The downfall of Prigozhin

The recent mutiny of the Wagner Private Military Company, orchestrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, was the most serious instance of Russian internal conflict since the beginning of the Ukraine war. Alexandr Burilkov assesses whether its swift resolution reveals a regime that has survived the test unchanged or further weakened

A force surpassing the Russian military

Even in the murderers’ row of unsavoury characters who have emerged during the course of the war in Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigozhin stands out. A Soviet-era street thug turned restaurateur, and eventually mercenary captain, Prigozhin is unique. Unlike the vast majority of Russian potentates, he was not socialised into the elite institutions of Soviet power and prestige. The exploits of his Wagner PMC, including the capture of Bakhmut in spring 2023, allowed him to rise to a commanding position in the Russian ultranationalist 'turbo-patriot' space.

The exploits of Prigozhin's Wagner PMC allowed him to rise to a commanding position in the Russian ultranationalist 'turbo-patriot' space

And Prigozhin never shied away from using this bully pulpit to air his grievances in a brutal and crude fashion. Most grievances are related to his many personal feuds with high-ranking members of Russian state institutions, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. But Prigozhin's criticism of the conduct of the war struck a chord with Russian nationalists. His gist is that Russia is not fighting the war strongly enough. Rather, it is undermined by liberal fifth columnists in the elite, and by corrupt and feckless officials in the army, ministries, and intelligence agencies.

The order to disband

However, the dysfunctional relationship between Wagner and the military eventually prompted a presidential decree ordering all Russian PMCs to be disbanded by 1 July. All Prigozhin’s efforts to keep Wagner exempt, from meeting with Vladimir Putin to agitating through his media presence, failed. This led directly to the fateful events of 24 June. A minority of Wagner fighters (out of some 20,000) followed Prigozhin in his quixotic mutiny.

Despite sympathy with Prigozhin's grievances, no army or security units defected in their entirety. Indeed, senior military officers and regional governors publicly proclaimed their loyalty to Putin. Prigozhin's fighters, marching on Moscow, would encounter the Kremlin's formidable garrison, drawn from elite Russian military units and national guard, and supported by the air force. Faced with this, Prigozhin surrendered that afternoon after minimal bloodshed, and was temporarily exiled to Belarus. Wagner fighters loyal to him who have not signed contracts as regular soldiers will follow Prigozhin and provide training to the Belarusian military.

Kronstadt rebellion or Kornilov Affair?

The Western assessment of the mutiny on the day went as far as forecasting a civil war. Since then, it has muted somewhat. However, Western media still consider the Putin regime fatally weakened.

Regional commentators are more uncertain. General Valerii Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s supreme commander, noted that the mutiny has not affected Russian battlefield performance. Moreover, veteran Wagner fighters on the Ukrainian-Belarusian frontier may be a significant problem. In Russian memory, the march evoked the spectres of 1917 and 1993. Russian war correspondents therefore praised the relatively peaceful resolution of Prigozhin's mutiny and the Kremlin's decisive action in avoiding bloodshed,

Even as Wagner columns advanced on Moscow, Prigozhin continued to negotiate with the Russian state apparatus

But what does the literature tell us? Unlike coups, in which elites attempt to unseat the existing executive, mutinies are instances of collective insubordination by military units. The purpose of such insubordination is to express grievances and seek redress. Prigozhin’s central demand was the maintenance of the special status of Wagner as an independent formation. This stood above even his feud with Shoigu and Gerasimov. At no point did he oppose Putin, or the structure of the current Russian system.

His behaviour matches the characteristic of mutinies as a strategic form of communication and dialogue with senior military and political leadership, particularly by rank-and-file soldiers who bear disproportionately the costs of warfighting. It is striking that even as Wagner columns advanced on Moscow, Prigozhin, holed up in the Central Military District’s HQ in Rostov, continued to negotiate with the Russian state apparatus.

Wider grievances?

Prigozhin’s mutiny failed. However, many nationalists in the army and intelligence agencies share some of his grievances regarding the conduct of the war. It follows that there is potential for the regime's destabilisation, whether through further mutinies or even coups, so long as the underlying causes of these grievances on the conduct of the war and insufficient mobilisation of the country remain.

On the surface, Prigozhin’s doomsaying about current Russian battlefield performance is puzzling. The Russian military has exceeded expectations in defending against Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive. It has ferociously and unceasingly counterattacked any Ukrainian advances, and inflicted severe casualties on Ukraine’s newly minted NATO-trained brigades. (The propensity to counterattack is one of the best ways to measure a defending force’s morale.)

Russian battlefield performance and the stability of the regime correlate directly – and, for now, the Russian military is exceeding expectations against Ukraine's summer counteroffensive

Furthermore, Ukrainian forces are fighting in conditions of Russian air supremacy. This is a decisive advantage, and one that is impossible to alter without an air force equivalent to the massive and highly advanced Russian VKS (Aerospace Forces). The VKS is more than a match for any NATO air force save the USAF.

The long-term implications

If the fighting continues as is, it is very unlikely that Ukraine will achieve significant gains. Meanwhile, Russian forces in the Donbas appear to be preparing their own offensive operations and have advanced in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian formations in the region.

The Russian nationalist information space noted this discrepancy, which contributed substantially to its branding Prigozhin as traitor rather than saviour. However, this also shows that Russian battlefield performance and the stability of the regime correlate directly. So long as the Russian military continues to perform as it has since the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive on 5 June, it is highly unlikely that any actor in Russia would have the legitimacy to see an incentive to risk it all in challenging the Kremlin.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Alexandr Burilkov
Alexandr Burilkov
Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for the Study of Democracy (ZDEMO), Leuphana University of LĂĽneburg

Alex obtained his PhD on the maritime strategy of emerging powers from the University of Hamburg.

He was previously a junior researcher at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies (Institute of Asian Studies), and the Metropolitan University of Prague.

Alex's research interests are military strategy and security policy in Russia, the post-Soviet space, and East Asia.

He also studies the diffusion of international organisations and their institutional features using quantitative methods.


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