For Putin, the problems posed by the mercenary Wagner Group – and the subsequent challenges to his rule – remain frustratingly present.
President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to bring to heel the Wagner Group mercenary front have not succeeded in the weeks since its bellicose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin marched his forces on Moscow in an apparent challenge to the Russian leader.
Efforts to defang Prigozhin and undercut his ability to lead have – for reasons that are not immediately apparent – largely failed. The most recent example comes amid reports, which the Kremlin on Monday confirmed, that Putin met in Moscow with Prigozhin and several of his mercenary lieutenants in the days after the mass mobilization of troops that came within 120 miles of the capital.
Far from being arrested or otherwise detained in a show of force by the Russian leader, the catering oligarch once known as “Putin’s chef” was also able to reclaim many of his sources of wealth from the control of state security. And that’s raised questions worldwide about whether Putin is secure enough in his authority to shut down the rebel force. His orders for the Wagner Group to fold into the Russian armed forces similarly appear to have failed, as several indicators – including satellite imagery – suggest large formations of the mercenary force are now basing in neighboring Belarus or preparing to do so.
Even attempts to downplay the severity of the risk Prigozhin posed have repeatedly come undone, including as recently as this week.
The few details Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered to reporters on Monday represented a notable departure from the scathing indictments the Russian leader levied on the advancing troops during their march on June 24, when in a hasty public video address he condemned them as deceitful, criminals, threatening and posing “an armed rebellion.”
“The president gave an assessment of the company’s actions at the front” in Ukraine, Peskov said on Monday of what described as a three-hour meeting on June 29 at the Kremlin “and also gave his assessment of the events of June 24.”
“Putin listened to the explanations of the commanders and offered them further options for employment and further combat use,” Peskov said, according to a translation. “The commanders themselves presented their version of what happened, they emphasized that they were staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and the supreme commander in chief, and also said that they were ready to continue to fight for the Motherland.”
The jarring disparity between the details of this meeting and the reported rift between Putin’s government and Prigozhin’s forces serve as perhaps the greatest evidence yet that the problem facing the Russian leader – which many believe is of his own making – is not going away any time soon.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to not rapidly dispose of the Wagner Group and prosecute rebellion participants is placing himself and his subordinates in an awkward position,” the independent Institute for the Study of War concluded in an analysis note late Sunday.
Its assessment follows reports that a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, one of Putin’s few remaining allies, which preempted Prigozhins’s sudden halt on June 24, included those forces relocating to Belarus at established camps where they would rest and refit. And, most importantly for Putin, that many of Prigozhin’s fighters would absorb into Russia’s regular army, the highly dysfunctional fighting force that Prigozhin himself has openly and brazenly criticized.
Instead, the institute noted in its analysis, much of Wagner Group’s broader operations appear to be continuing as usual. It reported that its mercenary forces based in Central African Republic – among the Wagner Group’s first deployments where it made a name for itself propping up the local government in exchange for plundering its natural resources – are not withdrawing as previously suggested but are conducting normal rotations.
And the Russian Ministry of Defense does not appear to be absorbing its fighters per the terms of the agreement Lukashenko brokered, rather, as the institute noted, it is “reportedly accepting Wagner Group mercenaries for contract service in the federal region of Krasnodar Krai in southwestern Russia, near the strategically significant Crimean Peninsula.”
As for the immediate future of the Wagner Group’s fighting force, that, too, remains unclear.
“A Wagner commander stated that the Wagner Group will go to Belarus after completing rest and recuperation through August 2023,” the institute noted in a separate analysis on Saturday. “The status of the deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin is unclear, and the deal may be in flux.”
“The Kremlin may be attempting to ensure that it has control over Wagner leadership and personnel in Africa and the Middle East,” it added.
Several indicators suggest Prigozhin remains capable of wielding much of the vast military force that has conducted some of the most effective fighting in Ukraine – due to the power he has consolidated for himself as well as the situation the Kremlin has put itself in.
For reasons that are not yet readily apparent, Prigozhin in the days after reportedly fleeing to Belarus has returned to Russia to reclaim his riches and, crucially, retains the ability to pay at least some of his fighters through the vast cash and gold reserves he hoarded with Putin’s blessing. And Wagner, as it has for more than a decade, remains the most effective and likely instrument of the Kremlin’s ability to project its influence abroad, both in Ukraine and in the developing countries the mercenary outfit plundered as an extension of its original charge.
“Prigozhin’s machinations not only appear to demonstrate he does not want to ‘burn his boats’ but also that the Kremlin seems willing to allow him to maintain nominal control over a number of business structures that were previously subsidized from the national budget and that Moscow would still like to utilize in the future,” Anton Mardasov, a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute think tank, concluded in an analysis note on Wednesday.
Mardasov noted that Prigozhin has reportedly liquidated many of his assets in an apparent cash grab and has transferred authority of some of his more lucrative ventures – his media networks, catering companies and pro-Kremlin troll farm – to the management of other trusted associates whose future relations with Putin’s government are similarly unclear.
But Putin’s government still needs the foreign influence Wagner Group can provide – perhaps more now than ever before as the Russian military continues its bloody campaign in Ukraine.
“Given the resource-sapping war in Ukraine, any change in the status quo on the ground elsewhere is extremely undesirable for Moscow,” Mardasov said.
He referenced unconfirmed – and likely untrue – rumors that Russian military operatives in Syria had begun arresting Wagner mercenaries there in retribution for Prigozhin’s attempted uprising.
“Prigozhin will surely not roll over and entirely put up with this corporate raid on his business empire: He will try to make some kind of loud statement,” Mardasov said.
Notably, Prigozhin has not posted on his Telegram channel – the outlet through which he aired much of his public grievances at the Russian Defense Ministry and at Putin himself – since the days surrounding his march on Moscow, save for one post by a member of his staff on July 5 which appeared to try to distance Prigozhin from assertions by Russian security services that they found narcotics at one of his residences.
Other indications support the idea that Putin had succeeded in at least controlling the narrative surrounding the Wagner Group’s recent actions.
The independent Levada Center polling firm, the source of the most accurate insights into the thinking of the Russian people, conducted a weekly poll right in the midst of Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, offering an almost immediate perspective on the extent of the citizenry Putin controls.
Most of the respondents – across demographics and location – condemned Prigozhin’s actions, the center noted. The only exceptions were among those who follow Prigozhin’s Telegram channel, which has been increasingly critical of the Kremlin’s top leadership.
The remainder of Russians appear to have bought into Putin’s carefully crafted narrative of the incident, in which he blasted Prigozhin – without referencing him by name – as the antithesis of a “people’s general.”
“The president seemed to be telling his listeners: you thought that Prigozhin was a patriot and was fighting corruption, but he turned out to be a traitor and embezzler of state funds,” Levada concluded in an analysis it released on Wednesday, according to a translation. “As a result, the reputation of the owner of Wagner in the eyes of most Russians was destroyed, and thus a potential alternative to the power of Vladimir Putin himself was eliminated.”
Others suggest Prigozhin’s uprising demonstrates how the systems Putin used to build his power during peacetime are beginning to unravel under the pressure of war.
“From Putin’s perspective, the system needs fear right now because to remove fear from this environment, it’s very dangerous for the regime,” Brian Whitmore, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Thursday morning at an event the think tank organized. “But again, there’s this problem of largesse and prioritizing loyalty over competence in this situation which also does not bode well for the regime.”
“Something fundamental has changed in Russia,” he added, “and we’re still looking at the fallout, and the pieces. I’m not sure we have the concepts to completely understand where we are and where we’re going with this.”
Source : USNEWS