A number of memes circulated on social media over the weekend that mocked the Russian military after the Wagner Group mercenary force mutinied.
Of course, it was really no laughing matter. At one point, it even appeared as if Russia was on the verge of a full-blown civil war, and we will likely never know the full set of circumstances and deals made that led Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to back down.
Stab in the Back?
Even while the mutiny was shortlived, the fact remains that Prigozhin’s forces seized a Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and then were able to get within 125 miles of Moscow, highlighting the weakness of the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the actions as treason and a “stab in the back.”
Even as Prigozhin has headed into “exile” in neighboring Belarus, it remains unclear what is next for the Wagner Group – which according to the BBC may still be recruiting. The private military contractors serving in the mercenary unit have options to join the regular Russian Army, join Prigozhin in Belarus, or simply go home. But the bigger question is what this means for the Russian Army. It has lost what had been seen as part of the vanguard, a unit at the forefront of a fight, even if it couldn’t be rightfully described as an elite force.
Brief But Still Bloody
As mutinies go, it wasn’t the most violent, but it still cost the lives of more than a dozen Russian soldiers as well as at least two Wagner Group personnel. More importantly, the short-lived rebellion handed Kyiv a significant victory – as Wagner forces shot down six Russian helicopters along with another aircraft.
The open-source weapons tracker site Oryx reported that the Russian losses included a Mi-35 attack helicopter, a Ka-52 attack helicopter, three Mi-8 electronic-warfare helicopters, one Mi-8 transport, and an Il-22M airborne command post. In the year of fighting Ukraine’s forces had downed around 30 Russian helicopters – so the fact that six were lost in a 36-hour period can’t be understated.
Thus it was hardly a bloodless mutiny – and was actually deadlier than the UK’s “Glorious Revolution!”
A Drive to Moscow – A Weakened Putin
The mercenary unit also brought the fight deep into Russian territory. It exposed a weakness within the Russian Army, and by all accounts, Putin is far weaker following the attacks. While there was no obvious disloyalty to Putin, there was still silence from some officers in the Russian military who sought to wait to see which side might come out on top.
“What was lacking was a sense of universal embrace of Putin,” Maria Snegovaya, a Russia analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post. “Now they’re saying he was great and strong. But during that period, I don’t think we saw an immediate rallying around Putin.”
The open rebellion also follows a number of raids conducted within Russia by pro-Ukrainian Russian volunteers, who briefly took control of a number of villages before retreating back into Ukraine.
The Mighty Bear is Really A Paper Tiger
The Russian Army has now been engaged in a war that has lasted more than 16 months and has been forced on the defensive. Though Kyiv’s long-anticipated counteroffensive has been slower going than some may have expected, the Ukrainian Army has been making some gains.
Russia has also lost thousands of tanks and other vehicles, while upwards of 200,000 men have been killed or wounded in the fighting. In just over a year, it has seen losses greater than it did during its ten-year-long conflict in Afghanistan. The capabilities of the Russian Army have been put into question, but it is hardly the first time.
Prior to the First World War, Russia had the largest military force in the world – with a peacetime army of 1.5 million men. Yet, Russia was still an enigma. It was vast in size, and much of Europe feared its military power. It may have looked and behaved like an imperial superpower, but it was economically and industrially behind the rest of Europe.
In 1914, the Russian Army seemed fearsome, but it proved to be a paper tiger – and history is repeating itself. In the opening stages of the First World War, Russia saw the near destruction of two armies at the Battle of Tannenberg.
Though not quite on the same level of losses, Russia’s failures in Ukraine mirror what it faced in the First World War. The setbacks during the conflict nearly 110 years ago greatly weakened Tsar Nicholas II, and eventually, the losses brought down the monarchy. Russia has now faced mutiny that isn’t that different from those that occurred during World War I.
When Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most expected that Ukraine could hold out for days or weeks at most. And here we are 16 months later, and the Russian Army has taken massive casualties and failed in its objectives. It isn’t a spent force – at least not yet. But it is clear that from the Wagner Mutiny to the raids within Russia the Kremlin is not the mighty foe that so many believed it to be.
Tsar Nicholas II failed to accept that Russia couldn’t win in the First World War, while the provisional government that was created following his abdication continued on with the war. That was a mistake, one that led to another revolution and then an even more deadly civil war. Putin and the Russian Army are now likely at their own crossroads in history.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.