The showdown in Russia between Putin and Wagner chief Prighozin doesn’t put a stop to the war in Ukraine, nor to those where the mercenaries are engaged, in Syria, Libya, Mali and Central Africa. This was evident after Putin’s speech to the nation on Monday and from the Russian president’s speech to the army and National Guard on Tuesday, in which he praised the troops “for averting civil war.”
Putin cannot give up his influence in Africa, where authoritarian and dictatorial governments have turned to Wagner; nor will he give up the Russian presence in Syria, active since 2015 on the side of the regime of Bashar Assad, who has been welcomed back into the bosom of the Arab world. That’s where Moscow stood as the Pope’s envoy, Cardinal Zuppi, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, arrived there on Wednesday to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov.
Putin can’t boast of many successes after the disastrous war in Ukraine and is forced to retake full control of the situation: Wagner will not be dismantled altogether, which could change some balances of power in Africa, but it will be inevitably transformed, as the Kremlin leader announced. In any case, one cannot fail to note that this, too, is a failure he owns: militias like Wagner were approved by him to initiate military operations without directly involving the Russian armed forces, thus avoiding losses among conscripts, which come with negative effects on public opinion. It was a “privatization” of warfare, on which Putin now has to quickly backtrack.
To note, this trend has not been exclusive to Putin: the use of mercenaries (for whom we use the more elegant term “military contractors”) has also been taken up by the Americans in Iraq (Blackwater), and the Gulf countries, such as the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have financed private armies deployed in the civil war in Yemen.
The dissolution of Wagner as we knew it may, however, affect some Russian military positions on the Ukrainian front and abroad – but not the power structures in Moscow: the uprising led by Prighozin – whom Putin once again called a “traitor” – has tarnished the image of the Russian czar, but not the substance of the president’s grip on the Russian Federation.
“They are almost all patriots,” Putin said about Wagner’s military personnel in Africa in his latest address to the nation; in the end, they are part of a group that controls significant economic resources and mines of precious and rare metals. These important Russian interests abroad will be protected by a new command structure under Kremlin control, while the Duma is working on a bill to legalize the former mercenaries. Putin has been clear about their options: those who wish will be able to join the “reformed” Wagner, while the others will have to choose exile in Belarus together with their leader. Like for Prigozhin himself, the charges of revolt and mutiny against them have been dropped, while they haven’t been pardoned: only time will tell whether the act of clemency is a sign of weakness or foresight.
After all, Prighozin’s mutiny was more of a clash with power and money at its center than an organized revolt, let alone a revolution, as many had hastened to call it at first. Prighozin himself – whose fate still appears uncertain – said in an audio address that his move was a “protest march” against the dissolution of Wagner and not a coup attempt. The protest was triggered by a decree that placed all Russian militias (of which there are around 20) under the direct control of the Defense Ministry headed by Shoigu, along with Chief of Staff Gerasimov – the main targets of Prighozin’s virulent screeds.
This also shows that hasty judgments had been made about Prighozin’s increasingly frequent speeches against the military leadership: the former Wagner chief’s criticisms were seen from the outside as a partisan game in which he and the Kremlin leader were on the same side, with Prighozin saying things that Putin was also thinking but not saying out loud.
In reality, a clash was brewing between those who wanted to restrict Wagner’s autonomy and the head of the mercenaries: let us not forget that Prighozin’s company was paid by him but armed by the Defense Ministry, a detail of great importance. This should cause us to reflect on how much we really know about Russia’s internal dynamics, despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence services have put it out there that they had been aware of the Wagner chief’s moves for days beforehand. Such a cautious attitude led U.S. President Biden to break his silence on the matter and stress that “had nothing to do with” the events in Russia.
This doesn’t mean that heads won’t roll in Moscow: targeted purges are part of the system, and we have had proof of this with the numerous changes of generals among the Russian General Staff. But so far, as the Russian daily Kommersant points out, there hasn’t been any sensational decision, such as the supposed downfall of Defense Minister Shoigu, much touted by the media. The purges have been basically motivated by the failure of the main objective of the “special military operation,” which was to enter Kyiv and overthrow the Zelensky government.
Two final notes to keep in mind: 1) In Russia there is currently no alternative to Putin, or at least no “democratic” alternative, as Western media often airily invokes. Prighozin, the bloody militia leader, is more popular than any Putin opponent. 2) China has reaffirmed its support for Moscow’s power, a pillar of BRICS, a rising grouping of countries that presents itself as an alternative to the Western front. And that, too, is no small thing.
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