The impact of the Prigozhin rebellion on Putin’s Russia

Dr Valery Morozov

Rubicon was not crossed

To understand better the changes that are taking place in Russia, I would like to note down few singularities in the story of the Prigozhin rebellion and give my explications and conclusions.
First. Changes in the upper echelon of power in Russia was one of the main goals of Prigozhin, declared openly by him. In that, he was supported by other commanders and fighters of the PMC Wagner and those in Moscow, who stood behind them for more than ten years and kept supporting the PMC Wagner in recent months, when the conflict between the Wagner and the Ministry of Defense came into open.
It looks like that demand for changes were fostered by anger and irritation with how the war in Ukraine began and was going on, how the bureaucratic clans in Russia continue to live, nourished by war, using the Russian army not for winning the war, but to increase profits and protect their interests, to get more power and wealth.
However, that is just what lies on the surface that the participants in the conflict are ready to show the public. In order to understand what is going on deep inside the Russian elites and clans we are to take into consideration few important points.
Prigozhin and the PMC Wagner are the products and creation of the clan closest to Putin, the clan that formed his first inner circle when Putin moved into the Kremlin. In the Kremlin, since 1999, this clan has been called the “Petersburgers”.
Important role in Prigozhin’s story was played also by the special services, primarily the Kremlin Guards (Federal Service of Guards, – the FSO) and the GRU that were behind creation of the Russian Foreign Legion in the form of PMC. Later, during the special operation of taking over Crimea in 2014, the FSB joined the FSO and the GRU to operate the PMC Wagner, the part of the “polite green men”, who played important role in the Crimean operation.
The PMC Wagner initially included the GRU special forces officers, for example, Dmitry Utkin, who had call sign “Wagner”. By his call sign, the entire PMC got its name. The PMC comprised officers of the GRU and the Russian army who were dismissed in the course of reduction of the Armed Forces, mostly during the time of Minister of Defence Serdyukov. During the Serdyukov period, almost two hundred thousand officers were fired, some of them joined PMCs in protest.

The coup attempt, the Prigozhin rebellion, or the “March for Justice”, as Prigozhin called it himself, has already generated important changes in the system of state governance in Russia.

Vladimir Putin and the PMC Wagner officers after taking over Crimea, 2014. Dmitry Utkin, “Wagner”, is on the right side.
In 2023, he was in command of the Wagner column on march to Moscow.

Under Shoigu, who was appointed Minister of Defence in 2012, the dismissals of officers were reduced, but the number of officers angry with appointment of civilians by Putin as ministers who had no experience in the army, only increased. Some of them chose to retire and join the Wagner that became the concentration of experienced officers who went through several wars, including in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, but who were dismissed from the Russian army during reforms.
The war in Ukraine has intensified the struggle of the elites in Russia for resources and finances that were redirected from civilian sectors to the army and the military-industrial complex. This struggle gave impetus to struggle for power in the Kremlin and around Putin, including not only for influence over Putin, but for who will become his successor.
In 2021, Sergey Shoigu became the frontrunner for appointment as Putin’s successor. That changed the whole game for most of the Russian military and convinced them, primarily those who gathered in the Wagner PMC, that the time has come to pay back and to rid of oppression of state bureaucracy represented by the Shoigu clan.
(Those who are interested in the history of the PMC “Wagner” and look for information about the forces behind it, will have opportunity to read part 3 of the series “Russian Army and the U-turn in Putin’s policy” that I started writing two weeks before the “coup d’état”, and thank God, I didn’t have time to finish it. Now I am rewriting it and will publish it in a couple of days after this publication. It just so happened that in part 3, I started writing about the history of the PMC Wagner and its role in Russian politics, and suddenly my analytical forecasts and assumptions became reality unfolding ahead of my predictions. To read the first two parts of the series, you can here – , and ).

