Prigozhin's "mutiny" in Rostov on 24. June, 2023. A tank with flowers in its gun barrel.
Prigozhin's "mutiny". A tank with flowers in its gun barrel. | Foto: Fargoh via Wikimedia Commons | CC0 1.0

What’s the Long-Term Significance of Wagner’s March to Moscow?

On 23 and 24 June, armed columns of the Wagner Group made their way from occupied Ukrainian territory toward Moscow, passing through Rostov and Voronezh. The declared goal of these Russian mercenaries under the leadership of oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin was to depose Russian Minister of Defense Sergei K. Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery V. Gerasimov. Prigozhin accused both of having betrayed Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

In turn, Putin declared the march of Wagner to be “treasonous” and announced this “mutiny” would be suppressed and punished. Meanwhile, hectic security measures were enacted in Moscow. On Saturday evening Prigozhin stopped the advance of Wagner, declaring that he would leave to Belarus.

It’s highly dangerous to publicly defy Putin, as the murders of Russian journalist Anna S. Politkovskaya (2006) and Russian politician Boris Y. Nemtsov (2015) illustrate. It remains to be seen which exact repercussions Prigozhin and others will face after this episode.

Beyond the fate of those who challenge Putin, the significance of the Wagner March lies in what it can tell us about the future of the Russian regime and conflict dynamics with Ukraine. Amidst the current flurry of sometimes ill-founded speculation, some cautious inferences are warranted.

Changing Regime Dynamics

Traditionally, the power of the Putin regime rested on two pillars, one of which are Russia’s constitutional order of institutions, agencies, and bureaucracies, which, formally (though doubtfully), function on the basis of laws, democratic elections, and individual freedoms. 

The other pillar, however, is a small and informal network of elites with Putin at its center. This network controls all of the formal and informal levers of power in Russia and includes the bosses of state corporations and security agencies, as well as commanders of paramilitaries like Prigozhin.

This “Dual State” (a concept developed by Ernst Fränkel and Richard Sakwa) serves to legitimize the existing order by providing “normal”, functional and law-like policy, assuaging basic needs of the citizenry. Simultaneously, the Dual State allows its autocratic elites to bypass the normal policy process to enrich themselves and ensure they remain in power.

This dual structure goes a long way in explaining why the Russian regime continues to pay close attention to elections; why it seeks to shield the general population of the most severe economic consequences of the war and the sanctions; and why it puts so many resources into its propaganda machine. 

The march to Moscow illustrates that the system of the Dual State is no longer functioning as well as it used to. For over half a year, a new and not exactly central member of the power elite, Prigozhin, has publicly attacked one of its key members, Shoigu, who has often been considered Putin’s most likely successor. Prigozhin’s march was not stopped by Russia’s regular armed forces, nor by the FSB, nor by public announcements of the president. Rather, it took a dubious and semi-clandestine mixture of negotiations, mediated by Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, and most likely some blunt informal threats to restore order.

Indeed, very much in line with the Dual State, the Wagner Group’s legal status in Russia is highly ambiguous and shady. Additionally, Prigozhin has repeatedly resisted attempts by the Russian Ministry of Defense to integrate his mercenaries into the regular Russian armed forces. In the light of this rather public and extra-legal infighting, the regime will struggle to maintain the façade of official, constitutional, and indeed functional politics.

Putin’s Reputation Suffers

The stability of the Russian regime is directly linked to Putin’s image in Russian mainstream society. While Russia is without a doubt an autocracy, it is nonetheless not a totalitarian state like North Korea. The regime does not have a total monopoly on information and does not believe it can keep its own population in check by fear alone. Putin’s reputation is vital for the regime.

In its depictions of Putin, Russian propaganda draws on long-term tropes in Russian culture, wherein the government and the bureaucrats are corrupt whereas the leader is virtuous and competent. This is reflected in Russian opinion polls: Putin’s approval rates usually far exceed those of other members of government, the bureaucracy, and the perceived state of the country.

