The Manila Times published “Russia’s gun for hire” on 28 June 2023.
While the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine that started sixteen months ago is far from resolved, another issue has emerged that threatens to further obscure the future of the hostile relations among countries directly and indirectly involved in that conflict.
An open and public rift between the Russian military establishment and its outsourced private army—the Wagner Group—has exposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shaky control over his country’s war agenda. It can undercut the basis for Russia’s annexation plans and thereby upend its resolve to get what it wants from the conflict. It has also left the other party—Ukraine and its western allies—guessing on how to behave under the circumstances.
Over the weekend five days ago, on 24 June 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group, pulled out some of his 25,000-or-so-strong mercenaries from the battlefield in Ukraine to mount a rebellion against his employer—the Russian government—in what seemed to be an open defiance of Putin, who has been his ally and patron since the president’s early days as a politician, although he did not go beyond publicly denouncing the leadership of the Russian military.
Minutes after Putin addressed his constituents on live TV in which “he vowed to crush the armed mutiny,” saying “…excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason,” Prigozhin denied he and his band were traitors. “We have been fighting for the country,” he said. He instead pointed an accusing finger to the military leaders as the ones engaged in treachery.
Weeks before his uprising happened, Prigozhin’s claims that the top brass of the Russian military, namely Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, were responsible for the death of hundreds of his men in Ukraine went the rounds of media. More than a month ago, on May 5, he posted on Telegram a video that showed rows of dead bodies of Wagner mercenaries. He said neglect on the part of Shoigu and Gerasimov to supply the ammunitions his forces needed reduced them as fodder for attacks by Ukraine forces. In another video, he said the “justification for the war in Ukraine was a lie, and just an excuse for ‘a small group of scumbags’ to promote themselves and deceive both the public and Putin.”
Stage one of the uprising saw Prigozhin and his forces seize the Russian southern city of Rostov-on-Don, east to the Ukraine boundary, without, he boasted, firing a single shot. Stage 2 saw them launch what he called a “march for justice”; they were on their way to Moscow to press his demands, seemingly prepared for a showdown with Kremlin’s security forces, when they aborted some 250 kilometers away from the Russian capital. Reports had it that he agreed “to an undisclosed deal apparently brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko” which supposedly required Prigozhin to go to exile in Belarus. The Russian government, in turn, would spare him the criminal charges that just hours earlier had been planned to be levelled against him.
Unlike the war in Ukraine, the Prigozhin uprising was such a quickie it was done in 24 hours.
But let no one be fooled by the passing of a storm. What Russia’s hecklers dubbed as Prigozhin’s one-day wonder could spark yet unknown surprises in the coming weeks–even months or years. And what unsettles an increasingly troubled world is that the debris from the internal war he mounted can easily spread beyond the borders of the countries directly involved in the conflict.
Apart from the casualties—there were reports that Wagner shot down Russian military choppers as they barreled their way to Moscow, killing at least 15 Russian military troopers—the mutiny left Putin looking like a bum: he called Prigozhin a traitor in the morning only to let him walk in the evening.
Putin’s humiliation could push him to act strangely, pundits say. Already, Ukraine and its allies have been reported to be busy discussing scenarios and their next steps. On Sunday, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly said that “US officials had discussed with Russia to stress the importance of protecting U.S. citizens and interests.”
The United States knows from where it speaks. Up to 70 percent of warm bodies that fight its wars in foreign lands—from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Burundi, to Rwanda, among many other damned places—consist of contracted mercenaries, whose business models apparently were copied by Wagner Group.
Where Wagner recruit prisoners to beef up its troops, Blackwater (one of many private companies hired by the US government to fight overseas) hires a liberal mix of retired military officials, goons, engineers, among other able-bodied professionals, including non-American nationals—even members of organized criminal groups.
Paramilitary contracting is a burgeoning niche within the huge global war industry. For example, the Pentagon in the US annually spends an average of USD 150 billion for private military contractors. A few days after Prigozhin went to exile (his whereabouts are unknown), Moscow police searched his offices and found some USD40 million worth of cash in one of them, believed to be intended as salaries for Wagner soldiers.