“March for Justice” in Russia Broke Illusion of Putin’s Power

Foreign Policy Brief #81 | By: Yelena Korshunov | June 30, 2023
Photo taken from: rferl.org

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The “March for Justice”, announced by the head of Wagner mercenary forces, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on the evening of June 23rd, ended as suddenly as it began. On the morning of June 24th, mercenaries captured the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, with a population of over one-million, located not far from the Ukrainian border. While some residents of the city gathered in the center to take pictures with soldiers in uniform and military equipment, others asked them to leave. From Rostov, the Wagner mercenaries headed to Moscow – through the Voronezh and Lipetsk Russian regions. During the “march” of the Wagnerites, an oil depot caught fire near the city of Voronezh, and the huge flame was ultimately extinguished after 12 hours. The cause of the fire is still uncertain, although it was reported that a military helicopter flew over the depot shortly before.

Then, what was the purpose of the sudden rebellion? (Perhaps not so unexpected for the US officials, which, according to mass media sources, were warned by the intelligence about the impending uprising.) There is a lot of perplexity around it. “What the heck just happened in Russia?” states a caption in the Morning Brew news review. Prigozhin said that one of the reasons for the armed rebellion are the numerous defeats of the Russian army in Ukraine, including the battles for the Zaporozhye region.

 Since the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive a few weeks ago , Ukrainian troops have advanced about three kilometers. However, the situation for the Russian military forces was not yet critical since their defense was strongly strengthened in this particular area in tense anticipation of the counteroffensive

Prigozhin demanded that Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Minister of Defence Valery Gerasimov be turned over to mercenaries. Soon after, a criminal case under the Russian  Article on Armed Rebellion was opened against Prigozhin. However, when Wagner mercenaries were 200 kilometers from Moscow, Prigozhin reported that they were “going in the opposite direction to the field camps according to the plan [because] now has come the moment when blood can be spilled.” This was not only vague, but also a false and meaningless statement: at least 13 (up to 18, according to various sources) Russian pilots had already been killed by mercenaries during the day of the mutiny. In fact, Prigozhin made that statement after the press service of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko announced the end of the negotiations with him, which were held in agreement with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. The press secretary of the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, said that the criminal case against Prigozhin would be dropped and he would “leave” to Belarus (for a foggy purpose). The mercenaries who participated in the rebellion would not be prosecuted. Moreover, they will be able to sign military contracts with the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. 

The day before, Prigozhin accused the leadership of Russia’s Ministry of Defense of shelling the mercenaries. He declared that the Wagner mercenaries dealt with the “brutes” who “destroy Russian soldiers.” In a response to the rebellion and Prigozhin’s speech, Putin appeared on TV accusing Prigozhin (though without mentioning his last name) of “betrayal” and “stabbing in the back”. Prigozhin replied that “the president made a deep mistake”. He said that “no one is going to repent at the request of the president, the FSB, or anyone else.” By that time, the Wagnerites already controlled Rostov-on-Don and during the next hours unimpededly advanced towards Moscow.

Policy analysis

So far, what are the outcomes of the “March for Justice ”, initiated by the criminal from Putin’s close circle nicknamed “Putin’s chef”, and that arose and burst as fast as a soap bubble within 36 hours? Prigozhin’s rebellion lasted less than a day, but this story won’t pass without consequences for the system of power diligently built up by Russia’s leader. From this point, it will be much more difficult for Putin to assemble and hold his vertical of power since the Russian elite’s demands to reorganize the system will only increase. For Putin what is truly important is his ability to reliably hold the levers of control in his hands. The de facto amnesty for Prigozhin that has been announced right after Putin labeled him a “traitor” indicates that there are serious doubts about the president’s aptitude of holding these levers.

The rebellion demonstrated the vulnerability of Putin’s system of power at its very core. Prigozhin’s acts clearly proved that in Russia it is possible to easily capture a metropolis without a single shot, and then move towards Moscow without meeting any serious resistance. This means that Russian military authorities thrown into the war with Ukraine may not be willing to risk their lives for the sake of commands from Moscow. A draw, which ended the confrontation, does not change the whole picture that demonstrated to the entire world Putin’s inability to keep under control even his most trusted and formerly devoted courtiers.

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