Besides economic growth, Putin’s approval hinges on the perceptions of his abilities as a crisis manager and commander-in-chief. Putin’s ascent to power at the end of 1999 was carefully orchestrated with a reignition of the war in Chechnya. In the 2000s, Putin’s approval rates rose, as he was perceived as being responsible for victoriously ending the Chechen war and overseeing steep economic growth fueled by rising prices of oil and gas. When Putin annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014, his approval rates underwent what the statisticians called a “Crimea bump” for several years. 

The march to Moscow further harms Putin’s domestic image as a competent and patriotic crisis manager, which has wavered ever since the Ukrainians fought off and rolled back Russian advances on Kyiv in mid-2022. The regime ‘s declared goal to completely “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine has never seemed less attainable than now. 

While the regime has since tried to revise history, the march to Moscow puts question marks even on the less ambitious war aims that state propaganda has sought to sell to the Russian public ever since it became clear that the invasion was not going as planned. 

It will be a tough task for the regime to prevent perceptions in the Russian populace that, even though the attempt ultimately failed, somebody dared to directly challenge the regime with the implied threat of military force, got away with it for two days, and was not visibly defeated on the field or punished in the aftermath.

It is also unlikely that the regime will be successful in completely demonizing Prigozhin. There were reports of people in Rostov cheering Wagner troops on and taking selfies with them. Prigozhin declared he ended the march to Moscow, because he did not want to “spill Russian blood”.

Wagner troops have long had a reputation for being elite. While mass recruitment (including criminals) has somewhat tarnished this image, it was mainly Wagner troops that conducted the grueling Russian offensives against Bakhmut, one of the few areas in which Russia managed to conquer territory since mid-2022.

Likely further playing into the image of Wagner’s supposed patriotism and military prowess is the fact that its advances on Moscow were not militarily suppressed. Rather, reports of scattered fighting, Putin retreating from Moscow, and Chechen dictator Kadyrov approaching with troops of his own suggest that the regime deemed an all-out battle possible – and shied away from it. The apparent need to try to involve Russia’s few international allies also does not speak to the regime’s confidence and strength. Kazakhstan and Iran were asked to mediate – and declined. It came down to Belarus strongmen Lukashenko to strike a dubious bargain with supposed amnesty for Prigozhin and his troops.

Furthermore, Prigozhin has publicly attacked Shoigu and Gerasimov for over half a year before marching on Moscow. He accused them of withholding vital materiel and ammunition, thus jeopardizing a Russian victory and wasting the lives of Russian fighters. During the march, Prigozhin even claimed that the invasion had only been started to allow a vain Shoigu to be promoted to Marshal. It is unlikely that Putin’s domestic image will remain unscathed by all of these factors in the long run.

Is This Good News?

Various obstacles face analysts when trying to understand, let alone predict, power politics and decisions on warfare in regimes like the Russian one. In the lingo of political science: many variables interact, many processes are non-linear, data is scarce, fragmentary, and often unreliable. Any projection, and any political decision that relies on it, should be formulated with caution. But while there is no master formula, analyzing how key factors interact can nonetheless allow for some insights. 

The march to Moscow could indeed contribute to a resolution of the war in the mid- to long term. For example, the regime might adopt “face-saving” de-escalatory measures to compensate for the increasingly visible problems of the regime and the warfighting effort. In all likelihood, the march to Moscow will further diminish morale among Russian troops, which might further incentivize such considerations.

However, this scenario would require that, among other factors, the inner circle of the regime is willing and able to even consider such policies. And there are good reasons to assume that the effect might go the other way, with the Russian regime doubling down on chauvinist and maximalist policies to counteract the perceived fallout of Prigozhin’s march.

Other scenarios are conceivable in which struggles within the Russian elite help Ukraine in regaining territory and caution the Russian regime against reacting with escalatory measures. From what we know, this cannot be ruled out, but is unlikely. 

