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What Global Mutiny Trends Can Teach Us About Russia After Prigozhin’s Uprising

August 11, 2023
Maggie Dwyer

While Yevgeny Prigozhin’s June mutiny marked a dramatic occurrence in the context of modern Russia, it was less shocking from a global perspective, bearing many traits common to mutinies elsewhere. Placing the Russian mutiny in the context of wider mutiny trends may help us understand what to expect going forward, such as the likelihood of another rebellion in Russia. 

Worldwide, mutinies have increased since the end of the Cold War. Yet this uptick is not evenly distributed across regions and countries. A global dataset of mutinies [1] that occurred between 1945 and 2017 contains two clear cases of mutiny in Russia during this period.[2] One occurred in February 1995 when around 100 soldiers from an elite unit mutinied in response to “inhumane and chaotic conditions” in Chechnya, according to the dataset. The other happened in September 2002 when 54 soldiers deserted their motorized infantry division en masse in protest of a commander’s brutality.

To better understand mutiny patterns, it is useful to turn our attention to Africa — the most mutiny-prone continent, with nearly twice as many mutinies as the second most mutinous region (Asia). Within the former, West Africa ranks highest for mutinies (and coups). A comparison of the Russian mutiny to revolts in Africa reveals three commonalities and one significant difference.

Before delving into these, it is helpful to understand that mutinies are distinct from coups. A mutiny is generally seen as collective insubordination driven by goals other than the pursuit of political power. These rebellions typically involve soldiers making demands around improvements to specific conditions (pay, housing, equipment, etc.). In contrast, a coup is defined as an overt attempt to overthrow a sitting executive — most recently exemplified in the case of Niger. However, in practice, these two types of action can merge as goals can shift or escalate.

While coups have long captured the attention of academics, policy analysts and public audiences, mutinies have often flown under the radar. It has only been in more recent years that contemporary mutinies have gained significant attention from researchers. This has included datasets aimed at tracking mutinies, in-depth case studies, and direct accounts from mutineers themselves. My book, Soldiers in Revolt: Army Mutinies in Africa, includes each of these elements and involved over 100 interviews with former mutineers.

Given this growing understanding of mutiny as a phenomenon, how does the Prigozhin-led rebellion compare? The events in June in Russia have three main similarities with how mutinies typically proceed.

First, the tactics were very familiar. Mutinies often involve bold, public actions. Whereas coup leaders generally aim for stealth and secrecy, mutineers want their demands known and regularly use media as a key tool. In African mutinies, it is common to see soldiers blockade major roads or gather in public, strategically significant spaces. Like Wagner’s march toward Moscow and its surrounding of key military facilities, these types of tactics are impossible to ignore. They are threatening and they impose pressure on leadership to respond quickly for fear of the action escalating.

Second, the Wagner mutiny was similar to broader mutiny patterns with respect to the rhetoric used. Mutineers regularly try to distinguish themselves from coup-makers, highlighting that they are not out to overthrow the state. Rather, they present themselves as patriots who want to serve but will only do so when their demands are met. Prigozhin sounded similar to other mutiny leaders in laying out his grievances while also claiming to have no interest in ousting President Vladimir Putin. These types of statements are likely more than an explanation of intent; they are also a form of self-protection. Often coup leaders have been dealt with much more harshly than mutineers.

Finally, the combat context marks a similarity between the Wagner mutiny and others. Deploying soldiers to combat opens up many new avenues for grievances, such as complaints around equipment, hardship compensation, poor leadership or the ways injuries/fatalities have been handled. During times of peace or when not deployed, these issues are generally moot, or simply not a high enough priority to justify the risks of mutiny. Combat also shifts soldiers’ sense of worth to the state. In Africa, mutinies that follow combat (whether in civil wars, or in peacekeeping contexts) regularly argue that they are due more based on the risks they took. Relatedly, those risks and the distress related to injuries and fatalities in their units can spark the anger behind the revolts. In interviews with mutineers, those that were involved in combat-related revolts were often the most passionate, even years after the events. For example, during our discussions, several showed me physical scars or medical records to highlight their sacrifice and to justify their decisions to mutiny. The dire frontline conditions of Russia’s war in Ukraine were also central to Prigozhin’s explanation and justification. He not only called for improved munition supplies; he also criticized the lack of recognition that Wagner members had received for their fighting.

