The Wagner mutiny unfolded with an air of unpredictability. Nobody anticipated that Wagner’s leader would openly denounce war and deem it unnecessary. The audacity of his mutiny was beyond anyone’s expectations. Crossing the border into his country, seizing a city, and advancing toward Moscow were inconceivable, yet he dared to do so. Equally perplexing was Yevgeny Prigozhin’s surrender to Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, hence subjecting himself to his mercy.
Wagner, once Russia’s victorious asset on the global stage, has now transformed into an untamed and menacing force. Despite the swift suppression of the mutiny, the future of the group and its activities in countries like Syria and Sudan hang in the balance. Prigozhin attributed his anger to Moscow’s determination to eliminate Wagner, probably prompted by his persistent criticism and threats in recent months. Prior to the havoc he caused, Prigozhin was regarded as a national hero by the Russian public, with the country’s official propaganda machine promoting this image.
However, Prigozhin’s objections and criticism of the war in Ukraine will endure despite his aborted mutiny as long as the war continues. Russia stands virtually alone against NATO nations and its ground gains after 18 months of fighting is only 18 percent of Ukraine. Prigozhin’s statements will remain relevant unless Moscow achieves significant victories or begins to consider a peaceful resolution. While Prigozhin’s influence may have waned, his demands keep resonating widely in Russia, successfully bringing them into the public eye.
The damage inflicted by Wagner’s mutiny is far worse than all the impact of NATO forces since the start of the crisis. The Kremlin has relied on Russian patriotism and nationalism to rally support for its attack on Ukraine. However, a highly regarded national hero surfaced to cast doubt on the war’s objectives, accuse his fellow commanders of treason by implicating President Putin, and betray his forces by shaking their foundations. The strong patriotic fervor among the Russian people and the global political propaganda campaign – two key pillars on which the Kremlin has been relying on to support the war and its continuation - have both been severely undermined by Prigozhin.
After this peculiar event, engaging in negotiations with the West will undoubtedly prove challenging. Many specialists in Russian affairs anticipated that Moscow would require a victory that would pave the way for negotiations and the peaceful conclusion of the war. Regrettably, there seems to be no such victory in the foreseeable future that could justify a withdrawal in the coming months.
The ongoing war in Ukraine, coupled with the abandonment of Wagner and the dismissal of its key leaders leading to their potential trials in the future, is bound to impact Russia’s decisions and military operations beyond its geographic borders. This is particularly significant considering that recent talks about leadership changes involve removing certain key figures, as President Lukashenko accuses them of being responsible for Prigozhin’s mutiny and criticism of army leadership.
These developments will significantly impact the influence of Russia’s special forces in other countries, such as Syria and Sudan. Russia’s withdrawal from Syria will lead the role of Iran to gain prominence, contrary to regional expectations of reducing Iranian militias and influence.
Moscow might eventually be forced to turn to negotiations to end the war once the chaos subsides, even though it doesn’t seem likely. In that situation, Putin might blame his military leaders for the war’s failure in Ukraine, holding them primarily accountable for their promises of a victory that were never realized. In addition, given the new regional alliances and global relations, this would have an impact on Moscow’s military forays into Asia and Africa.