The march on Moscow by the paramilitary Wagner Group on 24 June briefly left the world looking on in disbelief. We explore what happened and the implications of the aborted uprising both for Russia’s domestic stability and the conflict in Ukraine.

A mutiny verging on a coup

We assess that the incident was, at its core, driven by the Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin acting to protect his personal interests. The Russian Ministry of Defence in recent weeks had been moving to take over Wagner and subsume it, all with the Kremlin’s endorsement. This threatened to undermine Prigozhin’s influence in Russia. He may also have perceived the situation as threatening his personal security. We note unverified but credible suggestions that the strike on the Wagner camp may have been staged by the group itself. 

Given the distance Prigozhin and the Wagner forces were able to move largely unobstructed as they marched on Moscow, Prigozhin is likely to have at least considered attempting a coup. However, this would have required not just taking control of Moscow – which was by itself not guaranteed – but also significant parts of the army and the civilian bureaucracy declaring their support for him. This did not happen, likely not least because of Prigozhin’s poor reputation among senior government officials, especially civilian ones. In this context, a coup’s chances of longer-term success were low, leading Prigozhin to accept a compromise.

Putin is still in charge 

The damage caused by the mutiny to President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power should not be exaggerated. The Kremlin retains a powerful security system to prevent or neutralise a wide range of domestic challenges, including grassroots uprisings and palace coups. A direct military attack was a rare type of threat that this system had not anticipated and was not prepared for: the security service FSB and the Rosgvardiya (interior troops) are ill-equipped to combat tanks. However, this situation has already been rectified. The Kremlin on 27 June announced that the Rosgvardiya will now have heavy military equipment, though it remains to be seen how efficient these new units will be. 

Otherwise, the security apparatus remains in place and loyal to Putin, insofar as can be observed. This means that though Russian elites are most likely disappointed by Putin’s perceived failure against Wagner, they still lack the capability to act against him, with the FSB remaining vigilant for any open displays of opposition. 

As for the military – which remains concentrated in Ukraine – while many service personnel were likely receptive to Prigozhin’s criticism of the Ministry of Defence, their reluctance to join him suggests they have not reached the point of being willing to act against the legitimate government. This is in line with the fact that the Russian military has traditionally been a low-influence political actor. 

We also note that Wagner is now unlikely to pose a major threat to political stability in Russia, at least in the short term. Even if the group remains cohesive enough to remain an effective battle force under Prigozhin, the Kremlin can be fully expected to remain on high alert and keep sufficient troops on hand to counter any new attacks by Wagner. Putin also now almost certainly considers Prigozhin a personal enemy.

Putin’s war in Ukraine has become even more problematic

The mutiny played out behind the frontlines and so did not afford Ukraine a chance to capitalise on it. However, it likely had a negative impact on morale among Russian troops. This would be exacerbated in the likely event that the FSB conducts purges of Wagner sympathisers in the coming weeks. Russia is also likely to curtail its experiments with irregular forces such as private military companies, which may have a negative impact on force generation. 

The Kremlin is now likely to view the military as a source of threats to political stability. This could be an incentive to seek an expedited resolution to the conflict in Ukraine – either through escalation or concessions. Escalation is less likely, given that Russia lacks reliable options to escalate and achieve victory, and that an increase in hostilities would empower the military further.  

More broadly, the mutiny has highlighted the volatility of the political situation in Russia since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Although the Kremlin’s machine for maintaining political stability remains in place, it has been under unprecedented stress since February 2022. As long as the conflict in Ukraine continues, the strain is likely to continue generating new challenges to political stability. These may differ in nature from the 24 June mutiny but are likely to pose a comparable level of threat to the Kremlin.

Succession in 2024 is a discussion and likely to remain that way

Russia is due to hold a presidential vote in March 2024. The Wagner mutiny has already relaunched discussions in Russia about a controlled transfer of power to a successor, to be selected by Putin and key elites. The elites would welcome this, as they are believed to be widely sceptical of Putin because of the struggles in Ukraine, a perception that the Wagner uprising most likely reinforced. 

As he likely has strong concerns about his personal safety if he steps down, him running in March remains the most likely scenario. However, the likelihood of the succession scenario has increased compared with the situation prior to the Wagner uprising.

Finding this article useful?

Get in touch

Can our experts help you?