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Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny: A stress test for Vladimir Putin

Juri Rescheto
June 27, 2023

President Vladimir Putin's contradictory treatment of the Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is confusing and has left Russia on edge.

A tank draped in a little camouflage, with a soldier on top, at night in a city street. Other tanks in the background, and a small group of young civilians behind and to the left, one fliming on a phone.
On June 24, tanks carrying soldiers from Prigozhin's private army rolled through the Russian city of Rostov-on-DonImage: Erik Romanenko/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

"Pack your things and come to us as fast as you can!" Many people in southwestern Russia probably received calls like these from relatives and friends in other parts of the country in recent days.

Since the start of the war, the situation in the region has been particularly tense because of its geographical proximity to Ukraine. Then, last weekend, it became even more dangerous.

This time, the danger was from Russian troops — or, to be more precise, the armed men of the so-called Wagner Group, headed by the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin.

'Treason in time of war is a crime'

An elderly woman in Rostov-on-Don, which was briefly occupied by Wagner troops, told DW: "My downstairs neighbor got a call from her daughter in the Urals, who said: Mama, you can't stay in Rostov any longer, come to us."

Fear and uncertainty abounded, and not only here. Fear, because no one knew how far Prigozhin's private army would go. According to media reports, his men got to within 200 kilometers of the Russian capital. The mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, advised residents not to take trips to the surrounding countryside.

After Prigozhin’s called-off armed uprising

Uncertainty, because just hours after he was praised to the skies by the state media, as usual, Prigozhin was suddenly being unanimously vilified by those same media outlets.

"Armed mutiny in Russia, unsupported by society! Treason in time of war is a serious crime!" These were the headlines on the Rossiya channel's evening news, presented by anchorman Dmitry Kiselev, the day after the near-coup. They were followed by images of tanks withdrawing, and the commentary: "A fratricidal war has been averted."

Russian army losses

Kiselev tried to present what happened as a success for the Kremlin, suggesting that it could have been a lot worse, and that major bloodshed had been avoided. Little attention was paid to the fact that at least ten Russian army soldiers were shot by Prigozhin's private army.

Even more confusing was Prigozhin's subsequent absolution. Initially branded a "serious criminal" and put on a wanted list, it was announced shortly afterwards that he was a free man and that any investigations into him would be called off. Then, on Tuesday, according to Russia's agency for international news, RIA, all charges against Prigozhin and the Wagner Group were dropped.

Vladimir Putin in a dark suit in front of a wood-paneled wall and Russian flags. A second, similar image of him is visible on a TV screen in front of him.
Russia's President Putin threatened the Prigozhin and his soldiers with harsh punishments in a televised address on June 24Image: Pavel Bednyakov/SNA/IMAGO

Just last Saturday, Putin had threatened that Prigozhin and all those involved in the rebellion would be severely punished. Shortly afterwards, he made a second television appearance in which he unexpectedly thanked the Wagner troops for halting their march on Moscow in time.

State monopoly on use of force crumbling?

Russian state media had to explain this confused situation to their audience. According to Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russian overseas broadcaster RT: "Legal norms are not laws handed down by Christ or the Commandments of Moses. Rather, they are written by people, to ensure order and stability in the country. If, however, in certain critical, exceptional instances, they no longer fulfill their function but have the opposite effect, then… to hell with them!"

The Russian philosopher Denis Grekov considers Simonyan's explanation to be nothing less than an admission of powerlessness by the Russian state. "A state in which there is no longer a monopoly on the use of force, and no unified power, and where legal norms no longer apply, is essentially no longer a state," he told DW.

Maria Borsunova, a propaganda researcher, summarizes the situation this way: "Margarita Simonyan is trying to explain that the Russian legal and penal system as a whole is needs-based," she told DW. "A criminal case can be opened and closed again on the same day, if required, depending on what is more useful at a particular time."

Yevgeny Prigozhin, sitting in a vehicle, looks up, grinning, clasping the hand of someone off camera. Others are reflected in the rear side window behind him.
Greeting his fans: Many Russian people see Prigozhin as a hero because of his group's engagement in UkraineImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

'Patriotic public'

Grekov assumes that Prigozhin will continue to be admired by Russia's so-called patriotic public. Soldiers from his private army fought for months in an effort to seize the city of Bakhmut, and Prigozhin's military record is still feted as heroic by Russia's propaganda media.

According to Grekov, there is also admiration for the warlord among representatives of the so-called power structures, especially the Russian army. Many of them, he says, are disappointed in Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu — and in President Putin.

Next year, the Russian people will vote for a new president. Prigozhin is believed to have political ambitions, but it is increasingly doubtful that he will ever stand as a candidate. President Putin has not ruled it out — not yet, that is.

This article has been translated from German.

Russia's Putin under pressure after failed revolt

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief