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Eastern Europe

Wagner Revolt

by John De Cleene, 21 January 2024

Russia's habit under President Vladimir Putin of using mercenary forces in many of its military operations backfired briefly in 2023. The Wagner revolt sparked alarm and consternation in Moscow.

However, there was no lasting damage to the policy itself, and Russia continued to further its aims through that tactic. The revolt clearly showed the policy's limits but, even so, it seemed to satisfy Putin's goals enough for him to continue to employ it.

The Wagner revolt of 2023

There came a point in June 2023 when Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia's most prominent mercenary leader, finally cracked after years of chafing under grievances he held.

He attempted what seemed to be a military attack on Moscow during a long-standing feud with the Russian military leadership over the handling of the conflict against Ukraine. [1]

Prigozhin had spent years in prison in the 1980s for robbery and other crimes, but he redeemed himself by becoming a caterer for Putin, where he acquired the nickname 'Putin's chef'.

Prigozhin's close association with Putin, along with his intimidating function, essentially, as a mob boss, brought Prigozhin enormous wealth. He continued to involve himself in unsavoury activities, even coming under indictment in the USA for interfering in their 2016 presidential elections.

In 2014, with Putin's backing, he built up a powerful private mercenary force called the Wagner Group. It was during this period that Russia tore off sections of eastern Ukraine, establishing two supposedly independent puppet republics in the process. Russia also invaded and annexed Crimea.

The Wagner Group, a force which numbered some 25,000 men, played a key role in Russia's initial advances into Ukraine after Putin began his full-scale invasion of that country in 2019.

Yevgeny Prigozhin with Vladimir Putin
Yevgeny Prigozhin gained his nickname of 'Putin's Chef' thanks to being Putin's dedicated caterer though his 1990s-created fast food company and luxury restaurant

[1] While Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and fighting was ongoing to brutal levels of attrition, the conflict was not technically a war as no formal declaration of war had ever been made - in fact Putin was very careful to avoid any mention at all of it being a war.

Nevertheless, despite their initial apparent successes, the mercenaries suffered greatly both due to attacking Ukrainian forces and also during the early stages of Ukraine's counteroffensive, so much so that their trained units of troops became depleted.

Prigozhin had to reinforce his army with convicts who were promised their freedom if they survived six months of combat. Of the 48,000 convicts he recruited, some thirty thousand were killed, twenty thousand of them in the capture of Bakhmut alone.

Prigozhin's Wagner Group had gained significant battle experience, having fought in Syria, Libya, Mali, and Sudan. It drew its revenue from the control of mineral resources in a number of African countries. The group became in many places the effective ruling power, after entering into agreements with corrupt governments to extract valuable minerals in exchange for providing security to those governments.

Wagner troops and armoured vehicle in Rostov-on-Don
Armed troops take cover alongside a Wagner Group armoured vehicle in the centre of Rostov-on-Don on the morning of 24 June 2023, when Prigozhin proclaimed his revolt

For some time, Prigozhin had been complaining about Russia's military leadership, in particular demanding the dismissal of the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gersimov.

Then he asserted very forcefully that the Russians had bombarded his forces in Ukraine. In addition, the Russian army had instituted a demand that all volunteer forces sign contracts with the Russian military by 1 July 2023. Compliance would effectively have incorporated private armies such as the Wagner Group into the Russian army.

Exasperated, Prigozhin withdrew his forces from Ukraine and swiftly, without opposition and indeed with some internal sympathy, occupied the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don.

The revolt gets underway

The Wagner Group advanced along a route which took it past Varonezh and got it as far as Yelets, some 193 kilometres from Moscow. In the meantime, Putin ordered Prigozhin's arrest for treason and made a televised speech to the nation in which he denounced Prigozhin.

Wagner troops on a tank in Rostov-on-Don
Members of the Wagner Group sit on top of a tank in Russia's Rostov-on-Don, which they captured on 24 June 2023 to take control of the 'Southern Military District'

Rather quickly, Belarus, a staunch Russian ally, negotiated an agreement in which Putin dropped all charges against Prigozhin, and Prigozhin withdrew his troops from their advance on Moscow and ordered their return to Ukraine. He himself escaped to Belarus, where he was promised safety.

Ukraine, of course, was delighted at this turn of events and expressed gratification at this display of intrigue and internal dissension in Russia's military combatants. Ukraine claimed that these events were proof of the widespread discontent within Russia itself in relation to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Indeed, some six hundred thousand men had fled Russia rather than accept conscription. For two months following the negotiated deal with Prigozhin, Putin degraded Wagner's resources and consolidated his own position.

When he was ready, Putin extended an invitation of safe passage to Prigozhin, and Prigozhin returned to Russia.

On 23 August 2023 a missile strike on Prigozhin's private jet killed him and many of his associates, including his deputy. Putin had his revenge.

While Putin's reputation was weakened by the affair, he persisted in and even intensified his attack on Ukraine. He subsequently required Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state.

Wagner Group troops in Rostov-on-Don
Wagner Group mercenaries in Russia's Rostov-on-Don shortly after the mercenary organisation had seized this important city with minimal force being required

Some fighters joined other private Russian mercenary groups rather than sign the oath but many accepted. Wagner mercenaries began returning to the frontline in Ukraine.

Putin recovered from the incident as Russian forces regained some minor scraps of territory in Ukraine late in the year, and Ukraine's western supporters began to exhibits cracks in their resolve. The conflict ground on.


Main Sources

Washington Post (25 June 2023)

Moscow Times (19 June 2023)

Kiel Institute

Reuters (29 September 2023)



Text copyright © John De Cleene. An original feature for the History Files.