Fayez Sara

Wagner After the Mutiny

The mutiny in Russia recently launched by the founder and leader of “Wagner” Yevgeny Prigozhin is doubtlessly a major challenge to the Russian authorities and to President Vladimir Putin personally. This is true both domestically and internationally. While the debacle is tied to positions of power and the struggle for them domestically, it is also to Russia’s position, policies, and relations in the region and the globe.

Domestically, the mutiny seemed to expose a split among two leading forces of the regime, the military establishment of the Ministry of Defense and its senior officer leaders on the one, and, on the other, the Wagner auxiliary force that was founded and is led by Prigozhin. Despite the significant difference between the two forces in terms of their numbers and capabilities, as well as their divergent legal frameworks, their differences and disputes reflect the distinct bases that go beyond the differences in number and capability and their divergent legal frameworks.

Manifestations of these disagreements emerged before and during the mutiny. They encompass the divergent roles they have played and the impact they have had on the Russian-Ukrainian war, including the loudly voiced grievances of the Wagner chief and his demand that the Minister of Defense and senior army generals be held accountable for their negligence and crimes in the Ukraine war, as well as the enthusiasm with which the Wagner rebellion greeted among ultra-nationalist and young Russians.

Naturally, Wagner began making noise months before the mutiny. The president kept a tight lip as Wagner denounced and challenged the Minister of Defense and military generals, and his silence prevented the military establishment from issuing a firm public response. Indeed, he pushed the army to delay (according to its opponent) the arrival of the support Wagner needed on the front, leading to the loss of many of its forces’ lives. There is no doubt that the army’s limited ability, when compared to Wagner, to achieve consequential victories in the Ukrainian war were among the reasons that the army leadership behaved as it did. This left it lagging behind in its competition with Wagner and its loud leader, who sought to strengthen his position at the expense of the top brass of the military establishment, especially Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The internal challenges that arose and Russia’s internal schisms were the results of the presence and role of “Wagner” within Russia. This is in contrast to the outcomes achieved by its presence and role abroad, which fortified Russia’s foreign influence and further foreign policy objectives, allowing Moscow to realize “positive foreign policy achievements” without bearing any responsibility for the sins of those policies. Indeed, Moscow denied having ties with Wagner, which Russia claimed was nothing but a security company with no links to Russia’s policies and positions.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Wagner and similar entities are a “black box.” We can only see the actions it announces or those discovered by chance or through the efforts of its opponents. Thus, when we talk about “Wagner,” we are only discussing the actions we know. There could be others that we are oblivious to, including criminal operations, especially given the dark history of its founder and most of its forces.

The most prominent and famous of Wagner’s campaigns, which span three continents, is its role in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Despite the limited number of Wagner fighters stationed there (around 25 thousand, compared to hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers) it has left its mark on the war’s battles due to the nature of its members. Their attributes, arms, and management rendered them a source of pride for the Russian leadership.

Wagner also played an important role in the Syrian war. It began operating there shortly after the Russian military intervention in Syria began in 2015. The claim that it is not part of the Russian forces was repeated several times. In practice, however, it was the bloodiest Russian contingent there. It did a lot of the dirty work, some of which were in Russian court files and made attempts to seize oil fields, one of which failed and cost the lives of dozens of Wagner soldiers killed at the hands of the Americans.

Wagner also operates in a number of African countries, including Libya, Sudan and Mali. Most of these interventions were made within the context of domestic conflicts, murder, and subjugation; Wagner also offered protection and training and plundered nations’ resources.

Wagner’s operations in Africa, like its operations everywhere else, are fully supported by the Russian government. Indeed, Moscow finances it; Putin recently claimed that Russia provided Wagner with $100 billion in funding last year. Soon afterward, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Wagner’s operations had not been suspended after the mutiny.

To sum up: the Wagner mutiny had a direct impact on its leader, Prigozhin and some of his allies, pushing them into exile in a neighboring country. As for the organization, it remains intact. Indeed, the authorities are keen on maintaining it and continuing to make use of the services it provides that support Russia’s policies and positions in critical positions. Putin’s ideas about the future of Wagner, like merging it with the Russian army or allowing its members to resume their normal lives, can only be understood as him thinking aloud about what to do with the group. Nonetheless, when things quiet down, attention will turn to finding ways to reinvigorate and develop Wagner. This will be objective not only because Wagner allows Russia to avoid doing some of the dirty work but also because it is a “cash cow,” especially in the political-military and financial spheres.