What happened in Russia in the last days was not the start of a civil war nor a coup d'état. Instead, it was more a move to obtain personal political and economic benefits, but not to achieve a regime change in the country. The main actor in this story is the Russian paramilitary organization named Wagner Group, which is a militia that is partly state-founded but operates under a private structure. It was founded in 2014 by former GRU (special Russian forces) officer Dmitry Utkin and businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.
This latter man is an ex-convict who once worked as Putin’s caterer and is defined ideologically as populist and ultra nationalistic. He has praised North Korea and thinks Russia has been "too soft in dealing with Ukraine". The name of "Wagner" seems to come from Utkin's devotion to neo-Nazi ideas and Hitler's favorite musician, the classical German composer Richard Wagner.
This private army is believed to have around 50,000 men in total. They fight on Putin’s behalf, and until recently, the militia was mainly in Syria and Africa (Wagner soldiers are even the bodyguards of the President of the Central African Republic), to protect Russian economic activities in oil fields and mines. Some of them are well-trained combat veterans, but many (around 80% by now) have been recruited from Russian prisons promising a salary of 2,800 euros per month, three times more than the average salary in Russia.
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin has blamed the Russian leaders for the failures in the battlefields. More recently, Prigozhin directly accused the Russian Ministry of Defense, led by Sergei Shoigu, of causing the death of 20,000 Wagner soldiers in Bakhmut because of their "corruption and inefficiency" by not delivering enough weapons and ammunition to the front.
Indeed, Prigozhin is one of the few Russian public figures that has criticized the Kremlin openly so harshly. He has also made clear his political aspirations claiming he would like to become President of Ukraine once the war is over and wishes to "clean the corruption that prevails among Russian political elites".
Prigozhin has been careful, however, of not confronting Putin directly. In Russia, a new law states that discrediting the army can give 15 years of jail, but Putin has allowed Prigozhin to express himself freely because the Wagner group is extremely beneficial for Russia's economic interests outside Europe and in Ukraine, and the militia has achieved many important military victories, specially in Bakhmut.
But the tensions between Prigozhin and Shoigu escalated two weeks ago when the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that all paramilitary forces fighting in Ukraine needed to sign contracts directly with the ministry by July 1. Thus, the Wagner group as an autonomous militia would cease to exist. Chechen warlord and Putin's ally Ramzan Kadyrov said he and his troops fighting in Ukraine would comply but Prigozhin said Wagner would not, claiming his men didn’t want to fight alongside poorly trained conscripts or under the command of "corrupt and inefficient" Shoigu.
When Putin backed Shoigu last week in a rare public meeting with military bloggers, Prigozhin decided to unleash a "march of justice" towards cities in Russia to force the resignation of Shoigu and change Putin's decision about militias submitting to the Ministry of Defense. In a dramatic move, the Wagner group left its positions in Ukraine, crossed the border during the weekend and took the headquarters of the Russian army in the southern city of Rostov-on-don, which is a major command center.
Then, the Wagner militia continued its way north in a convoy with around 8,000 armed men, taking the city of Voronezh while Putin called Prigozhin a "traitor and a terrorist". Nevertheless, Prigozhin declared from the very beginning that his march was not a coup d'état and that he did not seek to expel Putin from power, but the target was Shoigu and other generals of the regular Russian army. Then, when standing just 200 km from downtown Moscow, the Wagner convoy stopped and turned around, also leaving their positions in Rostov and Voronezh.
Prigozhin did not see massive defections inside the Kremlin and realized that with the size of his army they would be crushed once they entered Moscow. With this situation, he reached a deal with Putin via the president of Belarus, the dictator Aleksander Lukashenko, a close ally of the Kremlin. The agreement stated that all mutiny charges against the Wagner soldiers would be dropped, and the men could choose to join the regular army or return home, and Prigozhin would go on exile to Belarus. As a result, the Wagner group would officially cease to exist, but their operations in Africa and Syria shall continue.
These events have been the most serious challenge to Putin's power in Russia since he became president in 1999, and many in the West were hoping the Wagner rebellion could be successful. However, it is important to remember that a government in Russia led by someone else does not mean a democratic change will happen, as there are much more authoritarian figures in the Kremlin, and Prigozhin himself has committed many war crimes.
So far, the only official purge that Putin has done is to arrest top Russian General Sergey Suroviki, who was in charge of the war in Ukraine and had a close contact with Prigozhin. And while Putin is known for its political repressions, he is still quite a "moderate" figure compared to the others among Russian elites, and it is why the US had close communication with the Kremlin during the rebellion, to ensure that nuclear Russia did not fall into chaos.