Yesterday on Friday June 23rd, 2023, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin published a video, claiming that the Russian Armed Forces have bombarded one of Wagner bases, resulting in the death of his soldiers. To amplify his message Prigozhin showcased the destruction at the base, including the bodies of the killed soldiers. He ended his speech by stating that the attack was organised by Defence Minister Shoigu and the Chief of General Staff (as well as the Commander of the Joint Group of Forces in the Special Military Operation zone) Valery Gierasimov. He also accused them of mismanaging the Russian army, resulting in heavy losses, while at the same time lying to the Russian public and Putin about casualty counts. Finally, Prigozhin called on the soldiers of the regular Russian Armed Forces to help him get rid of the Defence Minister Shoigu – effectively calling for mutiny and armed insurrection.
The FSB reacted immediately by accusing Prigozhin of armed rebellion and mobilising forces to deal with the Wagner Group. However, under the cover of the night Wagner troops crossed the Russo-Ukrainian border, advanced into Rostov on Don, and seized the city without any resistance. The city is home to the headquarters of the Southern Military District, has a sizable garrison, and quite importantly serves to supply Russian troops in Ukraine.
Amidst the chaos Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation, comparing the actions of Wagner group to the events of the 1917 and the Russian Civil War, stating that Russian is now at a moment of great need, fighting a war for the survival of its 1000 year old heritage. During the speech Putin directly addressed the rebel forces, stating that they should put down their arms, as they have been misguided by their commanders and leaders. However, despite Putin’s words and the actions taken by Russian security services the rebels have maintained their momentum and continued their “March on Moscow” announced by Prigozhin. Wagner troops have managed to reach the city of Voronezh, housing supplies for the Russian army, with one of the fuel storages bursting into flames after being supposedly hit by pro-Moscow helicopters in an effort to deny them to Wagner forces. Wagner affiliated media have also begun broadcasting propaganda messages claiming that the civil war is a path chosen by Putin and that Russia will soon have a new president.
A key thing to remember
The ongoing situation in Russia is mostly, almost entirely, reported on by Russian sources. Non-credible Telegram and other social media accounts are flooding the infosphere with unconfirmed statements, describing situations and actions without even basic evidence, with the majority basing its reports on nothing. The other major source of information are Russian media outlets – used everyday to spread Kremlin’s propaganda narratives, fake news, and conducting often well crafted misinformation campaigns. The situation is also extremely dynamic with new reports and changes coming in every minute. These reports often contradict each other, or aim at nothing more than gathering views. Thus, while some information can be confirmed the vast majority only serves to deepen the chaos in the infosphere.
This report aims, based on the available information, to examine possible scenarios of Prigozhin’s actions.
Scenario 1. The Putsch
There are several reasons for the campaign undertaken by Prigozhin. The first one is that he is indeed telling the truth and believes in his actions. He believes that Russia’s military leadership is inept, unable to win the war, with disregard for the casualties, and a misinformation campaign aimed to shroud their failure from Putin and the Russian public. Here Putin is considered as a good leader, undermined and troubled by incompetent and anti Russian advisors, with a special focus on Defence Minister Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gierasimov. Such an option is possible, Prigozhin has openly criticised Russian military leadership in the past, Shoigu especially. The second reason for the mutiny is a simple matter of survival. Wagner Group has been targeted by the Russian military aiming to slowly dismantle or absorb the organisation into its ranks. Wagner achievements were understated, or even outright ignored, probably in an effort to diminish its popularity. Recently the Ministry of Defence also ordered the Wagner Group to submit and officially become a part of the Russian Armed Forces. This would effectively neuter the Group’s outreach, influence, and ability to act independently, while at the same time attributing its successes to the Ministry of Defence. This would also effectively destroy Prigozhin, who’s independent military group was the only asset in the power plays among the Russian elite. Having no meaningful connections or influence in the Kremlin, Prigozhin relied on the Groups military might and role in the war to force or negotiate concessions and gains.
While these two reasons might be very different, they point to similar aims and outcomes of the Putsch. Prigozhin is at war with the Ministry of Defence, aiming to eliminate its leaders and reorganise it under his control. This means that Russia would enter into a civil war. If the Ministry wins, Wagner Group ceases to exist, Prigozhin and his supporters are made an example of as Russian oppression reaches new heights and the country reorients itself for military action. Putin tightens his grip on Russia and reinforces his positions as the country’s leader. If Prigozhin wins, the Kremlin power structures are shattered, military leadership is decimated and replaced by Prigozhin’s men. Putin’s position is unknown, with two potential scenarios. Option 1. Prigozhin submits to him as a faithful servant who only wanted to save Russia and deal with the “traitors”. Putin continues to be the President of Russia, but a significant portion of power (potentially majority) rests in Prigozhin’s hands. Option 2. Prigozhin dethrones Putin, gets rid of him and becomes the new leader of Russia.
The consequences for Ukraine in this scenario are also very similar. As Russia plunges into the civil war, Ukraine will face weaker resistance, enabling its counteroffensive, and liberating its land. The extent of Ukrainian advance is hard to determine, as that will base on the Russian ability to fight two wars at once. Russian forces will continue to resist Ukrainian assaults, until a truce is achieved. However, in this case Ukrainians will aim to return to their original borders before negotiations begin. Thus, Ukraine will have a very good opportunity to capitalise on the Russian civil war. Worth considering are the events after the Russian civil war ends, as the highly militarised Russian state might be very tempted to continue or reignite the war in Ukraine in order to achieve its imperialistic ambitions, presented both by the current leadership as well as Prigozhin, and in an effort to reaffirm its positions on the international arena.