It looks surreal, but thousands of Wagner fighters moved free around the country from the front-line territory towards Moscow, the capital of Russia, without fighting or resistance. They took control of the cities, towns, headquarters of command centers of the Russian Armed Forces. The police, the FSB and the National Guard Forces did not react to the military columns that were moving towards the capital, taking control of the objects that all law enforcement agencies were supposed to protect. Several dozens of volunteers from the National Guard Forces that are under the command of Viktor Zolotov, the former head of President Vladimir Putin’s Security Service, joined the PMC to march on Moscow.
March of “Wagner” was divided in two main columns. One column under the command of Prigozhin, went to Rostov-on-Don, where the Russian Army headquarters that commanded the Ukrainian front was located and where Minister of Defense Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov were present those days. The second column under the command of Dmitry Utkin, call sign “Wagner”, one of the real military commanders of the PMC, moved towards Moscow.
Shoigu and Gerasimov, having learned about the approach of the Wagner column under the command of Prigozhin, immediately left the headquarters and the city and flew to Moscow.
That march turned out to be complete surprise for the Kremlin, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Russian Guards and local authorities.
The consequences of the conflict that had been growing for several months between the Wagner commanders, Prigozhin and Shoigu – Gerasimov and was widely covered and discussed in telegram channels, Russian non-governmental, as well as by foreign media, were unexpected for Vladimir Putin. That means that information about the conflict was redacted and blocked not only in the state-owned media, but also in the Kremlin, the FSB and the Presidential Administration. The information was brought to Putin and to the heads of special services, in a distorted form. This blocking and distortion of information was certainly coordinated.
The Kremlin quickly reacted to Prigozhin’s march that shocked Putin and the Presidential Administration, and instructed the security forces not to resist and to avoid bloodshed in cities and towns. At the same time, the negotiations with Prigozhin began and surveillance was established on how the representatives of the clans behave.
To intimidate Prigozhin and Utkin, to test their reaction and also to give them signal that the Kremlin was ready to take decision on the armed suppression of the riot, the order was given to inflict air strikes on the column that marched to Moscow. After six striking helicopters were shot down by the Wagner that demonstrated high combat readiness and high level of the Wagner’s air defense, as well as determination by Prigozhin and Utkin to use weapons, the order to launch air strikes was canceled.
All these orders could only be given by Vladimir Putin, or with his approval.

The PMC Wagner met with friendly attitude on the part of rather surprised and confused population and with non-resistance of the local civil authorities. Within two days, the Wagner traveled about 1500 kilometers, and not a single person died on the ground along the way.
Population supported the military and considered “Wagnerites” heroes. People were not ready to come to the defense of the regime and ruling elites. The population openly demonstrated indifference to the fate of Shoigu and his clan, or even of Putin and his close circle. The vast majority of the people of Russia distanced themselves from fierce struggle that has begun between the elites for power in the Kremlin.
This also came as demonstration that there is no organized opposition in Russia that could use opportunity opened by the Wagner revolt. There is no program of action and no ideas that reflect aspirations and moods of the people. There are no organizational and ideological centers of the opposition both inside Russia and abroad. This ensures and guarantees inertia of the population, but creates real threat to the regime that in the event of the emergence of ideology and organizational center that reflects aspirations of the majority of the population, the Russian people can wake up and support a new revolt.
Prigozhin and Wagner couldn’t wake up the people. The main weakness of Prigozhin turned out to be lack of ideology and his inability to present ideas and demands in the form that people understand and appreciate. Prigozhin was unable to put forward anything other than general accusations, criticism of bureaucrats and demands to “give him” Shoigu and Gerasimov. The people agreed with his demands and accusations, but refused to actively support Prigozhin, considering that it was showdown within the elites.
The lack of ideology and vision of the future is the main weakness of the ruling regime also.

The Wagner columns were attacked by helicopters. After six helicopters were shot down, the air attacks stopped, and the Wagner column continued to move towards Moscow without resistance for over 700 kilometers, passing to the border of the Moscow Military District, 200 kilometers from Moscow. Several pilots of helicopter units refused to attack the Wagner column and civilian cars and trucks moving on the road.
Only Putin could give the order to attack by helicopters and to cancel it. Consequently, Putin maintained control over the army. The High Command of the Armed Forces refused to support Prigozhin and the Wagner troops.
Prigozhin did not become neither politician, nor state leader in the eyes of the people or in the eyes of senior army officers. He did not become military man for the officers of the Russian army, remaining as “manager”, “financier”, “talking head”.

