Warlords don’t end wars: Why Wagner will not solve the Russia problem

The Wagner mutiny showed that Western states cannot expect a challenge from within to end Russia’s war

Servicemen sit in a tank with a flag of the Wagner Group military company, as they guard an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023. Russia’s security services had responded to Prigozhin’s declaration of an armed rebellion by calling for his arrest. In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took the threat, security was heightened in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and other regions. (AP Photo)
Servicemen sit in a tank with a flag of the Wagner Group military company, as they guard an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

The rebellion staged between 23 and 24 June by the private military company, Wagner, ended almost as suddenly as it started, with its leader Yevgeni Prigozhin seemingly backing down in negotiations. As part of the deal, Prigozhin agreed to go into exile in Belarus and transfer his assets to the Russian military, in return for Russia dropping the criminal case against Wagner. And while it is still unclear what he will do next, many observers are wondering whether and how this event will affect Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Disappointingly for the West, there are no immediate visible consequences of the mutiny. Wagner took control of the Southern Military District headquarters – an important command and control structure leading the military operations in Ukraine – but this seemingly did not interfere with the command’s conduct of the war.

Most of Wagner’s military forces were withdrawn from the frontlines after the capture of Bakhmut, meaning Wagner has had no operative control over any section of the front since mid-May. Some Wagner affiliates still held positions in Bakhmut, so Ukrainian forces were able to advance minimally there, but the Russian forces did not collapse or offer major gaps that the Ukrainian forces could exploit.

Western media often overestimates the role of Wagner in the entire Russian war effort. Wagner provides infantry-shock forces – specialised assault teams to fight on infantry terrain – which are important for the Russian armed forces when fighting in urban environments, such as in Soledar or Bakhmut. Its mercenaries certainly make up one of the most effective light infantry units in the Russian war machine, but the military effort does not depend on them. In the south, the terrain is much more permissive for mechanised assaults, meaning the Russian army can muster a defence against the Ukrainian counter-offensive without Wagner, using mechanised infantry, armour, and – to create obstacles – sapper units. Regardless of what happens to Wagner therefore, the war will go on.

Of course, the mutiny raises many questions about the state of the Russian military. Firstly, to pull this stunning march off, Prigozhin must have collaborated considerably with the Russian armed forces. Wagner has always depended on supplies, logistics, and heavy weapons support from the regular armed forces. The Wagner convoy that headed for Moscow included several pieces of heavy equipment from the regular army’s stocks, in particular Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems and T-90 and T-72 main battle tanks. The group would have needed tacit approval from the armed forces in order to stockpile this equipment and the associated ammunition and spare parts to keep it running.

Secondly, the cities of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, through which the Wagner convoy passed, are not demilitarised zones. Quite the contrary: Rostov is the garrison city for many units of the 8th Combined Arms Army and the central logistic and replenishment hub for the front in Donbas. Voronezh is home to most units of the 20th Combined Arms Army and is an important training site for units before they are sent to Ukraine. Although most of the personnel from these garrisons are fighting in Ukraine, it is hard to believe that no second line unit, either preparing for rotation or receiving training, was there to intervene. The only real resistance came from the aerospace forces, which occasionally attacked the convoy.

News about the events will spread slowly and selectively among Russian soldiers

There is ongoing speculation about the extent of collaboration. Much of Prigozhin’s criticism of Russian military leaders likely resonated within the armed forces, particularly in the lower ranks, given the corruption, poor leadership, incompetent logistics, and unnecessarily high casualties. Prigozhin was the only senior figure that regularly visited the frontlines or graves. As unbelievable as it seems to Western observers, despite Wagner’s rampant brutality and Prigozhin’s status as an oligarch who has for years benefitted from the armed forces’ embezzlement schemes, he successfully portrayed himself as a caring figure and an advocate against the mismanagement of the armed forces. But while the mutiny indicated that there is dissatisfaction and friction within the security apparatus, this does not mean that Russia’s army is nearing collapse. Information flow is tightly controlled in the field – even by Russia’s standards. News about the events will spread slowly and selectively among Russian soldiers.

Indeed, it took Prigozhin months of nurturing his image before he made use of these frictions. And while he secured some support among the armed forces, he did not gain any political influence in the country at large. His dash to Moscow was well organised from a military-logistical perspective, but the political rationale of the whole affair was rather dubious. What was Dimitri Utkin – Prigozhin’s deputy in command of the convoy – to do when he reached Moscow? Which political allies could he expect to support his demands? Would the bureaucratic apparatus and state elites have switched sides? That seems unlikely. In that case, what could a mutiny actually achieve?

Hopes were high in Europe that domestic instability in Russia could lead to an end of the war. But while Prigozhin challenged the Russian military leadership and the efficiency and rationale behind the war, he never vowed to end it. On the other hand, the opposition figures who do want to end the war lack the military credibility and power base that are necessary to sufficiently shake the system.

Europeans should not believe that their problems will solve themselves through inherent weaknesses and contradictions. The Russian state and its war of aggression against Ukraine will unfortunately continue for the time being. For Ukraine, the whole episode showcased the warlord-ruled hellscape that the occupied territories have become, and reaffirmed the fact that security can only be achieved by removing the Russian occupation altogether. The slow pace of the ongoing counter-offensive, the high losses in men and materiel on Ukraine’s side, and the damage that minefields, especially Russian ones, do to both military and civilian victims should convince Europeans and the United States to dramatically increase assistance to Ukraine – equipment, munitions, and training – in order to end the war with a Ukrainian victory, rather than hoping that a challenge from within or a long war will grind Vladimir Putin down.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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