagner model attractive to this faction.

The counterweight to this advocacy came from the FSB (Russia’s security service) and Ministry of Defence which emphasised the importance of control. General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, and Sergei Shoigu emphasised the importance of effective combat management in achieving results on the ground in Ukraine. For the FSB, the ideological mobilisation of the population – in contrast to the apathy it has encouraged over the past two decades – would come with considerable risks if the Kremlin could not meet the expectations of these groups.

The compromise solution between these competing imperatives led to the ‘Wagnerisation’ of the war effort, but not under a single structure. Thus, from January 2023, Russian state enterprises were instructed to establish PMCs. This has started to become visible through the fielding of Gazprom units and the formation of Roscosmos security forces. This process is occurring across Russian enterprises, so long as they can raise revenues. What is less publicly visible therefore is the establishment of business outside of Russia by these enterprises which will directly fund their activities, just as Wagner funds operations through its concessions in Africa and further afield. At the same time as the Russian state is increasing the number of PMCs, it is diffusing control over them.

There has been much speculation as to whether Prigozhin’s ‘March’ makes Putin less secure

To cohere this force, the Russian Ministry of Defence required these units to be contractually bound to it. It had considerable leverage in this process because even if Russian commercial structures can generate the funds, it is ultimately the Ministry of Defence which will manage logistics and the provision of military equipment. The compromise may have been acceptable to factions in the Kremlin but less so to Prigozhin, who risked being subordinated to, rather than working in partnership with, the Ministry of Defence, while his personal relevance would diminish as the number of PMCs expanded. The risk was that the ideological flame underpinning Wagner would be extinguished. Prigozhin was no longer in close contact with Putin and so he acted in a manner that Putin could not ignore.

Dynamic Stability

There has been much speculation as to whether Prigozhin’s ‘March’ makes Putin less secure. In one sense, the weekend events increased Putin’s authority within the elite. When Prigozhin set out his demands for reform of the Ministry of Defence and Putin denounced him as a traitor, conceding nothing, Prigozhin and those behind him had to contemplate an actual fight. All factions could see that in the context of an ongoing war they could not predict where the loyalties of the personnel in their intermingled organisations would fall. Whoever moved first might succeed in breaking the government, but could have no confidence in surviving, let alone usurping Putin’s position. In this sense, Putin’s grip on the elite is strong precisely because no competing faction is strong enough without him to ensure its own survival. Equally, Putin cannot just discard members of his elite, lest they conclude that his continuation in power is more dangerous to them than the prospect of the abyss beyond him.

If the March reinforced some of the reasons for Putin’s grip on the elite, it does not, however, solve the fundamental problem for the Kremlin, which is at the front in Ukraine. The Kremlin wants an ideologically motivated, technically competent and politically apathetic force, but the best it can achieve with any of the structures it is creating are just two of these three characteristics. So long as the Ukrainian military continues, therefore, to inflict heavy losses on the Russian military, and the Russians struggle to hold their ground in Ukraine, the risk of demoralisation at the front increases.

It is apt that Putin referenced the events of 1917 in his denunciation of Wagner’s actions. It is important to reflect on the extent to which the deterioration of the Russian Army in 1917 saw numerous mutinies, negotiations and fragmentation within the Russian command. The collapse in 1917 started at the front and it took months to develop. It will be interesting to see what demands emerge from other parts of the Russian force over the next months after Wagner’s example.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Jack Watling

Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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