One might take Prigozhin’s public dissent, Putin’s timid response, and the visible popular support for Wagner among ordinary Russians as a sign that we might soon see a mass movement against the regime. However, it has to be noted that the challenge came from an (arguably peripheral) insider of the regime who was actively involved in fighting Russia’s war against Ukraine. Furthermore, for revolutions to be orderly, peaceful and successful, there needs to be a big and well-organized opposition movement, to which parts  of the current power elite can safely defect (as shown by the research of Adrián del Río). The march to Moscow provides more hints that the necessary preconditions for such a revolution do not currently exist in Russia.

Incremental change in Russia might also go the wrong way. Many autocracies have increasingly relied on repression and thereby managed to survive harsh conditions. Even though Saddam Hussein was soundly defeated during the Gulf War of 1990/91, and even though his regime was put under severe sanctions, Hussein managed to remain in power throughout the 1990s up until his violent removal by US troops in 2003. 

On top of all this, the march to Moscow exacerbates the problem of Putin’s succession. As the regime is so closely linked to him, regime transformation probably requires his removal from office. But even if Putin wanted to abdicate, he would have to factor in that doing so would make him vulnerable. Thus, it seems more likely that Putin and his inner circle will try to increase repression and control to prevent another challenge like the one posed by Prigozhin and the march to Moscow.

Further worsening the outlook is that the march will likely give further fuel to the spread of stab-in-the-back myths among the Russian elite and society. Wars brutalize societies and often lead to the spread of chauvinist and authoritarian ideas. They also tend to lead to more aggressive and violent policies when a country has lost a conflict or when the conflict ended without a clear victory. Due to the belief in their own superiority, chauvinists cannot accept that shortcomings in their own war efforts are due to a superior opponent. Rather, fifth columns and traitors in their own ranks need to be blamed. The iconic example is, of course, that of Germany after the First World War and the stab-in-the-back myths that helped Hitler and his ilk rise to power. 

Russian propaganda has long depicted the war against Ukraine and the struggle with Western countries as patriotic duty and a war for the survival of Russia. If the regime does not want to be held responsible for coming short in these confrontations, it will have to accuse forces within Russia. Prominent ultra-nationalist voices have long criticized the regime for a lack of determination and ruthlessness in pursuing the war effort. The march to Moscow further increases these pressures on the regime, as Prigozhin directly accused prominent members of the regime of backstabbing the Russian war effort.

All of this likely spells bad news for the mid-term prospects of ending the war and the broader conflict between Russia on the one hand, and Ukraine and the West on the other.

[A German language version of this article is also available.]
Jonas J. Driedger

Jonas J. Driedger

Dr. Jonas J. Driedger ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ am PRIF sowie am Forschungszentrum Transformations of Political Violence (TraCe). Er forscht zu zwischenstaatlichen Kriegen, Abschreckung in den internationalen Beziehungen, Beziehungen zwischen Großmächten und ihren Nachbarstaaten sowie russischer und transatlantischer Sicherheits- und Verteidigungspolitik. // Dr Jonas J. Driedger is a Researcher at the Research Department “International Security” at PRIF and at the Research Center Transformations of Political Violence (TraCe). His research focuses on interstate wars, deterrence in international politics, relations between great powers and their neighboring states as well as Russian and transatlantic security and defense policy.

Jonas J. Driedger

Dr. Jonas J. Driedger ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ am PRIF sowie am Forschungszentrum Transformations of Political Violence (TraCe). Er forscht zu zwischenstaatlichen Kriegen, Abschreckung in den internationalen Beziehungen, Beziehungen zwischen Großmächten und ihren Nachbarstaaten sowie russischer und transatlantischer Sicherheits- und Verteidigungspolitik. // Dr Jonas J. Driedger is a Researcher at the Research Department “International Security” at PRIF and at the Research Center Transformations of Political Violence (TraCe). His research focuses on interstate wars, deterrence in international politics, relations between great powers and their neighboring states as well as Russian and transatlantic security and defense policy.

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