Scenario 2. The Purge
The second possible scenario is that the situation is part of a Kremlin plot to purge dissidents, traitors, and actors that might challenge Putin’s regime. In this case Yevgeny Prigozhin’s role can be two fold.
Option 1. Prigozhin was the target of the purge and is now fighting for survival. This would be in line with Prigozhin’s statements that Russian security services and armed forces launched a strike on his base. The attack could have been potentially targeting Prigozhin to eliminate him swiftly and potentially pin the blame on the Ukrainians, thus effectively eliminating a problematic actor without serious repercussions and the ability to absorb Wagner troops into the ranks of the regular armed forces. This forced Prigozhin to act declaring rebellion against the Russian Ministry of Defence and using his popularity and propaganda tools to reinforce his positions as his marches to Moscow to challenge the ruling elites. The two sides clash and civil war erupts. Consequences for Ukraine similar to the ones presented in Scenario 1.
Option 2. Prigozhin plays a role in the purge and is alive on purpose. His actions cause dissidents, traitors, and other problematic actors to gather under his banner thus, allowing the Russian Ministry of Defence and Security Services to swiftly eliminate them all at once in an open crackdown. Potentially Prigozhin is actually a supporting factor of the purge tasked by the Kremlin to root out potential targets in exchange for a better position of power and more favour. Either way, this allows the Kremlin to mobilise required assets, while at the same time serving as a stark reminder for the Russian public of what happens when they challenge the Kremlin. Russian oppression apparatus reaches new heights, the country is militarised, ready to commit to a continued war in Ukraine. Consequences for Ukraine similar to the ones presented in Scenario 1. but more unfavourable for Ukraine – which is forced to face a nation deeply committed to the war.
Scenario 3. The Maskirovka
The third possible scenario is that the entire Putsch is an elaborate Russian maskirovka – a misinformation campaign aimed to create favourable battlefield conditions in the war in Ukraine by forcing Ukrainian commanders to make rash decisions, overcommit their forces, and unveil their plans for the offensive too early. Russia is quite infamous for their use of misinformation tactics, and has often used them successfully to influence battlefield conditions. Cases of Russian military deception precede the Second World War, though some of the shining examples have been the ones taking place during the war itself – with Operation Uranus – to encircle German armies in Stalingrad or in Kursk forcing German armour to attack prepared anti tank positions. These required the coordinated effort of hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers. More recently, Russian used such deception tactics during the siege of Bakhmut, using among others Prigozhin to propagate the supposed ammunition shortages.
This campaign convinced a significant number of western experts, and news sources, and then suddenly the Russians unleashed an apocalyptic barrage on Bakhmut, which covered and facilitated ground attacks that captured significant parts of the city. Prigozhin himself has on many occasions used deception and misinformation to create more favourable conditions for his forces on the battlefield, claiming shortages of men or ammunition to confuse and bait Ukrainian forces.
It is possible that Prigozhin and Wagner Group are thus being used to orchestrate an elaborate maskirovka, showing chaos, and ineptitude amongst Russian Armed Forces to the Ukrianians. At the same time Russian social media accounts and other news sources are openly discussing and stating how negatively the ongoing putsch is going to influence Russian armies in Ukraine. Several common themes are that the soldiers will be demoralised, unwilling to fight, or even transferred back to Russia to stabilise the situation, or that even if these soldiers will fight back they will suffer heavy ammunition and supply shortages, decreasing their combat effectiveness.
Unit commanders are also stated to be another issue – without proper guidance from Moscow and higher commanders they will fight ineffectively, not cooperate with other units, and create an opening for Ukrainian assaults. Such a narrative would be in line with the events in Russia – with Wagner forces capturing Rostov on Don, which houses the headquarters of the Southern Military District and acts as a key supply and mustering point for Russian troops in Ukraine. The events in Voronezh are also in line with this, the reports of destroyed fuel depots and equipment storages fuelling the narration of the tragic situation of Russian armies in Ukraine. If this is the case and Ukraine decides to launch its main offensive effort hoping to utilise the chaos in Russia, the consequences would be dire. Instead of weak and unorganised defensive efforts the counteroffensive would be faced with prepared positions and sizable garrisons. The battles would cause significant casualties. Ukraine would advance, but at a heavy cost and could potentially fail to breach Russian main lines of defence. The failure of the offensive could in turn put pressure and criticism on Ukrainian military leadership, and potentially even sow doubt among Ukraine’s western allies.
The situation in Russian is extraordinarily dynamic and chaotic. The reasons, objectives and even allegiances of involved actors are in majority unknown. Amidst the informational chaos only one thing can be certain – whatever happens the influence on the war in Ukraine and Russia as a nation will be unprecedented. Ukraine should be especially careful of the events in Russia, and monitor the situation exhaustingly, as any premature actions could pose a risk for Ukrainian military operation. Although nothing is yet certain Ukraine and NATO states should prepare contingency plans for the possible escalations in Russia with all the consequences (eg. another wave of massive migration). The putsch can also have much more far reaching consequences, as a civil war in Russia might lead to unpredictable regime changes or even fracturing of the Russian state, both of which would result in an uncertain and highly volatile situation on the international arena. Furthermore, the uncontrolled actions of Wagner forces, especially around armament storages, and the entire internal Russian conflict pose a grave threat of nuclear proliferation. As Russia may plunge into chaos the NATO countries, including Poland, need to be prepared for any scenario.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations