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The Prigozhin paradox: What was Russia’s Wagner PMC and how did its June 23 mutiny happen?

The now fighting group was the stuff of legend before it came out of the shadows. Then like Icarus it flew too close to the Sun

On June 23, 2023, one of the most mysterious events in modern Russian history kicked off. Units of PMC Wagner – at the time a highly combat-ready but also historically unusual component of the Russian Armed Forces – withdrew from the theater of operations in Ukraine.

Restaurateur and musician

The story of the Wagner mutiny cannot be told without the story of the people behind the creation of the PMC. The main figure is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman who rose from humble beginnings to become a wealthy tycoon. His youth was turbulent, and in the early 1990s, as the USSR collapsed, he went into business, far removed from military affairs. Prigozhin was a restaurateur. He started by selling hot dogs, but quickly acquired money and ambition and began to open restaurants in St. Petersburg to suit all tastes and budgets. By the end of the 1990s, Prigozhin ran a chain of restaurants and a catering company, and was well known to the establishment of the city on the Neva. When Vladimir Putin, also from St. Petersburg, became president of Russia, Prigozhin found more success. He was involved in organizing catering in schools and then in the army, construction and other projects. The businessman tried to keep a low profile, but in the 2010s became increasingly involved in politics.

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In 2013, he created a media network that included online resources as well as a large, shadowy social media group. This media outlets were characterized by its sharp tone and assertiveness. Then, in 2014, he was asked to set up a private military company.

Prigozhin was involved in organizational matters. The PMC received orders from official structures and was financed by them. It was commanded by Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of special military intelligence units. One of his call signs was Wagner, so when information about the creation of the unit leaked to the media, it was referred to as the Wagner Group or PMC Wagner. Hence the informal name of the unit, ‘Orchestra’, and its fighters, ‘Musicians’.

Initially, its fighters were recruited from retired Russian military personnel and participants in the war in Donbass. The fighters were attracted by good salaries and an informal management style: private soldiers were expected to produce results without worrying about army drills and the need to sign multi-year contracts.

Wagner’s first operation was to storm the airport in the city of Lugansk, which had been occupied by Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainians were driven out and the beginning was made.

Prigozhin, a non-military man, suddenly turned out to be an exceptionally suitable person to lead the PMC. Energetic and extremely rude, he had very little education, but quickly learned everything he needed to know. Prigozhin had a very tenacious intellect, huge ambitions and no brakes.

Ghost army

Officially, there was no Wagner, and until 2022, even Prigozhin’s own media wrote about the PMC as a phantom, a legend. Thus, in the early years of the group’s work, the general public could not even reliably say whether it really existed. A number of operations around the world were attributed to Wagner with varying degrees of certainty.

A service member of Russia’s private military company Wagner Group inspects an area in Artyomovsk, also known as Bakhmut, as Russia’s military operation in Ukraine continues.

©  Sputnik / Evgeny Biyatov

Wagner had the distinction of being one of the most successful operations against Islamic State in Syria. Privateers posing as government forces of the Syrian army liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from terrorists in 2016-2017, defeated ISIS in the north near the town of Akerbat, and then made an impressive march to the Euphrates, routing ISIS forces along the way and destroying an Islamist garrison in the city of Deir ez-Zor. All this was done by a moderately sized force: several rifle companies, an armored group, a couple of artillery batteries, a UAV unit – about a thousand fighters in all. This detachment travelled across the Syrian desert, overwhelming everything in its path, neither giving nor asking for mercy in the battles with ISIS. At the end of this campaign, there was a hiccup in the offensive on the approaches to the Euphrates, and recalling this moment, Prigozhin remarked: ‘We decided then that if we did not force the Euphrates, we would be ashamed of our role in history.’ This sentence characterizes him well.

However, the members of Wagner were not knights without fear and favor. It was better for an ISIS member not to be captured by them. Violators of discipline within their own ranks were also treated very harshly. The year 2017 can safely be called the height of Wagner’s glory.

