Prigozhin’s Rebellion: An Emotional 48-Hour Carousel for Russia

by Dr Joana de Deus Pereira, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI Europe

28 June 2023

‘To belong or not to belong, that is the question.’ In the realm of President Vladimir Putin’s recent speeches, this existential quandary takes centre stage. The contrasting messages of offense and forgiveness, intertwined with the complexity of belonging, offer a thought-provoking journey. As we have listened to and watched these speeches, it has become increasingly evident that in Russia, nothing is what it seems, and what it seems is often not what it is.

At first glance, Putin’s initial speech in response to the rebellion by Yevgeny Privogzhin and his Wagner Group over the weekend exuded aggression and determination. He appealed to citizens, the armed forces and law enforcement personnel, acknowledging their ‘heroic efforts in repelling neo-Nazi aggression and safeguarding Russia’s future’. The rhetoric painted a picture of a country under siege, where the stakes were high – with individuals fighting for their lives, security and sovereignty and the preservation of Russia’s thousand-year history. This narrative sought to forge a collective sense of security, reinforcing a shared identity in the face of external threats. Ontological security – the feeling of stability, identity and continuity derived from the social and political environment – seems to be at play in both speeches. In the first address, Putin skilfully crafted a narrative that galvanised unity and resilience, reinforcing a sense of belonging by pitting Russians against external enemies. This construct created an us-versus-them dynamic, bolstering a collective identity rooted in patriotism and the defence of the fatherland.

However, a sharp twist unfolded in Putin’s subsequent address. The tone shifted dramatically, as forgiveness and magnanimity took centre stage. He extended an olive branch to those who were deceived or coerced into participating in the armed mutiny, emphasising the opportunity for redemption and giving them a chance to cease their criminal actions.

Yet, the transition to forgiveness in the subsequent speech introduces a compelling twist to the ontological security dilemma. Putin’s willingness to forgive and reintegrate those involved in the mutiny raises questions about the strength of his leadership. Does this shift indicate weakness or strength? Is it a genuine act of magnanimity, or a calculated move to maintain control and loyalty? In the intricate web of Russian politics, where appearances can be deceiving, a closer examination is essential. Putin’s ability to adapt his rhetoric and narrative reveals a shrewd understanding of Russia’s future under his leadership. By projecting strength and unity in the face of external threats, he reinforces a collective identity. Simultaneously, by extending forgiveness, he presents a narrative of inclusivity, attempting to maintain internal stability and coherence. Putin is not Gorbachev, and he will not leave through a small, tiny door.

The manipulation of different emotions and sentiments in both his speeches demonstrates the multifaceted nature of power dynamics. Putin’s strategic manoeuvres serve as a reminder that leaders often have to navigate a delicate balancing act, seeking to reinforce a collective sense of belonging while maintaining control over internal dissent. His speech might have several different readings, and it definitely contains one message to Russia, and one to the outside world. By embracing those who have made mistakes, he is asserting himself as a magnanimous leader who prioritises the country’s wellbeing over personal vendettas. This projection of strength is essential in maintaining a sense of ontological security among the population, as it reinforces the belief that the country is united under strong leadership. Weakness is not a word in Putin’s lexicon.

At the same time, while some online commentators may rejoice that Putin has appeared weak, these developments remind us that he is a geopolitical demon – one who has a nuclear arsenal to play with.

Things were said and done. We cannot rewind the past. As analysts, it is imperative that we question the underlying motives and implications of such shifts in discourse.

The events of recent days seem to belong to a parallel reality, but Russia’s complexity should not be underestimated.

On the other side of this story, we have Yevgeny Prigozhin, a creation of Putin, who has strategically constructed a political persona that has captivated the world and challenged the established order. Prigozhin’s initial appearances were shrouded in secrecy, but as confirmation of his involvement in the creation of the Wagner Group and interference in US elections surfaced, he stepped into the spotlight. This was not a sudden exposure, but a well-thought-out strategy to assert his control and display his confrontational approach. He strategically opened an office in St Petersburg, publicly acknowledging his role in supporting the Wagner Group and showcasing his influence in Russia’s military interventions in Libya, Syria and the Sahel. Prigozhin’s participation in soft power tactics, including disseminating misinformation and indirectly leveraging abstentions within the UN, further solidified his political aspirations. By acknowledging failures and praising the enemy, Prigozhin subtly expressed dissatisfaction with Putin’s leadership during the ongoing war in Ukraine. These actions showcased a challenging attitude towards the established order, further cementing and constructing his independent political persona. His actions showed that he was operating on his own terms, utilising strategic windows of opportunity to advance his personal and political goals. The signs that the creation would turn against the creator were all there. Since his emergence from the shadows, it became clear that he would be difficult to control.

When we examine Prigozhin’s position in the war against Ukraine, it becomes evident that the initial autonomy granted to him in the first phases of the war heightened the existing tensions between him and the military leadership, specifically Valery Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. The simmering conflict between Prigozhin and these key figures escalated rapidly, with Prigozhin launching a media campaign against them. This was the beginning of a crusade that threatened to undermine the authority and unity of the army, leading Gerasimov and Shoigu to persuade Putin that Wagner’s independence posed a significant threat.

It is important to note that Prigozhin’s adversaries extend beyond the military leadership. His influential role in the war against Ukraine and the lack of decisive victories on Russia’s part have elevated his political standing. Nonetheless, the gap between the role Putin assigned to Wagner and the aspirations Prigozhin harboured for himself continued to widen. While Putin viewed paramilitary organisations like Wagner as convenient and instrumental tools for his geopolitical ambitions, Prigozhin’s aspirations and visions extended beyond that. He carved a path towards achieving national recognition as a true patriot, and he believed he deserved a prominent place in the political landscape.

What Future for Wagner?

The future of Wagner carries a sense of intrigue and uncertainty. Wagner is not one man and it is not a mere organisation. Wagner is a living organism that was created to provide plausible deniability and to operate discretely without an official link to Russia. The first face of Wagner was Dmitry Utkin, whose leadership lasted for about eight years. The ever-changing faces within Wagner exemplify its complex and elusive nature. Sergei Lavrov’s recent acknowledgment of Wagner’s operations in Africa only further reinforces the importance of this network to Russia’s presence in Africa. There is no doubt that Wagner still exists today, and it will undoubtedly persist in the future, most probably with a strong rebranding and backed by Russia’s unwavering support in the African theatre. The network’s ability to adapt, morph and persist in various forms and under different faces showcases the underlying complexity that prevails within the realm of Russian influence. While the names and individuals may change, the underlying network’s architecture endures, serving Russia’s strategic interests and expanding its sphere of influence, particularly in Africa.

As Wagner continues to operate in Africa, the implications will be significant. With security and training operations in Mali and the Central African Republic, Wagner is a powerful instrument of Russian influence on the continent. This reality underscores the brazenness with which the Kremlin backs and supports Wagner’s activities in Africa. It is a stark reminder of the audacity and calculated moves of the Kremlin’s shadow entrepreneurship, leaving a lasting impact on the regions where Wagner operates.

Ultimately, this is also a clear reminder that the West should not be geopolitically blindsided into focusing solely on Ukraine. The capacity to observe Russian influence at the macro level should be at the top of the agenda, starting with the next NATO Summit in Vilnius.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI Europe or any other institution.

Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2010
Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2010 Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

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Dr Joana de Deus Pereira, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI Europe

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