Vladimir Putin (left) and Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) Photo: Government of the Russian federation /CC
Vladimir Putin (left) and Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) Photo: Government of the Russian federation /CC

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

In a dramatic turn of events over the weekend of 24-25 June, the Russian mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, staged an armed uprising, only to turn his Wagner fighters back from a march on Moscow after a truce was struck with Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Although Putin has seen off this coup attempt, his authority has been hugely damaged, and the deep divisions within the Russian military and state apparatus revealed to the world. Putin’s humiliation will be seen as a sign of severe weakness by enemies and allies alike. The potential for the collapse of the Putin regime, if unrest and armed resistance were to erupt again, is starkly posed.

Putin had vowed to crush the Wagner paramilitary force for “treason”. But instead, it appears, Prigozhin has been allowed to go to Belarus after launching the first coup attempt in Russia since 1991. The deal was brokered by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, and an ally of Putin. It seems that the Kremlin has dropped plans to disband the Wagner group, and Wagner soldiers that took part in the rebellion will be spared from prosecution.

However, on Monday 26 June, the Kremlin struck a somewhat different note, perhaps in an attempt to reassert its authority. Russian state media reported that Prigozhin is still under investigation. And in an attempt to present an image of ‘business as usual’, the Russian defence minister was shown meeting soldiers on state television.

Unfolding crisis

The crisis began on Friday 23 June, after Prigozhin claimed that scores of his troops had been killed in aerial attacks by Russian military forces, following months of tensions between Prigozhin and Russian military chiefs. Prigozhin was also reacting against reports that Russian generals intended to send less resources to his Wagner group, and that his forces would be made to accept the command of Russian army chiefs by 1 July. This was after the Wagner group seized control of Bakhmut, in east Ukraine, in May.

Prigozhin instructed thousands of armed Wagner fighters to cross the border from occupied Ukraine, and seized control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, early on the morning of Saturday 24 June. He claimed that his forces shot down several Russian military helicopters as they took over the headquarters of Southern Military District in the city, which is key in coordinating Russian forces in Ukraine.

Prigozhin declared he had 25,000 fighters and was organising a “march for justice”. He demanded the removal of the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s invasion force. The fact that Wagner forces managed to move 700 kilometres towards Moscow largely unhindered poses questions about the morale and cohesion of the Russian army. It appears that with large sections of the army stationed in Ukraine, the Russian police and FSB secret service floundered in dealing with the Wagner threat.

In his statement announcing the armed rebellion, Prigozhin stated that Russian generals had misled Putin into the invasion of Ukraine. This was an incredible turnaround. Previously, Prigozhin was one of the most bellicose supporters of the conduct of the war. Some commentators have speculated that these contradictory claims indicate a signalling by Prigozhin to Nato and the West that he is open to discussion or has already established back channels. This can reflect the thinking of a section of the oligarchs and ruling elites in Russia, who have concluded the bogged-down war in Ukraine is becoming untenable, and not worth the huge cost in human resources and treasure to continue without an end in sight.

We still do not fully know what Prigozhin’s aims and intentions were. Did he really intend to march on Moscow for a possible bloody showdown with the Russian army and the Putin regime, or was it a bluff to force the ousting of Shoigu and Gerasimov? On Monday 26 June, Prigozhin released a video denying that he had intended to overthrow the Russian government and his ‘march’ was to “prevent the destruction of the Wagner [group]… and to hold to account those who made a huge number of mistakes during the special military operation [the official euphemism for the invasion of Ukraine]”.

Although Prigozhin’s forces took control of Rostov relatively easily, and there were reports of fraternisation with regular soldiers and support from civilians, it appears Prigozhin was not assured he could win wider support amongst rank-and-file soldiers and the general population, to which he made a populist ‘anti-corruption’ appeal, in order to successfully march on Moscow.

Putin undermined

Although Putin has seen off the coup attempt, this crisis has hugely damaged his authority and prestige in Russia and internationally. He has ruled in a ‘Bonapartist’ manner for decades, acting as a supreme arbiter-in-chief between contending oligarchs and different factions of the military and the state apparatus. After the blundering start to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin allowed the Wagner group – a mercenary army formed in 2014 and utilised as part of the Russian military annexation of Crimea –  to play a leading role on the front line. Prigozhin bolstered his military forces by giving Russian criminal prisoners the option of release if they signed up to his paramilitary force.

