Yevgeny Prigozhyn’s anti-climactic “march for justice” at the end of June was more of a matter of when than of if in the context of a fading Russian Federation. The carefully built facade of order, unity and patriotism has been pierced by the reality of the Wagner leader’s columns marching undisturbed towards Moscow. Images of Russian laborers demolishing highways to halt the advance and people acclaiming a smiling Prigozhyn showed an underlying condition of the Russian population: a lack of ideology, purpose and direction, a description that also applies to the Ukrainian war.
How did Vladimir Putin, the main heir of the Soviet Union, the political actor who dominated the international stage for decades, get into this situation, especially given his initial aspirations? After the dark 1990s, characterized by internal instability and flourishing crime, at the beginning of the 2000s Russia seemed to firmly stand on the path towards democratization, which included a strong rapprochement with the West and even with NATO. Upon assuming leadership, Putin skillfully projected an image of Russia as a congenial European entity on the international stage, while concurrently positioning himself as a proponent of democratic principles and individual liberties within the nation’s borders. This allure of progressive and Western views concealed deep grievances and the belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst catastrophe of the 20th century. While he strongly believed that for the Russians “a strong state is not an anomaly to fight against. It is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change.” he also understood the shortcomings of the planned economy. That is why he was willing to collaborate with the newly born oligarchs, as long as they displayed unwavering loyalty. This decision and approach have been the turning point that shaped and continues to influence Russian reality to the current day.
Neo-medievalist tendencies in the Russian military apparatus
Putin embodies both neo-imperial ambitions and the constant need to watch out for his own position. His rule is based on an inherently corrupt system, clientelist relationships and support from the economic elites in exchange for stability and unchanged business conditions. This reality has impacted not only the social, political and economic spheres of the nation, but also the military sector. The persistent apprehension of facing a coup d’état prompted him to underinvest in the nation’s army, a pivotal component of the state machinery that, if bolstered excessively, could potentially pose a threat to his authority. Putin preferred to build his private army, a choice that at the time seemed like the safest one for his own regime.
While in contemporary nation-states, the monopoly of force typically rests with public institutions, Putin’s regime allowed the privatization of force to return. This enabled the creation of warlords capable of wielding their armies according to their own discretion, thereby transforming them into a novel political force. Of course, this was not the initial objective. Putin strongly believed in his capacity of controlling these neo-medieval creatures, envisaged as a private shadow army, capable of reaching where conventional forces could not.
The Wagner Group, the most prominent Russian private military company, emerged from the remnants of the “Slavonic Corps”. In 2014, members of the organization were recruited to serve as the “little green men” who invaded and provided assistance in the annexation of Crimea. That same year, Prigozhyn formally established the Wagner Group. Generally, the company provided Putin with a variety of services, including personal protection, dissemination of disinformation via troll farms, intelligence gathering, resource management (for commodities typically obtained as guarantees from corrupt governments), and the provision of boots on the ground for different types of military operations. In addition to their involvement in the Ukrainian battlefield, the mercenary group serves Russian interests in Africa and is a fundamental part of the Kremlin’s strategic penetration of the continent.
For the Russian President, utilizing Wagner’s services seemed to bring two main advantages: direct control over a powerful military force, but with plausible deniability, and lack of accountability in case of particular brutality and atrocities on the battlefield. The recent mutiny proved that both assumptions were wrong. Putin’s own strategy backfired, exposing him as weaker than ever. Prigozhyn’s uprising has achieved what numerous political experts deemed unattainable: a significant challenge to Putin’s authority emanating from the domestic landscape of the Russian Federation. The Wagner Group’s leader overtly and aggressively criticized the Russian leadership and military for months, without facing any consequences. Then, he managed in one day to capture one of Russia’s major cities, take control of the Rostov military headquarters, and advance to within 200 km of Moscow without spilling a “single drop” of his fighters’ blood.
Truth be told, no one fully grasped what was happening during those fateful 24 hours. After his public speech broadcasted on national television, Putin and his generals were nowhere to be found. The Russian population, already unaware of the true objective of the conflict in Ukraine, questioned whether the conflict would reach them. At the same time, great confusion stemmed from the shifting narratives around the Wagner Group: from national heroes and the elite of the Russian military to traitors.
Furthermore, Prigozhyn himself seemed to have no idea what his final purpose was: a move to assure his own survival, a real desire to rule, backed by his prior, presidential-like speeches held in different Russian cities, or both? While at this moment in time we can only hypothesize about the true motives behind the aborted mutiny, we can expect with great probability that it will have tangible consequences throughout the intricate reality of Kremlin dynamics.
The strongman figure haunting Russian society
“Wagner is power!” With such exclamations and acclaims, the citizens of Rostov-on-Don bid farewell to the Wagner columns as they left the city. They shook hands with Prigozhyn, the warlord that endangered the very people that stood by his side and that publicly stated their support for Wagner’s mutiny. He publicly defied the current regime; he was declared a traitor to the nation and the organizer of a “fratricide”. Nonetheless, the people took selfies with him as he left the city of Rostov, acclaiming that “We are on your side”. It was as if the people viewed the one who brought Russia to the verge of a civil war, as yet another celebrity who became notorious thanks to his aggressive declarations and power projections. But can we blame their confusion?
During Putin’s regime, events of national and social ferment were halted by actions of power projections, both nationally and abroad. Actions like the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Ukrainian war were meant to disorient and distract the nation while trying to appeal to their President’s dreams of imperial grandeur. In the current context, the Russian population finds itself confronted with a great conundrum: amid a prevailing lack of clarity regarding the underlying objectives of the ongoing conflict, their children, spouses, relatives and friends are actively engaged in the theater of war. Henceforth, they are ready to face the sacrifices entailed by the prospect of an enduring conflict, even if not necessarily supporting it from an ideological perspective.
The way forward (?)
Years of manipulation, fake news, disinformation and propaganda have brought to a numbed Russian population, lacking the will of acting or of applying critical thinking in the interpretation of the events unfolding around them. Extreme brutality exhibited by the government or by law enforcement officers, like in the case of the Russian activist beaten and raped with a dumbbell by the police for reciting an anti-war poem, reaped the Russians of hope for change or a better future. Hybrid and cognitive warfare, the use of private military companies and militia, conflicting narratives, power projection and the cultivation of charismatic strongman figures, could once be regarded as a formidable array of persuasive instruments within the arsenal of a prominent (even if not necessarily democratic) nation. However, in the current Russian context, it can be observed how the use of these persuasion techniques are resulting in a collection of disjointed, incoherent and unclear actions.
The war in Ukraine emerged as an existential fight, seemingly determining the very essence and fate of the Russian Federation. However, it has now evolved into a war against the future, a pivotal struggle for the survival of the regime, as its existence hinges upon the developments and ultimate resolution of the war. The current situation is one of great danger for Putin, with the Russian Federation always harder to control. His perceived weakness will probably progressively erode his popularity in a nation where power projections and authoritarian appearances are everything. At the same time, the international counterparts of President Putin, who were once inclined to emulate his actions, now find themselves questioning the level of his authority. This skepticism is further exacerbated by the fact that even Putin’s own loyalists no longer exhibit the past unwavering loyalty, particularly considering his recent backtracking and willingness to compromise with Prigozhyn only hours after labeling him a “traitor.”
In this context, the Russian political landscape will probably witness a persistent arms race among its major political players, with other oligarchs seizing the opportunity that Prigozhyn has put in the spotlight: you can overtly criticize the “grandfather”, but if you are strong enough in terms of brute force, you become (almost) untouchable.