Mutiny in Russia: What Happened, What’s Next and What To Be Thankful For

June 29, 2023
Simon Saradzhyan

What drove Yevgeny Prigozhin to lead his PMC Wagner troops on a “march for justice” across southern Russia, toward Moscow? Was it a mutiny meant to overthrow Vladimir Putin and install the ex-convict in the Kremlin? Or was the owner and political leader of Russia’s most powerful private army actually — as he assured his followers — trying to convince Putin to meet his demands, which included the firing of his arch-enemies and Russia’s top generals, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, over their poor conduct in the Ukraine war? And what made Prigozhin agree to abort the march toward Moscow, with Wagner’s reconnaissance teams reportedly spotted some 55 miles [1] south of the Russian capital, even though his demands had been left unmet? More importantly, has the rebellion weakened Putin, or has it made him stronger? And what’s next for Russia, Ukraine, and other countries whose national interests have been affected by this crisis? Finally, should we be thankful that the “march for justice” turned out the way it went? Despite having combed through hundreds of primary sources over the past several days, I still don’t have definitive answers to all of these key questions, but here’s how I would go about answering some of them if asked to do so, based on what was known as of June 29.

What just happened and why? My research indicates that a confluence of three potential grievances may have shaped Prigozhin’s decision to send his Wagner troops to march from Ukraine to Rostov-on-Don and then on toward Moscow on June 23. If one were to use a typology of “causes” of political violence on a micro-level, these grievances could be divided into one trigger and two preconditions. The trigger was likely pulled by one of Prigozhin’s ach-adversaries, Defense Minister Shoigu. On June 11, he issued an order requiring all PMCs to sign contracts with — and, thus, subordinate themselves to — the Defense Ministry by the end of the month. Prigozhin instantly rejected the order, understanding that its implementation would have meant that Wagner would have to report to Shoigu, ending its relative independence among Russia’s military forces and thus robbing Prigozhin of the main instrument of his power. However, Putin spoke in support of the order on June 13, leaving Prigozhin without a legal way to wiggle out of complying with it.

In addition to this trigger, Prigozhin’s decision to rebel may have been influenced by two hypothetical preconditions. For one, Prigozhin may have hoped the march would elevate him further in the hierarchy of Russia’s domestic politics. (Prigozhin is known to have harbored political ambitions for some time, and Russian voters have started to take note; for the first time in May, a Levada poll of Russians placed him among Russia’s ten most trusted political figures). Another precondition could have been Prigozhin’s frustration with the state of his finances, according to Russian defectors, military analysts and Western intelligence officials who spoke with WSJ. The WSJ report did not specify what these “financial pressures” were, and I cannot vouch for the veracity of these anonymous claims. That said, their claim seems to align with a claim advanced by someone with whom Prigozhin shared a situational alliance in opposition to the general who led Russia’s thwarted attempt to take Kyiv. That someone is Ramzan Kadyrov, who said on June 25 that a “string of bad deals,” including the loss of regional government tenders, had played a role in Prigozhin’s rebellion.

While I am fairly confident that Shoigu’s deadline for Wagner’s allegiance to the Defense Ministry served as a trigger for Prigozhin’s uprising, [2] I presently lack information to say for certain whether Prigozhin’s political ambitions or purported financial grievances played a role in his decision to rebel. [3]  Nor am I certain how these grievances and ambitions could have been addressed by his “march for justice.” Perhaps, he was hoping the march would culminate in a meeting with Putin, who he hoped would publicly satisfy his demands to fire Shoigu and Gerasimov, allow him to retain control of the Wagner troops and privately resolve any more personal grievances (Scenario 1). Or perhaps Prigozhin hoped the march would end with Putin’s ouster and his own ascent to the Kremlin, in which case he could have fulfilled his own public and private wishes (Scenario 2). I do not know which — if either — of these two scenarios Prigozhin had envisioned, but I can make an educated guess that Scenario 1 would have appeared more implementable in the eye of a rational player in possession of sufficient and accurate information about his resources, and those of his opponents.

What led Prigozhin to abort the march and leave for Belarus — apparently with none of his wishes granted? It seems that Alexander Lukashenko was telling the truth when he recounted how, in the course of mediating between Prigozhin and the Kremlin on June 23-24, the Wagner chief eventually came to believe the Belarusian leader’s assurances that his demands for a meeting with Putin and the ousters of Gerasimov and Shoigu would not be met. And yet Prigozhin agreed to reverse course, thus conceding his failure. Again, I lack information to be certain about Prigozhin’s motivation for retreating. Perhaps, he realized that what had started as a walk in the park, with Wagner troops having been greeted by prom-queen candidates and cute dogs in Rostov-on-Don, would soon turn into a bloodbath, from which he would not emerge victorious. As the 5,000-strong convoy, led by Wagner himself (nom de guerre of retired GRU Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin), advanced toward Moscow with its reconnaissance teams apparently reaching the Moscow region town of Kashira on June 24, multiple reports appeared of units of the National Guard, the Defense Ministry and other troops deploying along the northern bank of the Oka river, with more defensive lines being formed further north on the way to the Russian capital. These lines could have seriously slowed or disrupted the convoy’s advance, causing massive casualties, while also buying Putin more time to rally loyal troops and defeat Wagner. It is this realization that he may fail to coerce Putin with the resources at hand that may have forced Prigozhin to give up on his march. [4] It is also possible that Prigozhin had been counting on the support of suspected high-ranking allies, such as General Sergei Surovikin, who may have had shared his view that Shoigu and Gerasimov had to go, but who in the end didn’t side with him publicly.