Alongside the similarities, there are also important differences. Unlike most of their counterparts, the Wagner mutineers were not members of the state armed forces. In fact, some of their main demands aimed to keep them separate from Russia’s regular military, such as Prigozhin’s refusal to have his PMC sign a contract with the Russian defense ministry. Still, the most significant difference relates to leadership. The vast majority of mutinies originate from the junior ranks, with limited involvement from senior officers. These rank distinctions become murky with Wagner; still, Prigozhin was undoubtedly not only Wagner’s political leader, but also an individual with significant power at the national level. When mutinies originate from within the junior ranks, they can offer unique insights into the lives and perceptions of the lower-ranking soldiers. Yet in the Wagner mutiny, statements were highly centralized, coming directly from Prigozhin. This offered little insight into the views of Wagner members, suggesting motivations linked to Prigozhin’s own personal ambitions. Still, the Wagner troops followed Prigozhin’s plan — including his commands to advance and retreat — indicating loyalty and a level of discipline often lacking in other mutinies. The top-level involvement and coordinated actions across Wagner also heightened the threat, presumably leading to Putin’s direct and rapid response.

Whereas mutinies in Africa have often been dismissed as a mere lack of discipline on the part of rank-and-file soldiers, my work has argued they are better viewed as an avenue for communication and negotiation. While the act itself may take leadership by surprise, in many cases, mutineers have warned leadership about their complaints and even plans for a revolt. As a detailed timeline of events leading up to the Wagner revolt shows, the anger and grievances were well-known by political and military leaders. Yet these issues went unaddressed until dramatic measures were taken. The Prigozhin-led mutiny can be viewed as a calculated risk that worked to quickly open a dialogue with Putin, with at least some of the mutineers’ demands seemingly having been met.

While mutinies are often public, negotiations with mutineers are typically conducted behind closed doors, making it difficult to track exact concessions. This also applied to the Wagner revolt as questions remain about what precisely was agreed between Prigozhin and Putin, with the mediation of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Still, overall, mutinies often lead to quick and short-term concessions for the mutineers. That Prigozhin has retained his freedom — roaming Russia after the end of the mutiny and even showing up at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg — is clearly the result of concessions made by Putin. However, the immediate concessions made to mutineers rarely lead to longer-term changes in the armed forces. Since the underlying issues often go unaddressed, tensions continue to exist, and it is common to see further mutinies following the initial one. While the Wagner mutiny appeared to succeed in keeping some of the fighters relatively independent for now, the longer-term place for Wagner within the Russian state remains unclear. Similarly, combat-related issues can quickly resurface and bolster past grievances. Given what we know about the trajectory of mutinies, we should not assume that the June rebellion will necessarily be a one-off incident.



[1] The full “Military Mutinies and Defection Database” created by Jaclyn Johnson can be found on the author’s website. A description of the methodology used in the dataset is available in Johnson, Jaclyn, “Introducing the Military Mutinies and Defections Database (MMDD), 1945-2017” Journal of Peace Research 58, 6 (2021): 1311-1319.

[2] The dataset also codes an incident in December 1994 as a mutiny. Yet, this incident involved between one and four generals who refused orders to have their troops shoot at local civilians in Chechnya. The description does not appear to fit the criteria of mass insubordination, in my view.


Maggie Dwyer

Maggie Dwyer is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) and Co-Director of the Centre for Security Research at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. She is also a Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Her research focuses on armed forces, politics and security, with a regional emphasis on West Africa.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated.

Photo shared by the Russian presidential press service (Kremlin.ru) under a CC BY 4.0 license.