Why did Wagner Group leader Prigozhin go against Putin—and what does the fallout mean for both men?

In Part One, we discussed the origin and rise of the Wagner Group—the mercenary Russian outfit that dominated the news this weekend for attempting an apparent insurrection on Vladimir Putin’s government. 

An ally of Putin since the Wagner Group’s creation in 2014, leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his troops on Saturday morning had shockingly taken control of Rostov, a southern  Russian city near the border with Ukraine. 

It was also reported that some Wagner troops drove on further toward Moscow—reportedly reaching Russia’s Lipetsk province, which is about 360 kilometers south of Moscow.

By Saturday afternoon, Wagner forces suddenly halted their March toward Moscow and turned its troops around. 

As per media reports, the development happened after an agreement between Prigozhin and Putin was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. 

Despite the fact that Putin accused Prigozhin of “boundless ambition and personal interests [that] led him to be a traitor” in a televised speech, criminal charges that had been put into motion were bizarrely dropped, and Peskov announced  that Prigozhin would be sent to Belarus instead.

Even though the conflict (and bloodshed) seems to be averted, the attempted coup was the biggest threat that Putin has faced in his presidency—not to mention the turning of his most successful field commanders. 

There have been reports saying that US intelligence expected something like this from the Wagner Group leader, but that they were taken off guard at the speed with which it happened as well as the swift reversal of events. 

So the question is what made Prigozhin turn on Putin in the first place? And what does this mean for the Russian President’s hold on power?

Let’s unpack what the unfolding of events could mean. 

1) Prigozhin’s character and way of operating was an issue with Russia’s main military—and things had grown significantly worse in recent months 

In Part One, we talked about how the Wagner Group was a Russian private “imitation” army that was not only an anchor in the war on Ukraine, but it was also expanding—namely in Africa. 

Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported that in recent months, Prigozhin had launched public strongly-worded critical attacks accusing top-ranking generals of starving his troops of ammunition—as well as other military supplies—and leaving them to die. 

“The unseen tensions between Wagner and Russia’s military exploded into public view in February when Prigozhin publicly complained that the defense ministry had limited the provision of weapons and ammunition for his 50,000-strong force that had fought in Bakhmut, a small town that had become the most critical front line of the Ukraine invasion,” reported The Wall Street Journal

One video was recorded against a gruesome backdrop of dozens of corpses of Wagner fighters.

“Because of their whims, five times more guys than had been supposed to die have died. They will be held responsible for their actions, which in Russian are called crimes,” Prigozhin was reported to have said. 

The news boosted Prigozhin in his clash with the defense ministry, as per The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal reported that by early June, Wagner and Russia’s regular army were behaving as if they were enemy forces. 

“Prigozhin said his fighters’ escape routes from Bakhmut were mined by Ministry of Defense troops. When Wagner came to clear the path, they were fired upon by the military, according to Prigozhin. Russian military officials said that wasn’t true.”

Wagner retaliated on June 5 by arresting and filming a Russian army lieutenant colonel who said he had ordered his troops to shoot at its mercenaries. 

“It was ‘due to personal hostility,’ said the detained officer, his nose bloodied.”

Then on June 10 Sergei Shoigu—a Russian politician and military officer who has served as Minister of Defence of Russia since 2012—issued an order that brazenly tried to steal Prigozhin’s fighters, “offering individual contracts to private volunteers directly with his ministry. 

Prigozhin saw this move as an attempt at checkmate,” said one European intelligence official.”

Five days later, a Russian paratrooper division showed pictures of Syrian volunteers, who had long reported to Wagner, now fighting with regular forces, said the Journal. 

“Putin meanwhile kept switching between the two sides as military fortunes ebbed and flowed. He promoted generals who appeared to be aligned with Prigozhin, then fired them and appeared to move more decisively behind Shoigu and Gerasimov.”

2) On Friday, the feud erupted into a full-blown crisis when Prigozhin accused Russia’s military of attacking a Wagner camp and killing his men

As per CNN, Prigozhin vowed to retaliate. 

He led his troops into Rostov-on-Don and proclaimed control over key military facilities in the 

Voronezh region, where there was said to be a clash between Wagner units and Russian forces.

Prigozhin declared that it wasn’t a coup but a “march of justice.” 

This, in turn, did not calm Moscow. Far from it: a top security official called Prigozhin’s actions a “staged coup d’état,” said Russian state media.

Putin made an emergency national address to the country Saturday morning local time and declared he would severely punish any person who was “on a path to treason”.

3) Despite political appearances, it is likely that Prigozhin will be punished 

On Sunday morning, Prigozhin, was set to leave for Belarus under the deal brokered with the Kremlin—although it isn’t clear as of Sunday evening (EST) if he has reached there. 

As part of the deal, Wagner troops would be pardoned and criminal charges against Prigozhin would be dropped in a deal to end his insurrection, reported CBS News.

“If Prigozhin doesn’t pay a heavy price for his rebellion, it will put the Putin regime in serious danger,” emphasizes Brian Whitmore, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

He says that this is because political change happens in Russia when three factors are present: a divided elite (“check”); a dissatisfied public (again, “check”), and an absence of fear.

“If fear is removed from the equation, then the regime will be in peril.”

CNN reported that Wagner fighters will sign contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense, the Kremlin spokesman said—a move Prigozhin had previously rejected as an attempt to bring his paramilitary force in line.

4) Vladimir Putin’s regime could be in serious danger

Whitmore says that Prigozhin’s rebellion demonstrated the perils of Putin’s “venture-capital foreign policy,” which outsources key tasks to nominally private-sector actors outside the normal chain of command. 

“The Russian system is based not on institutions but on informal patronage networks with Putin as the ultimate arbiter. When Putin is strong, this approach works, to a point. But when Putin is weakened, it can spin out of control,” he says. 

Prigozhin’s kryshas (protections) in this informal system appear to be abandoning him. General Sergei Surovikin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have already disavowed him. It is also hard to imagine another alleged ally, Rosgvardia leader Viktor Zolotov, siding with Prigozhin over Putin. 

“This probably accounts for Prigozhin’s tactical retreat. But even if the immediate crisis is resolved, its underlying cause will continue to weaken the regime.”

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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