Malik Nasir Mahmood Aslam comments upon a crucial
Russian Mercenaries – In a dramatic shift in Russia-Ukraine conflict Vladimir Putin suddenly faced a revolt from the mercenary army he helped form. It is certainly not unusual that a mercenary force revolts against its paymasters but the timing about such matters is quite unusual. This is precisely what has happened in case of Wagner Group, a private militia that has fought alongside the Russian armed forces in the Ukraine war. The Wagner Group’s revolt and public criticism of the Russian regime came at a critical moment in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though, the internal dynamics of the mercenary group are opaque but it is widely believed that many of its estimated 50,000 fighters comprising of ex-convicts are widely known to have played a credible role in the conflict. Its revolt against the Putin government has created an impression of a divided Russia at a time when Ukrainian forces are looking to assert themselves should Russia appear vulnerable. It has played to the advantage of Ukraine that finds it very convenient to see fissures appearing in the Russian fabric and putting off the pressure from its defence forces.
Wagner Group’s going rogue plunged Russia into a huge domestic crisis. Men of this rogue army took control of Russia’s military headquarters at Rostov. Wagner’s head, Prigozhin, a former convict and long-time ally of Putin, leads a private army that includes thousands of former prisoners recruited from Russian jails. His men took on the fiercest fighting of the 16-month Ukraine war, including the protracted battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut. He rallied for months against the regular army’s top brass, accusing generals of incompetence and of withholding ammunition from his fighters. This month, he defied orders to sign a contract placing his troops under Defence Ministry command. He launched the apparent mutiny after alleging that the military had killed many of his fighters in an air strike. Russia’s FSB security had earlier opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny and emphasised that all of Russia’s main security services were reporting to Putin round the clock. Prigozhin had appeared to cross a new line in his increasingly vitriolic feud saying that Putin’s stated rationale for invading Ukraine 16 months ago was based on lies concocted by the army’s top brass. Prigozhin posted a message on the Telegram app saying his forces were in Rostov and ready to go all the way against the top brass and destroy anyone who stood in their way. Some footage posted on social media showed a convoy of assorted military vehicles, including at least one tank and one armoured vehicle on flatbed trucks.
The feud between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s military brass came to a violent head with his forces capturing a key army headquarters in southern Russia and then heading north to threaten the capital. It had been a dramatic time with President Vladimir Putin warning against civil war, Moscow telling locals to stay off the streets and Kyiv revelling in the chaos engulfing its enemy. The tide shifted suddenly when Prigozhin made the stunning announcement that his troops were turning columns around and going back to field camps to avoid bloodshed in the Russian capital. Prigozhin, who has feuded bitterly with Moscow’s military leadership even as his outfit led parts of Russia’s Ukraine offensive, said he understood the importance of the moment and did not want to spill Russian blood. Though Wagner had pulled fighters and equipment from Rostov-on-Don where they had seized the military headquarters but before they left, dozens of residents were cheering and chanting “Wagner! Wagner!” outside the military headquarters they had captured. Authorities in the southern Lipetsk region announced the lifting of restrictions after earlier reporting Wagner fighters in their territory where the local capital is 420 kilometres south of Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin described the rebellion against the army as treason and threatened to punish those who engaged in the criminal act of joining Prigozhin in his revolt. Bizarrely, a truce was brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. For Putin, who has been trying to show his authority and push the military to stay engaged in this costly war, the Wagner boss’s revelations appeared to have posed a serious challenge. Though Prigozhin has now called off the march and the Kremlin has taken back its earlier decision to prosecute those who were part of the insurrection but it is clear that the entire episode left Putin looking vulnerable. It is however widely pointed out that there were likely to be consequences for Prigozhin and Wagner as it is obvious otherwise the message is that a military force can openly challenge the state and others have to learn that the Russian state indeed has a monopoly on violence inside the country. It is mentioned that cooperation between Wagner and the Russian military was likely to suffer and Putin and the security services will likely try to weaken Wagner or remove Prigozhin. Given Wagner’s presence overseas, the greatest effects from this event may be felt in MENA/Africa where Wagner has a large presence.
Interestingly, while the Kremlin appeared to have been caught on the back foot, US spy agencies picked up signs days ago that Prigozhin was planning to act, US media reported. They began tracking indications that Prigozhin and his mercenary force intended to move against the military leadership in mid-June with US spy agencies believing Putin was informed the Wagner chief was plotting his rebellion at least a day before it happened. The United States and its allies publicly stayed on the sidelines as officials waited to see how the revolt would play out though President Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain amid concerns that Putin’s control over the nuclear-armed country could be slipping. It was not unnatural therefore that Moscow issued a stiff warning to the United States and allies to stay back. Before Prigozhin’s climbdown, Russian regular forces had launched what was called a counter-terrorist operation to halt the Wagner advance northwards up a main highway towards Moscow. In the capital, the mayor urged Muscovites to stay indoors and declared a day off work. Security was tightened in the city centre with armed men in flak jackets guarding the parliament building and Red Square closed off to the public.
After a tense time, mutinous Russian mercenaries who surged most of the way to Moscow have agreed to turn back to avoid bloodshed bringing about a de-escalation of what had become a major challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. Facing the first serious challenge to his grip on power of his 23-year rule, President Vladimir Putin vowed to crush an armed mutiny he compared to Russia’s Civil War a century ago. The dramatic turn looked like the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Putin’s grip on power may depend on whether he can muster enough loyal troops to combat the mercenaries for long time when most of Russia’s military is deployed at the front in southern and eastern Ukraine. The insurrection also risks leaving Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine in disarray just as Kyiv is launching its strongest counteroffensive since the war. The Weekender