But that was also when Prigozhin’s conflict with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu began. The businessman had been receiving supplies from the Defense Ministry, but was resisting attempts to control his men. Prigozhin blamed Shoigu for the failure of the ‘official’ military to help Wagner in critical situations, resulting in heavy losses for the private outfit.  Shoigu, in turn, resented Prigozhin’s autonomy. Moreover, once the peak of the Syrian campaign had passed, Prigozhin began to look for something to do outside of Moscow’s direction. Thus the Wagnerians found themselves in the Central African Republic, where they quickly and harshly brought vast areas previously occupied by rebel groups back under government control, and in several other African countries.

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Prigozhin has been attributed to a variety of influential groups within the Russian power bloc, but the truth is that he was first and foremost his own man.  His relationship with the Russian Defense Ministry was strained at best. Prigozhin constantly strove to play an independent role and regarded much of the Russian political elite as stale old men. His attitude to politics was often dictated by the principle of ‘let’s get into a fight and then we’ll see’, and when planning a new adventure he would often try to impose his own plan on the country’s leadership rather than follow the government. 

Legion of Outcasts

In 2022, Wagner found themselves in a new situation. Until now, the PMC had been a compact formation. In Syria, Wagner’s strike force was more like a reinforced battalion, in the CAR it was a brigade-level formation, and most of the soldiers and officers were veterans of the Russian Armed Forces and Special Forces. A thousand men were enough to cut across Syria and seriously affect the course of the war. But in the Ukraine of 2022, such a unit would simply be lost. Prigozhin was skeptical about the very idea of the operation, but took an active part in it when events did not go according to plan.

The year 2022 was a period of explosive growth for Wagner. Prigozhin was given the right to recruit prisoners and made full use of it. Inmates were pardoned after six months of fighting on the front.

The contingent was extremely diverse, ranging from people who had been imprisoned for overstepping the boundaries of necessary defense to murderers. There was some selection: the new Wagner was careful not to accept pathological types and sociopaths who were dangerous to their fellow prisoners. The first wave of those who wanted to get out of the slammer in this way were numerous. In any case, we are talking about tens of thousands of people, and Wagner quickly grew to the size of an army corps.

At the same time, Prigozhin went public and began to speak actively to the press about Wagner. He was comfortable in front of the cameras and generally built up an image of a tough man – a truth-teller.

Service members of Russia’s private military company Wagner Group install their flag on the highest point in Artyomovsk, also known as Bakhmut, as Russia’s military operation in Ukraine continues.

©  Sputnik / Ivan Rodionov

By the time recruitment began, the Russian troops’ operation was already faltering. Wagner’s first major operation in 2022 was the assault on the town of Popasnaya near Lugansk. In October, Wagner began a months-long battle for the city of Artyomovsk (known in Ukraine as Bakhmut). The are was being defended stubbornly by Ukrainian troops. When the fighting began, the situation for Russian troops at the front was worse than ever. Mobilization had been announced late, so the Ukrainians had a serious numerical advantage and took the initiative on the front. In the autumn, the Russians abandoned Kherson and lost the eastern part of Kharkov Region, which they had occupied at the beginning of the war. However, the Russian army had a serious advantage in firepower. PMCs were therefore used for an extremely difficult task – drawing out large numbers of Ukrainian troops, forcing them into a battle of attrition, and buying time.

This was the task Wagner carried out until May 2023, when Artyomovsk fell. In total, according to Prigozhin himself, about 20,000 Wagner soldiers (for the whole period, not just in Artyomovsk) out of 50,000 died in the Ukraine conflict. The vast majority were former prisoners. Artyomovsk became Wagner’s greatest battle. It was an exceptionally brutal, violent encounter in which both sides suffered the heaviest casualties. But from the point of view of both Prigozhin and the Russian state, the idea worked. The Ukrainian army was fighting a battle of attrition.

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Since the Western media almost always rely on Ukrainian data, they easily swallowed Kiev’s propaganda about the supposed disparity in casualties and the advantages of Ukraine’s ‘Westernized’ army. The reality was different.

In terms of training, the Wagnerites were not much different from Ukrainian soldiers. In terms of firepower, however, the Russians were far superior to their Ukrainian opponents. The consumption of artillery shells was several times higher, and the quality of fire control on the Russian side, according to all observers, including Western ones, was constantly improving. On top of this, Wagner had traditionally been rigidly focused on achieving results at any cost. This meant not only a high tolerance for casualties, but also the ability to use any means without regard to army hierarchy and supply norms. A hallmark of this war was, and remains, the massive use of UAVs, and Wagner used drones in huge numbers – for reconnaissance, coordination, targeting, and attacks on an unprecedented scale.

In terms of sheer firepower, the situation is extremely curious. Prigozhin’s passionate, angry speech, in which he points to his dead subordinates and berates the military command for lack of ammunition, is well known. However, there was another side to this speech that was less heralded. The fact is that Wagner received more ammunition than regular army units, and the artillery officers of those complained that their consumption of shells was limited to benefit Wagner.

A storm is brewing

In any case, Artyomovsk fell and the Ukrainian troops retreated. The battle was a triumph for Wagner and personally for Prigozhin. But the results brought to the surface a bitter rivalry between the PMC chief and the defense minister. Prigozhin not only brought the conflict into the public arena, but openly slandered Shoigu.

The defense minister, in turn, tried to make the PMC more manageable – Shoigu argued that Wagner should not have a special status or special rights. In the end, the minister ordered PMC volunteers to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, not with Prigozhin’s company. This would have deprived Prigozhin of his main tool. In addition, the Ministry of Defense stopped doing business with Prigozhin’s structures. This meant huge, possibly irreparable damage to his business.

Yevgeny Prigozhin addressing the Russian army’s top brass standing in front of bodies he presented as fallen Wagner fighters at an undisclosed location.

©  Handout / TELEGRAM/ @concordgroup_official / AFP

After the victory in Artyomovsk, Prigozhin began to openly overestimate his own importance. He had previously had a low opinion of his opponents in the army, but now his indomitable energy was matched by a confidence in his own exceptionalism. He had also generally soured relations with much of the local establishment, seeing President Vladimir Putin as his only boss. He looked down on virtually all other Russian officials. What he did not realize was that he had lost many potential allies within the elite. The ‘lazy grandfathers’, as he called ministers and top officials, looked down on the angry tycoon whom they regarded as an increasingly irrelevant attention seeker.

At the same time, many officers and generals viewed Wagner not so much with hostility as with envy. The speed of decision-making in the PMC, the absence of army drills, the focus on results – all of this appealed. Much of what Prigozhin said to a wide audience, many people would say to friends or to themselves. What’s more, Prigozhin seemed to believe that he didn’t need anyone to stand up for him in behind-the-scenes intrigues.

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The Wagner leader had entered a phase in which his fate should be described not by a political scientist, but by a playwright of the old school, Schiller or Shakespeare. Like Coriolanus and Wallenstein, or even Macbeth, Prigozhin was rushing to the climax of his own play.

June 24

The details of Prigozhin’s decision to embark on last summer’s ‘adventure’ are hard to understand. Only a very small circle of those closest to him knew what he was up to. This list naturally included Utkin himself and, of course, the main commanders of the units.

After the Battle of Artyomovsk, Wagner’s men were withdrawn to the rear; On the evening of June 23, Prigozhin claimed that a Wagner camp had been shelled from the air. The PMC convoy, which included tanks, light armored vehicles and infantry vehicles, broke off and moved towards Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia and a base for Russian troops.

The Wagnerites disarmed a number of military posts, but at that stage did not commit any further violence. The headquarters of the Southern Military District was occupied without resistance. There Prigozhin met Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the deputy defense minister. This officer enjoyed (and still enjoys) great authority among the troops. He did not take part in Prigozhin’s mutiny. The exact content of the conversation between Prigozhin and Yevkurov, as well as General Vladimir Alekseev, representing military intelligence, remains unknown, but it in itself indicates Prigozhin’s desire to maintain contact with the authorities and his willingness to talk, if only from a position of strength.

