Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russian mercenary organisation the Wagner Group, shocked the world in June when thousands of his soldiers took over Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, and began marching towards Moscow. The mutiny was aborted after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly brokered a deal between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin that allowed Wagner passage into Belarus. This 24-hour rebellion was the most dramatic shock to Putin’s system since he came to power in 1999. Eleanor Morley spoke to Russian socialist Ilya Budraitskis about politics inside Russia since the mutiny.
Prigozhin has been a close ally of Putin for many years, and his Wagner Group has emerged as the main paramilitary force fighting Russia’s war in Ukraine. Why did he mutiny? And why did Putin allow him to walk away?
We still don’t know many moments in this story. We don’t know the conditions of the agreement between Putin and Wagner or between Putin and Lukashenko. But we have seen that Wagner were not punished, despite Putin calling this a mutiny and a betrayal.
But we know that several high-ranking generals were investigated after the mutiny. General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of the Russian army in Ukraine until January, was investigated by the secret services and has not been seen since June. Just a few days ago, Igor Strelkov was arrested in Moscow. Strelkov played a crucial role in the Russian military involvement in Donbas in 2014, and he was recognised as the main person responsible for the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine in 2015. Later, he became one of the leading figures of the hardcore nationalists who have criticised Putin from the far-right position that he was not leading the war properly. Although Strelkov condemned the mutiny, he was still arrested.
So, this mutiny was a signal, or an excuse, for repression on the right, which has never happened before. Previously, only anti-war activists and politicians were repressed.
The other part of the story is what happened with Prigozhin and his people after the mutiny. I don’t call it a coup because a coup has a political agenda or program to overthrow the government and provide some other type of politics. We didn’t see this in Prigozhin’s mutiny. The people he had a problem with were from the Ministry of Defence—it was not Putin himself. Later, Prigozhin explained it was not a coup d’état but a protest.
It was a protest with demands that were not those of the people, the population of Russia, but of a specific professional group of people who were employed in Wagner and didn’t want to be forced to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defence. And in this sense, it came to an agreement, which is strange for Putin because he tolerated no protest actions in the past. He never negotiates with protesters. He even met with the key commanders of Wagner in the Kremlin a week or two after the mutiny, and Prigozhin was part of that conversation. This all seems strange. How can you meet and peacefully talk with the people you called the traitors the week before?
And what happened with the Wagner Group? They relocated to Belarus, and just two days ago, there was a meeting between Putin and Lukashenko where they discussed some imaginary threat from Poland and Lithuania, which concentrated some troops near the border with Belarus after Wagner groups began training very close to it. Lukashenko says they’re trying to invade Belarus, and Putin insists Russia will respond to any threat to defend its ally.
So that’s the situation, and it’s very hard to say if this relocation to Belarus and possible provocations on the Belarusian border were part of a plan even before this mutiny or if it was just a fresh idea that came after.
Wagner’s leaders haven’t been arrested, the group still holds its possessions in Africa and Syria, and its troops are in Belarus. Is this because Wagner is too powerful to be challenged or because Putin isn’t attempting to do so?
It’s important to understand the structural role of Wagner within Russia. Wagner has been compared with private military companies in the West, like Blackwater in the US. There is some truth to this. For example, let's look at the role of Wagner’s control of gold mines in the Central African Republic or its control of oil pipelines in Syria. It’s comparable to the private military companies from Western Europe or the US in the Global South. It’s the same kind of aggressive imperialist exploitation of natural resources.
But what is radically different is how Wagner is related to the Russian state. In this sense, it is not a totally external body; it’s not a private company, it’s akin to the part of the state which was privatised by a group of Putin’s friends and still used by Putin personally. That’s why from the very beginning, I didn’t believe in Prigozhin's independence, because he’s so closely connected with Putin—not only because of their personal stories but also structurally.
What does this all mean for Putin? Was the mutiny a sign of weakness, or was his ability to end it a sign of his strength?
I think both of these are right. The mutiny showed the weakness of Putin’s state machinery—it was basically a conflict between two different parts of the army. That’s how it was perceived by many in the Russian elite because, in the first hours of the mutiny, a lot of private jets with oligarchs on board were trying to escape from Moscow because they took seriously the danger of Wagner marching on the city.
But at the same time, I don’t think that’s how Putin personally understands this story. I believe that he sees it as a conflict between his people, between the groups in his elite, and he worked as the moderator of the conflict. This is a very powerful position. We know from gangster movies that the person who moderates the conflict is the most powerful.
I also think he used the mutiny for his personal propaganda because, for years, he has presented the Russian population with a choice: me or chaos. And now he can present this choice as: me or civil war. Because of his mediation, the civil war was avoided, and that’s why our society needs more consolidation around the figure of the president; he’s the only guarantee of stability, of internal peace in the country. This is his message.
And finally, he used the mutiny as an excuse to cleanse the army apparatus, the political sphere, of the people who were not 100 percent loyal to him.
What has been the response from people inside Russia to the mutiny? For instance, when Prigozhin took over Rostov-on-Don, there were people out on the streets applauding him and his soldiers. How have other people responded?
In Moscow, many people were frightened by these events; that was the main emotion. But you have to understand that there is an atmosphere of fear of repression, which is the main mood in the country, which tells people not to express their real attitudes and feelings. That’s why the moment a window of opportunity for expression opened in Rostov, when Wagner started the mutiny, it was immediately used by some sections of the population to express their dissatisfaction.
It’s interesting to look at the exact message of Prigozhin because two days before the mutiny, he posted a video address with his own complicated explanation of the situation in Ukraine. One message was that the war was not going well because of bad military leadership. The second message was that the very idea of this war was wrong because, as he explained, there was no real military threat from Ukraine before the invasion. There was no need for demilitarisation of Ukraine, and the result of the Russian invasion was exactly the opposite: the huge militarisation of Ukraine.
I think that with these two messages, he was trying to address different audiences. It’s hard to say whether these people who came to the streets of Rostov were from the far right and welcomed the more radical attitude to the war or if they were tired of this war. Probably both attitudes were presented in these spontaneous demonstrations.
You’ve written elsewhere that the Russian government has been turning fascist since the invasion of Ukraine. How so?
My main point in an article for Spectre journal, a US socialist publication, was that fascism has mainly been explained as a paramilitary movement from below that takes over the regular state apparatus. But there was another explanation of fascism represented in the writings of Marxist thinkers in the mid-twentieth century. They explained that fascism was a project of the elites, a move at the top of the system towards fascist methods of managing society. It’s possible to conceptualise fascism as coming from within a regime, not necessarily as the result of a reactionary movement from below.
In Russia, especially since the start of the invasion, there has been a transformation of the political system, destroying all possible types of opposition and installing an atmosphere of fear and atomisation. This is exactly the type of fascization of the state from above. In this instance, there is no need for a mass movement. And if we’re talking about fascism in the neoliberal conditions of the 21st century, it looks more like this—more fascization from the top than the appearance of mass movements. We’re not living in the age of mass movements anymore.
Finally, this is not just the case in Russia; Russia has become a vanguard of this global trend. It represents the potentialities of the various right-wing populist movements in Europe, the US and so on.
The conditions for left-wing activism inside Russia are very unfavourable, but is there still a left inside Russia? And are there any signs of antiwar activity?
Any kind of activism inside Russia is very dangerous, and people doing it are taking a huge risk. But there are still some people organised in the various left groups. For now, they find themselves organising underground. I would say that there are four strategies.
The first strategy is the people still producing a leftist political culture through closed meetings for reading groups and political discussions—this does still exist. The second way is using the various legal methods still available, such as trade union organising. This is not necessarily for antiwar activity. For example, there were attempts to organise migrants from Central Asia in the unions. There are a couple of examples of this, but it is very risky, and people have been arrested for such actions.
The third way is making antiwar graffiti and leaflets, which is very dangerous. And the fourth strategy is open acts of sabotage. There were a number of cases where people were trying to burn the army conscription offices. Many people were arrested for this and got serious prison terms—five years, nine years in prison. But many people are traumatised by this war because their relatives or friends are dying on the front line. So, I think the number of such actions will probably grow, despite the risk of severe repression.