Wagner Rebellion:  Who Wants What?

Alan Cai

July 7, 2023

As mentioned in the previous week’s edition, Moscow, the capital of one of the most turbulent powers in the world, was nearly captured in a complex series of events; Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, following months of open criticism toward the Kremlin’s handling of the Russo-Ukrainian, withdrew his mercenaries and began to march toward the sparsely defended Russian capital. Prigozhin led his 25,000-strong army within 125 miles of Moscow before turning back to the southern city of Rostov-on-Don citing his wish to prevent the shedding of Russian blood.

The justification for the coup has varied throughout the course of events. Prigozhin originally claimed that Russian regular army forces were attempting to systematically eliminate the Wagner group and that his coup was actually a “March for Justice.” It is important to note that the group was responsible for shooting down a communications jet and several military helicopters during the march. After he turned his army back, he claimed dissatisfaction with Russian military leadership and called for the ousting of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and top general Valery Gerasimov. Following his agreement to be exiled to Belarus, he alleged that he merely wanted to give Putin a “master class” on how an invasion ought to be conducted.

The reasoning behind the Wagner Group’s abrupt retreat from the fringes of Moscow is also quite unclear to the public. The Wagner boss initially cited the prevention of bloodshed as his reason for halting his march. Later, he walked back his former takeover ambitions and announced an exile agreement brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch ally of Putin and co-belligerent in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Lukashenko additionally took credit for preventing Putin from ordering Prigozhin’s assassination while protecting the integrity of the Russian state, a stance Putin and Prigozhin have yet to corroborate.

Lukashenko’s motivation for preventing the coup is immediately evident. From the military standpoint, the Wagner group could have easily taken and occupied the Russian capital with little resistance. The city known historically as the “Third Rome” was left almost undefended at the time of the coup and news of Wagner’s rebellion reportedly left Russian officials in a chaotic state. Roadblocks and highway trenches were hastily built to slow the mercenary’s advance while the Kremlin faced the real danger of an unfavorable transition of power. If such an event were to hypothetically occur, Lukashenko’s Belarus would lose perhaps their sole dependable ally in Putin and be forced to single-handedly continue the internationally condemned fight in Ukraine assuming Prigozhin puts an end to the war. Without strong Russian support, Belarus would also be subject to crippling Western economic sanctions and perhaps even military incursions as it becomes sandwiched between hostile Western powers and an indifferent Russia. Lukashenko also personally expressed his aspirations to obtain the crucial combat and weaponry experience Wagner could provide for his military.

The United States and other Western powers, fearing the internal strife may spill over to other countries, vehemently denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the attempted coup. As the situation comes to a close with the Wagner Group being absorbed into the Russian Military, all eyes remain locked on Putin himself and what methods he will employ to consolidate power.