Prigozhin’s actions provoked frankly mixed reactions from his fellow citizens. On the one hand, the work of the Defense Ministry was criticized by many. On the other, a military mutiny in the middle of hostilities was considered unacceptable by many.

Meanwhile, late on June 23, Wagner’s column moved towards Moscow. Part of the PMC forces remained in Rostov.

Servicemen of Russia’s private military company Wagner Group ride a tank along a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

©  Sputnik / Sergey Pivovarov

What did Prigozhin want when he sent his men towards the capital? We do not know exactly, but it seems that he hoped to drive out his enemies, the main one being Shoigu. It was probably also intended to give Wagner a special official status.

To what extent the president was aware of the impending action is unknown. Of course, Prigozhin could only expect success if Putin supported his mutiny in one way or another. 

But if Prigozhin was counting on this, he miscalculated. Moreover, blood was spilled almost from the start of the march on Moscow. The Wagnerites had SAMs in the convoy, and during the march they shot down a military helicopter. They then fired several times at Russian helicopters and planes that they thought were threatening the convoy or actually trying to interfere with it. The destruction of helicopters and the deaths of Russian officers crossed a red line. On the morning of June 24, Putin described what was happening as a mutiny and made it clear that he was separating the ordinary participants from the leaders. Significantly, the vast majority of Wagner’s commanders and soldiers were later not prosecuted in any way.

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Meanwhile, Wagner’s convoy raced towards Moscow. Units loyal to the government took up positions on the approaches to the capital, but everyone hoped it wouldn’t mean direct combat. Many remembered Wagner from Donbass and Syria, and among those who prepared to defend Moscow there were enough friends and old colleagues. The backbone of the ‘orchestra’, after all, was veterans of the Russian army.

The Wagnerites themselves were demoralized by Putin’s speech and his condemnation of their action. Moreover, it was completely unclear what was the purpose of the column heading for Moscow. There were only a few thousand people in it, and some of them began to retreat, lagging behind the rest under plausible pretenses. But even if the Wagnerians had entered Moscow, what would they do there? It’s a vast metropolis, with critical facilities scattered over its territory. Two thousand people would simply get lost in it, unable to control even key points. And, of course, even the entire PMC would not be able to control the whole of Russia. It didn’t have enough manpower.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin and Utkin, who commanded the convoy, received a clear signal that the authorities would not destroy Wagner if he stopped what he was doing.

At the same time, Prigozhin’s headquarters in St. Petersburg was being searched. Employees of his structures were arrested. Access to the media under Prigozhin’s control was blocked.

On the evening of June 24, Prigozhin made a compromise. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko played some kind of mediating role in the negotiations, but there is only vague speculation about the full composition of the dialogue participants and the specific conditions. Anyway, Prigozhin cancelled his trip to Moscow.

A few days later, Prigozhin and his commanders met with Putin. He then spent some more time in limbo. Rumors about what would happen next varied. But on August 23, exactly two months after the mutiny, Prigozhin’s private plane crashed north of Moscow during a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Among the ten dead, in addition to the crew and bodyguards, were Utkin, Valery ‘Rover’ Chekalov (who was in charge of PMC logistics) – and Prigozhin. The official version of the crash was careless handling of a hand grenade on board the aircraft.

The Wagner PMC does not currently exist. Its fighters and commanders serve in other units or have left the armed forces.

Prigozhin was an extraordinary man. Incredibly energetic, ambitious, cruel and charismatic, he polarized opinions. The Wagnerians inspired fear with their cruelty and ruthlessness, but also admiration for their courage and willingness to sacrifice themselves. Above all, they resembled the German lansquenets of their heyday, or even the Elizabethan ‘Sea Dogs’ – pirates in the service of the Crown. Wagner spawned a whole subculture of its own, and its fighters became the heroes of many films and novels. In the West, the ‘Orchestra’ is usually portrayed as a sinister army of death, and in Russia attitudes are far more mixed. But for many, the PMC has become the basis of a kind of modern-day Robin Hood legend.

June 23, 2024 at 04:20PM

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