On Monday night, in the aftermath of last weekend’s attempted putsch by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin announced that he was giving Wagner fighters “the opportunity” of signing a contract with the Russian army, going home, or joining Prigozhin in Belarus. On Tuesday morning Putin ordered all charges dropped against any Wagner member. As more details emerge from the chaos of the aborted rebellion, some things are becoming clearer – while others remain shrouded.
Many in the West have already firmly concluded the incident has permanently damaged Putin and that his end is now only a matter of time. While such Western views are understandable to a degree, the reality is more complicated and uncertain. Some things are known, others aren’t, and the ultimate consequences could still end up both positive and negative for Putin. First, the knowns.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko held extensive talks with both Putin and Prigozhin on Saturday, the critical day when Wagner troops occupied central Rostov. Though the details of those phone calls have yet to be fully revealed, Lukashenko later acknowledged that Prigozhin had been given “(s)ecurity guarantees, as (Putin) promised yesterday,” and then confirmed this morning that, yes “indeed, (Prigozhin) is in Belarus today.”
Lukashenko also revealed key parts of his negotiations with Prigozhin on Tuesday that had previously not been reported. Russian Telegram channel Operation Z reported that Lukashenko was partly sympathetic to Prigozhin and his plight, conveying that the Wagner chief was tremendously upset because the Russian MoD allegedly withheld ammunition Wagner needed in Bakhmut, resulting in unnecessary casualties by his men. When Prigozhin said one of his main conditions for ending the uprising was the removal of Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff, Valery Garasimov, Lukashenko flatly told him “no one will give you either Shoigu or Garasimov, especially in this situation.”
Prigozhin allegedly replied, “but we want justice” for the loss of Wagner troops’ lives. “You can do whatever you want,” Lukashenko allegedly said that if Wagner troops continued the march towards Moscow “you’ll just be crushed like a bug.” Finally, he told Prigozhin not to be offended, but if he continued to press on, Lukashenko had already alerted a combat brigade to immediately deploy to Moscow to defend the capitol from Wagner. Ultimately, Lukashenko said Putin gave guarantees for Prigozhin’s safety if he stood down, and ultimately that’s what apparently led to the breakthrough.
Also reported this morning, Belarus is constructing a military base for up to 8,000 Wagner troops about 125 miles north of the Ukraine border. Lukashenko was unambiguous about what he viewed as a “priceless” benefit of having Prigozhin and Wagner in his country. “They will tell us about weapons,” the Belarussian president said, explaining to his soldiers “which worked well, which did not. And tactics, and weapons, and how to attack, how defend. This is priceless. This is what we need to take from the Wagner.”
It appears, however, that Prigozhin and Wagner fighters will enter this new camp and training center with little more than the clothes on their backs and rifles in their hands. Preparations are underway, Russian Defense Ministry spokesmen said on Tuesday, “for the transfer of heavy military equipment from the private military company Wagner to units of the Russian armed forces.”
Prigozhin allegedly had 25,000 fighters with him when he made his abortive attempt to drive on Moscow. How many take Putin’s offer to go into the Russian army, how many go to Belarus with Prigozhin, and how many just go home is unknown at this point. Also unknown is whether Putin will allow Wagner fighters who opt to sign contracts with the MoD to retain their unique force structure or whether they will merely be absorbed into the larger force.
If it is the latter, my guess is that few will take Putin’s offer because the structure and performance of the Wagner way of fighting is fundamentally different than how the Russian army operates. Wagner was initially founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former Special Forces Lt. Col. in the Russian Spetznaz force. Many of Wagner’s structures – limited bureaucracy, focus on direct combat actions, and based on small unit elements that are close knit – are similar to those of the Spetznaz.
That difference has been one of the main reasons Wagner has been uniquely successful in combat where few other Russian formations of similar size have failed. One of the likely reasons Putin was willing to put up so long with Prigozhin’s many antics was that Putin didn’t want to risk losing his most combat effective unit, which he feared might have happened if he had disciplined Prigozhin. The Wagner leaders move to open rebellion, however, forced Putin’s hand. Prigozhin’s banishment to Belarus leaves many key questions unanswered.
First, what will become of the Wagner Group, per se? As of the beginning of the uprising, Wagner had troops engaged for the Russian government in Syria and parts of Africa. What will become of the organization in those locations? Does Prigozhin’s banishment to Belarus mean he’s no longer in charge of Wagner, or does he still retain his position? No one in Moscow or Minsk has yet answered that question (and thus will the Wagner troops that opt to move to Belarus still operate under Prigozhin’s command?).
Most importantly for Putin: how does the deal struck with Prigozhin and the effective demilitarization of Wagner in Ukraine affect Russia’s war aims? No unit was more effective in combat over the past year than Wagner. In all likelihood, Russia will launch some form of offensive this summer or early fall. Wagner was previously reported to have been rearming and rebuilding its strength and was expected to be ready for combat in August. Without that experienced striking force available to the Russian leadership, will other Russian units be able to fill the void, or will Wagner’s absence force the Kremlin to alter its offensive plans?
From Ukraine’s perspective, the events of Prigozhin’s Putsch have been a godsend. Not only have the Russians lost their single most successful offensive formation, the chaos the incident has caused in the entire leadership of the Russian military has, at least temporarily, weakened the Russian side. Most of the Russian defensive lines presently fighting against Ukraine’s offensive did not rely on Wagner and thus there hasn’t been much change to the current fighting.
But Kyiv no doubt has much less concerns about a Russian offensive now than they did before. If other Russian troops go on the offensive during the late summer, they may be less confident knowing that Wagner will no longer be leading the charge or available as a ‘fire brigade’ to rescue any weakening of the Russian line. It remains to be seen if other Russian offensive formations are able to pick up the slack and replace Wagner’s potential.
In any case, the whole Prigozhin affair has at least temporarily weakened Putin politically, exposed disunity and uncertainty within the Russian senior military ranks, and given encouragement to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Yet as I have written about many times in these pages, ultimately regardless of what does or doesn’t happen with the Wagner Group, the fundamentals of warfare remain decisively on the side of Russia, and Moscow is still likely to prevent Ukraine from ever regaining its territory.
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.”