According to the official information from the Kremlin, on the way to Moscow, having met the threat of death of thousands of fighters from both sides, the Wagner stopped, and Prigozhin ordered retreat. The Wagner columns turned around and headed back to their camps, and part of the PMCs went to Belarus.
Negotiations that were conducted throughout the march, ended with agreement, because both sides found themselves in situation that would inevitably lead to unacceptable losses for both sides. Each side proved unable to secure its own victory. Further actions would lead to the death of thousands of the Russian soldiers and civilians, as well as to the final split of the elites and collapse of the regime in the Kremlin.
The influential groups that supported Prigozhin in Moscow and participated in the negotiations, remaining in the background, were forced to order Prigozhin to stop the march and withdraw from Moscow.
Sixth. After two days of march on Moscow, after six helicopters and one surveillance aircraft shot down and the crews dead, after seizure of military facilities and headquarters of the South Military District by the Wagner, after the death of twenty fighters of the PMC from missile and air strikes, the agreement was reached between Prigozhin and Putin.
That agreement was mediated by President of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko, head of the FSB Aleksandr Bortnikov and, according to some reports, the former Putin’s adjutant and chief security guard, Commander of Special Operations Forces that controlled the PMS Wagner in Crimea in 2014, and now Governor of the Tula Region Aleksey Dymin. The agreement allowed the PMC Wagner to be preserved as military unit outside the Ministry of Defense. The Wagner is to be relocated from Donbass (over 1000 kilometers from Moscow) to the territory of Belarus (500 kilometers from Moscow) and will continue operations on the territories of foreign states in Africa and the Middle East. Putin promised to drop charges of mutiny and rebellion and allow Prigozhin to move free in Russia, Belarus and other countries. Defense Minister Shoigu, after two days of negotiations in the Kremlin, retained his post …
However, events continue to develop rapidly, and it is too early to put a final stop in that story…

The first changes in the Kremlin generated by the Wagner

The apparent surrealism and absurdity of what was happening covers up the processes that have been taking place in the Russian state and society for a long time. These processes created and accumulated problems and contradictions that led to the Wagner rebellion. Whether Putin wanted it or not, under the influence of the anti-Russian sanctions of the West and the war in Ukraine that acted as catalyst, Russia started changing and transforming dramatically and rapidly.
The Kremlin faces an acute problem and has to find answers to the question: how to restore stability in Russia?
In my previous article, I pointed out two possible options for transformation of Russia. Few days passed since the Wagner’s “March for Justice”, and from the actions that the Kremlin is now taking, from the fact that Shoigu retained his post, it became obvious that Putin decided not to go for radical reforms, anti-corruption purge of state bureaucracy in Moscow, in the Ministry of Defense, where the professional military men found themselves under the rule of bureaucrats, represented by the Shoigu clan.
Putin refused to change the system and political elites, to liquidate political mummy parties. However, Putin is trying to find the way to ensure stability in the country and increase effectiveness of governance, including in the military sphere.
Putin is changing Russia, but he does it in his own style: quietly, preserving and taking control of what already exists and operates. Putin does not intend and cannot give up his political rationalism. For that, he needs new ideology, and Putin does not have this ideology, and there is nobody close to him, who can create such ideology.
Putin will be able to strengthen his power, at least for some time, but that will not solve the main problems and will not remove the most acute contradictions. The accumulated problems will remain until better times, until they are resolved by Putin’s successors, or these contradictions, in the event of growing conflict between the military and state bureaucrats that lies at the heart of the confrontation between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense, intensified by war, or fight for succession, will be resolved in radical way, that unfortunately too often encountered in the history of Russia: by the riot not of just military units, but by the alliance of military and civilians, by the Russian people, by social explosion, in comparison with which the “Prigozhin rebellion” will look as peaceful demonstration in support of Vladimir Putin…
The present Kremlin authorities took the path of strengthening political and administrative control, moving from mild dictatorship to tougher one, with transfer of even greater powers to the clans that control the FSO, FSB, National Guards and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but with increased responsibility of the clans to the Kremlin. Punishment of elites will now be more severe, brutal and faster.
In 2000, after Vladimir Putin and the “Petersburgers” came to power, the Russian post-Yeltsin elites and oligarchs were given one main rule “Do what you want, but do not create problems for the Kremlin.” And this rule has worked until today. Now it turned out that during the war, this rule undermines Putin’s power.
Now the main rule needs to be changed. What exactly the new rule will be, we will see very soon, in the coming days. However, it is already clear that the first part of it – “do what you want” – has been crossed out.
Now, Putin is tightening control over the elites and clans to the utmost. Strict control will be established, including over the elites, whom Putin considered loyal to himself, the most reliable.
Will this control bring the results that Putin and the Kremlin are counting on? I don’t think so.
Putin faces one problem, and without its solution, he will not be able to achieve the result he needs. The problem is that his close circle has been blocking information coming to him for long time. Putin does not receive the information that he needs, but that is beneficial to the elites that control him.
This has always been the case since he arrived in Moscow and began his journey to the Kremlin. At that time, he was controlled by the Yeltsin Family. Then the Petersburgers took control. Now the groups that control the military, the state finances, basic resources and economic sectors took over control. They control the entire state information sphere of Russia. And it is this bloc that limits Putin’s access to information.
In the absence of independent analytical service that could not only inform him, but also provide deep analysis of the problems, Putin can easily “underestimate” and “miss” another coup attempt, even if mass media will be discussing the forthcoming rebellion for weeks, as it happened with Prigozhin’s rebellion that Prigozhin had been shouting about for several months.

