Even in such a fast-moving war, still some events have the ability to surprise. The decision by Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to launch an apparent coup attempt, leading his troops into Russia, where he occupied the military HQ in Rostov and was heading towards Moscow, appeared to have left the Kremlin floundering.
Then, with his troops reportedly only 200 miles from the Russian capital, Prigozhin announced they would make an about turn and return to their bases to avoid shedding Russian blood.
Under the terms of the deal, which was apparently brokered by the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin will go to Belarus and will not face prosecution. Nor will any of his troops who took part in the abortive uprising.
But the episode clearly unnerved the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who had appeared on state TV on Saturday morning describing his former close associate’s move as “equivalent to armed mutiny”.
The reasons for Prigozhin’s apparent mutiny are not yet clear. But Prigozhin’s statements have explicitly been aimed against Russia’s military leadership and the ministry of defence. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Wagner Group boss claimed that the Wagner Commanders’ Council made the decision to stop “the evil brought by the military leadership” who neglected and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers. This appears to be a direct reference to his claims during the Bakhmut campaign that his units were being deliberately starved of ammunition.
In the past few weeks ministry of defence – apparently with Putin’s backing – announced it would bring the Wagner Group and other irregular forces and militias under its direct control. The announcement was seen as an indication of Russia’s desperate need for manpower and the Kremlin’s desire to avoid full-scale mobilisation of the population.
It was also taken as evidence of the growing animosity between Prigozhin and defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin flatly refused to sign a contract, but the Akhmat group of Chechen forces became one of the first to sign up.
Changing the law
Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov’s announcement is significant. It wasn’t until Putin signed changes to defence regulations in November 2022 that the inclusion of “volunteer formations” was legalised for the first time.
Previously, Article 13 of the constitution of the Russian Federation had explicitly banned “the creation and activities of public associations, the goals and actions of which are aimed at creating armed formations”.
Article 71 of the constitution also states that issues of defence and security, war and peace, foreign policy,and international relations are the prerogative of the state, and therefore private companies cannot be involved.
The criminal code also identifies mercenary activity as a crime, including the “recruitment, financing or other material support of a mercenary” as well as the use or participation of mercenaries in armed conflict.
Putin’s amendments to the Law on Defence appear to change this. The amendments were implemented by Shoigu’s order of 15 February 2023, which set out the procedure for providing volunteer formations with weapons, military equipment and logistics as well as setting out conditions of service.
There have been signs of increasing prominence and acceptance of private forces within Russia. In April 2023, the deputy governor of Novosibirsk announced that employees of private military companies would be able to use the rehabilitation certificate issued to state military veterans of the Ukraine war to access a range of services.
There are a range of irregular forces operating in Ukraine, including Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, the Kadyrovtsy, which officially come under the command of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), alongside private forces such as Wagner, Redut, Patriot and Potok.
These volunteer formations offer a more flexible force than conventional military forces which operate under a notoriously rigid chain of command.
They also provide a convenient “cut-out” for the Russian state: private groups and individuals bear the human, financial and political costs that would otherwise be borne by the government. And the Kremlin can fudge the list of official military casualties, otherwise a source of considerable public anxiety directed at the government and its leader.
A force at war with itself
But the increasing visibility of these groups in Ukraine and the public infighting between the ministry of defence and the groups’ leadership is a reminder of the system of patronage and fealty that characterises political culture in today’s Russia.
Turf wars are common, as rivals compete for resources, influence and, of course, the ear of Vladimir Putin himself. You only have to look at the insults hurled at each other by Prigozhin and Shoigu.
Prigozhin has been very vocal in his criticism of Shoigu and the Russian generals running the war, frequently accusing them of incompetence and corruption. The long-running acrimony between the pair reportedly stems from the defence minister cutting off Prigozhin’s access to profitable defence contracts.
This rivalry serves Putin’s interests to a certain extent. As long as any potential challengers are busy fighting each other, they pose little threat to his position. But it also hinders the country’s combat effectiveness as the fragmentation of forces makes command and control difficult, and means there is little unity of effort.
The move by the Russian defence ministry to bring “volunteer formations” under its control must be understood against this backdrop of fragmentation and in-fighting, as well as the ongoing conscription round. The current conscription window, which opened on April 1, closes on July 15, has a stated goal of recruiting 147,000 soldiers.
But Prigozhin’s revolt against Russia’s military leadership and his seeming open defiance of his formerly close ally Vladimir Putin will also have significant implications for Russia’s ability to react to Ukraine’s counteroffensive which will become clearer in the days and weeks ahead.
This article has been updated on June 25 to reflect the most recent events concerning Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group.
Tracey German is Professor of Conflict and Security at King’s College London.