Has the rebellion weakened Putin, signaling the beginning of his end, or has it actually made him stronger? Respected analysts such as Anatoly Lieven, Erica Frantz  and Nikolai Sokov, have all argued that Putin has or will become stronger because of this failed mutiny. But one has to wonder how a commander-in-chief can gain, at least militarily, from the loss of up to tens of thousands of troops who had previously been under his ultimate control — and not just ordinary troops, but the highly experienced fighters who have been behind Russia’s biggest gain in months in Ukraine — Bakhmut. [5] Nor could he have become stronger politically, in my view. As Stephen Kotkin put it, “the bottom line [is that] an alternative was allowed to arise.” That said, while I view Putin as having been weakened by the rebellion, I cannot know whether this time it's really the “beginning of the end,” as described this week in commentaries for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and other major Western outlets. I do know, however, that one of the first predictions of the beginning of the end for Putin was made back in 2002.

What’s next for Russia, Ukraine other countries whose national interests have been affected by developments in Moscow? We cannot know what the future holds, but it does appear that Russia has been weakened by the rebellion. Though neither Ukraine nor its allies appear to have exploited that weakness in the short period of time that has passed since the rebellion, such exploitation cannot be excluded in the future, and among other areas, that applies to Russia’s ability to wage war. In the words of Ruslan Pukhov, who sits on the Russian Defense Ministry’s hand-picked Public Council: “Russia’s belief that it could outlast Ukraine and the west in a long war has proved a ‘dangerous illusion.’ … Dragging the war out has huge domestic risks for Russia. The first destabilizing blow came even earlier than they thought. Now the risks are only going to grow,” Pukhov told FT. Whether and how Pukhov’s prediction will materialize is difficult to assess, given the multiplicity of variables at play, but given the political views of the main antagonists of the crisis, it is difficult not to agree with Timothy Colton’s observation that “a democratic outcome for Russia is seemingly as far away as ever.” That should, perhaps, please China, the most powerful of Russia’s authoritarian allies. But something tells me that even Xi Jinping must be scratching his head, trying to work out a way to hedge China’s bets in Russia without letting on to the Kremlin that he is working to ensure Beijing won’t be caught off guard if there is a regime change in Russia.

Should the world be thankful? When I saw footage of Wagner troops marching into Rostov-on-Don on June 23, the first thing I did was retrieve a 2017 UNIDIR report that I knew had a map and list of facilities, in which Russia keeps its nuclear weapons. [6] And, sure enough, there is one such facility in the Voronezh region, which neighbors the Rostov region, according to this report. Given my previous research in Russian nuclear security, I doubt that this facility is designed to withstand an assault by 5,000 combat veterans armed, supported by tanks and with ready access to air support. My worries increased further when I read reports of Wagner advancing into the Voronezh region, but I was relieved to learn that it continued to move along a north-bound federal highway, passing many miles west of the facility.  Most probably, the implementation of Prigozhin’s ambitions — whatever they may have been —did not require such means as nuclear blackmail. [7] Or it may have been the case that it did not occur to Prigozhin that he could engage in such blackmail by ordering their Moscow-bound convoy to take a detour a few dozen miles. Deus ex machina or not, we should be thankful that this struggle for power within the Russian ruling elite did not acquire a nuclear dimension, which would have had global repercussions. We might not be so lucky, however, if there is a next time.



[1] As the crow flies.

[2] The timing of Prigozhin’s rebellion may have been expedited by the FSB’s reported exposure of his plot.

[3] Prigozhin depended on the favorable attitudes of federal and regional authorities for much of his business empire’s income. The main sources of that income have been government contracts in Russia — including catering services provided by his firm Concord, and security services provided by PMC Wagner — in exchange for cash and participation in the extraction of resources in Africa and the Middle East. In addition, Wagner received billions of dollars in state financing, according to Putin.

[4] Prigozhin himself claimed he turned back because he did not want to spill a lot of blood, which would have been inevitable if his 5,000-strong convoy were to challenge the line of defense across the Oka river on their way to Moscow. I doubt his claim, however, given how many tens of thousands of PMC Wagner fighters he reportedly sacrificed to take the strategically unimportant town of Bakhmut.

[5] One should treat Prigozhin’s estimate with a pinch of salt, but if his claim that 25,000 Wagner fighters were participating in the mutiny is accurate, and so are British defense ministry’s May 2023 estimates that the Russian grouping in Ukraine is about 200,000-strong, then that should give you an idea of how much weaker Russia’s war machine in Ukraine could become if the bulk of Wagner personnel were no longer to be a part of it.

[6] This instinct came as a result of years of researching nuclear security issues in Russia.

[7] One consequence of the failed rebellion is that Putin has bolstered the defenses of the National Guard, which guards many of Russian nuclear facilities, granting them tanks and APCs.


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo shared by Fargob under a Creative Commons 1.0/public domain designation. 

Correction: Due to a typographical error in the initial publication, the following sentence has been changed to reflect the author's view that Scenario 1 — not 2 — would likely have been more implementable in the eyes of a rational actor: "I do not know which — if either — of these two scenarios Prigozhin had envisioned, but I can make an educated guess that Scenario 1 would have appeared more implementable in the eye of a rational player in possession of sufficient and accurate information about his resources, and those of his opponents."