The Russian International Foreign Legion

When the PMC Wagner began to turn into powerful foreign military organization, the business clans interested in developing some sort of the “Russian Foreign Legion” to protect and promote their interests in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, backed it and supported its development. These were not only the Russian business groups and only the Russian State among the Wagner supporters and contractors.
The Wagnerites are not only Russians. There are experienced soldiers from many countries. There are thousands of foreign citizens, among them from Ukraine, Western countries, Balkan and Baltic states, Africans, Arabs, Indians, Gurkhas from Nepal, Latin Americans. The PMC Wagner is being transferred from the Russian Foreign Legion into International.
The PMC Wagner is the best and most efficient army unit of tens of thousands military officers and soldiers, operating in over dozens of states in different regions of the world in the interest not only of the Russian state, but many countries. The Ukraine war has become the greatest promotion campaign of the Wagner and Prigozhin, but neither Russian military, nor Prigozhin, Utkin and other Wagnerites, or any business corporation, Russian or foreign, is interested in prolongation of the war in Ukraine.
The Wagner and the forces that back it up need to demilitarize Ukraine, to change the regime, to establish in Ukraine the control of some kind of Wagner International and to secure sea and land trade routes from China and India to Europe, Middle East and Africa, and to Latin America. Let it be called any way, for example, “One Belt One Road”, or any way Putin and Xi, or Modi, Lulu or Rishi decide. There was no difference for Prigozhin and Utkin, or their Wagnerites, or Lukashenko, who is now officially in charge, or Putin’s successor, whoever will be…
Now, everything started changing.
These days, at the command of one of the “Kremlin towers”, in the Russian media and among politicians, it became popular not just to scold Prigozhin, but to accuse him of betrayal. In reality, Prigozhin did not advocate the overthrow of Putin, or the regime, although he demanded fairness and efficiency in governing the state, primarily the army.
He demanded to be allowed and provided with necessary means to win the war. He expressed in rather rude, noisy, extremely arrogant form the protest of huge sections of the Russian army and population, who are dissatisfied with the way the war is being waged under control of bureaucrats. But, this war is the show of one man – Shoigu, and he has survived the rebellion.
Shoigu is one of the key figures in that alliance of clans that control military budget, and they want to get the PMC Wagner, the Russian Foreign Legion under their control also. They had the real chance to take it over, but lost it. At least, now it looks like that, and that was one of the reasons for the Wagner rebellion.
The merit of Prigozhin is that he pulled out and dumped in front of everyone, including Putin, the enormous bunch of problems that were piling up for decades, underestimated and ignored. It still remains unclear whether Putin understood what Prigozhin dumped out in front of him.
Putin is to take under control the clans that control the government and the most important State structures, primarily the Armed Forces, the military-industrial complex and special services. He can’t allow the fight for his successor to burry Putin himself.
The second task for him now is to stop the war and sign peace treaty with Ukraine as soon as possible, but this treaty must be one that will be accepted by the army and the majority of the Russian people, primarily its patriotic part.
Putin understands that if the peace treaty is not in the interests of Russia and demonstrates the weakness of him and his regime, then the coup d’état will be repeated in more serious version, and then Putin will have no chance to retain power, and there will be extremely little chance for him to survive.
Prigozhin and Wagner, by their rebellion, will force the Kremlin to fight in Ukraine in full force, now not for the interests of elites, but for their survival, for their lives. When Russian military men, officers and soldiers try to take the fate of the war into their own hands, the authorities must fulfill their demand, otherwise the people will follow the army, and if the people cease to be outside observers, then everything will go according to one scenario, – not the Wagner, but the Russian rebellion, merciless as it always was…

Dr Valery Morozov

[text and illustration/photo provided by the author]


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