Over the space of 24 hours, an armed mutiny led by Vladimir Putin’s bestie Yevgeny Prigozhin started with a bang and ended in a whimper. No one understands what exactly happened—but everyone agrees it isn’t good news for Putin.
Who is this Prigozhin?
A colourful backstory: Born in St Petersburg in 1961, Prigozhin (pronounced pree-GOH-zhin) started a career of crime as a teenager. At the age of 20, he was sent to prison for robbery—ending his prospects as a champion skier. After serving a nine-year sentence, Prigozhin opened a hot dog stand—and then expanded into a chain of convenience stores and later high-end restaurants.
That’s where he met Putin—who became his most high-profile patron. Thanks to his new-found buddy, Prigozhin got a number of catering contracts, including state banquets. Now, it isn’t clear how he made the jump from culinary maestro to the leader of a private army. But at some point, he moved into the business of recruiting mercenary soldiers to fight wars across the world—and the Wagner Group was born.
Say hello to Wagner: For many years, Prigozhin and his band of not-so-merry soldiers stayed in the shadows. But everyone knew that he was Putin’s personal hitman—who could always be relied on to do his dirty work. Prigozhin financed the troll farm found guilty of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. His mercenaries lent a helping hand in Syria—and captured African states on behalf of Moscow:
[It] turned into a model where [Wagner] typically targeted states that have weak governance and ongoing security threats that also have rich natural resources such as natural energy, gold, and gemstones…Moscow can exploit these resources, but also use them to finance its operations elsewhere, including in Ukraine — and with the added benefit of being a bit harder to target with international sanctions. Moscow uses Wagner to help guard these kinds of mineral assets, but also to capture the state. “Those friendly autocrats become Russian clients,” Ramani said.
Point to note: In almost every conflict, Wagner has been linked to terrible atrocities—which is why its company of choice for dictators.
The Ukraine war: marked a key turning point for Prigozhin—as Putin began to rely heavily on Wagner to help bolster the Russian offensive. The company was given free rein—and without any official oversight. Suddenly, Yevgeny was everywhere:
In recent months, Mr. Prigozhin has also emerged as a public power player, using social media to turn tough talk and brutality into his personal brand. At the same time, though, he began launching accusations at Russia’s military leadership, blaming it for failing to provide his forces with enough ammunition and ignoring soldiers’ struggles.
And that’s when the real trouble started—which finally boiled over into the bizarre spectacle of Prigozhin announcing his intent to overthrow the military leadership—including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Ok, gimme a quick recap of the this mutiny
The trigger: It all started when Wagner won a hard-fought battle to capture the town of Bakhmut. The high price: 20,000 soldiers. Throughout the offensive, Prigozhin had accused the military of incompetence—and undermining his troops. In June, Putin—who had remained neutral in this ugly feud—suddenly backed a plan to put Wagner soldiers under military control—by making them sign defence contracts. This appears to have been the last straw for Prigozhin.
The mutiny: Late Friday, Prigozhin accused the military of launching airstrikes on a Wagner camp—and killing his troops. Then he made the unprecedented move of accusing the military of orchestrating an unnecessary war against Ukraine:
Yesterday, he broke with the official narrative and directly blamed them, and their oligarch friends, for launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Ukraine did not provoke Russia on February 24, he said: Instead, Russian elites had been pillaging the territories of the Donbas they’ve occupied since 2014, and became greedy for more. His message was clear: The Russian military launched a pointless war, ran it incompetently, and killed tens of thousands of Russian soldiers unnecessarily.
Reminder: It is heresy to question the war in Putin’s Russia.
The ‘march for justice’: So Prigozhin and his 25,000 troops headed for Moscow—on what he called a “march for justice”—warning:
Everyone who will try to resist, we will consider them a danger and destroy them immediately, including any checkpoints on our way. And any aviation we see above our heads.
Point to note: Bakhmut took nearly 11 months, but Prigozihin got to Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh in less than 11 hours, helped along by commanders and soldiers who appeared to be waiting for him to arrive.
Putin responded: in an angry national address where he accused an unnamed person of “betrayal”—whose actions were a “stab in the back of our country and our people.” And he promised “inescapable punishment” for those whose “exorbitant ambitions and personal interests have led to treason.”
The deal: As Prigozhin moved steadily toward the capital—storming back roadblocks—Moscow became a fortress—and everyone steeled themselves for a bloody confrontation… which never came! Just when Wagner’s troops were 125 miles from Moscow, they suddenly turned around. Prigozhin announced that he had reached a deal with the Kremlin—brokered by Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Soon after, a Russian spokesperson confirmed that Prigozhin would be allowed to go to Belarus—and all charges of insurrection would be dropped. His men will be given amnesty and allowed to sign defence contracts and become part of the military. The government-controlled TV channels spun the entire debacle as a “test of maturity”—which Putin had passed with flying colours:
What they did not show: Russians cheering Wagner troops as they retreated from Rostov—and rushing to shake Prigozhin’s hand:
Meanwhile, in Ukraine: They were bringing out the popcorn:)
So what does this all mean? Has anything changed?
Well, let's look at the winners and losers in this bizarre battle.
Prigozhin: He may have successfully made the great Vlad look weak, but it is an empty victory. No one expects Prigozhin will escape unpunished. He is a marked man without the protection of his soldiers. And it is most certainly the end of the Wagner Group. As The Atlantic sums it up: “Prigozhin has in the space of a day gone from being a powerful warlord to a man living on borrowed time in a foreign country, waiting for… Putin’s inevitable retribution.”
Putin: Everyone agrees that this is Putin’s Wizard of Oz moment:
It’s like Prigozhin is the person who looked behind the screen at the Wizard of Oz and saw the great and terrible Oz was just this little frightened man. Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair.
While no one expects him to lose power overnight, his rivals smell “blood in the water.” And the long-term damage to his status is clear:
Putin, however, is now politically weaker than ever. The once unchallengeable czar is no longer invincible. The master of the Kremlin had to make a deal with a convict—again, in Putin’s culture, among the lowest of the low—just to avert the shock and embarrassment of an armed march into the Russian capital while other Russians are fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.
The big worry: A wounded Putin may be more dangerous than ever:
Some anticipate Mr Putin will lash out in some way, either militarily at Ukraine, or at those inside Russia who have been unsupportive. Polish MEP Radek Sikorski told the BBC that the Russian leader would "probably purge those who he saw as wavering", meaning his regime will become "more authoritarian and more brutal at the same time.”
So no one is bringing out the champagne in the West just yet.
Lukashenko: has come out an unexpected winner. As the one expert points out:
Putin lost because he showed how weak his system is, that he can be challenged so easily. Prigozhin challenged, he attacked, he was so bold and then he retreated, looking like a loser. Only Lukashenko won points — first in the eyes of Putin, in the eyes of the international community as a mediator or negotiator and as a possible guarantor of the deal.
The bottomline: No tyrant is invincible. They only seem so—as long as we obey them in fear.
We highly recommend this Twitter thread of threads put together by Chicago University professor Paul Poast—which weaves together the best analysis of the mutiny. Nathan Hodge in CNN is sceptical about the entire drama—including Lukashenko’s role. New York Times and CNN explain why Putin ended up as Frankenstein—the man who lost control of his own creation. The Guardian looks at the future of Wagner—and the dictators who rely on it. For what this all means for Putin, read The Atlantic and New Yorker.