However, the monster that Putin helped to cultivate in the form of Prigozhin and his Wagner group finally turned against him. It remains to be seen the details and full outcome of the deal struck by Lukashenko. Will Putin sack Shoigu and Gerasimov as demanded by Prigozhin? To do so, might stem opposition, at least in the short term, including from disgruntled regular army soldiers at the conduct of the Ukraine war, but it would also show further weakness by Putin.

Putin will also have to consider what to do with the Wagner group. If it is disbanded entirely this can lead to new resentments and opposition. Although exiled to Belarus, Prigozhin can act as a figurehead for opposition to Putin.

With more than a dozen paramilitary outfits formed in the last decade or so, after Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion the Kremlin announced that private military contractors will be brought under the control of the Ministry of Defence, and that only the army can recruit convicts.  But this will do little to lessen the threat to Putin of new revolts. Sections of the oligarchy and state machine will be considering a post-Putin arrangement, and all sorts of court intrigue can take place.

Deepening divisions among the ruling class can be expressed in increased regionalism, as local political bosses and capitalist interests look to save their skins. And many have their own forces, as various regions in Russia formed paramilitary outfits to join the war effort in Ukraine over the last year.

War in Ukraine

The background to last weekend’s extraordinary internal crisis in Russia is, of course, the disastrous course of the Ukraine conflict. Apparently badly advised by his intelligence services, Putin blundered into the war in an adventurist manner, assuming that Russian forces marching on Kyiv would be enough to overthrow the Zelensky regime, and force Nato countries to reach a deal about spheres of economic and security interests in the region.

Putin underestimated the degree to which the Ukraine army was armed, modernised and trained by Nato since 2014, and by the mass opposition of the Ukraine population to an invading army. Over the last months, Putin has had to change his tactics, and moved to expand and consolidate control of the Donbass region, as well as Crimea. The war has dragged on at a huge cost in human lives and resources on both sides.

The much vaunted ‘Spring offensive’ by Ukraine forces in the east of the country, after months of Nato rearmament, so far has failed to make much headway, and is costing many lives against well dug-in Russian defences. The Ukraine military is reportedly now launching new attacks, as it tries to exploit the confusion and disarray on the Russian side following the coup attempt. The hope being that demoralisation is spreading throughout Russian army ranks.

Facing a renewed Ukrainian army assault, and to try to bolster support at home, Putin may ratchet up his nationalist rhetoric, trying to rally the populace around the threat of outside forces and fifth columnists, and by making new threats of deploying ‘weapons of mass destruction’, including ‘strategic nuclear arms’.

The conflict has potentially entered a more unpredictable and dangerous phase, with global implications. The more sober Western analysists cautioned last weekend that if Prigozhin had managed to overthrow Putin it would not necessarily have lessened the West’s problems, as it posed the scenario of a gang of mercenaries and criminals taking power and getting their hands on nuclear arms.

While the ruling elite in Russia would move might and main to ensure an unpredictable and volatile figure like Prigozhin does not have control of the nuclear button, for obvious reasons, these recent events will have greatly shaken the oligarchs and ruling strata of the state, and deepened divisions amongst them. Some will push for more determined action to ‘win’ the war in Ukraine, while others may be open to a truce and negotiations, sooner rather than later.

However, there is no sign from Zelensky or Nato countries that they wish to enter talks, particularly as Putin is now badly weakened. The EU committed another three and a half billion euros to fund Ukraine on 26 June. This means more bloodshed in eastern Ukraine and impoverishment of the entire country.

These latest events reinforce the fact that the working classes of Russia and Ukraine have nothing to gain from the war or from the rule of reactionary gangster-oligarchical regimes. Only working-class internationalism can show a way out of the horrors of war and poverty.

The CWI supports genuine independent actions of the working class in Ukraine against brutal Russian armed invasion, and against the anti-democratic and anti-working class Zelensky regime. Nato is no friend of the working masses either – it will fight to the last drop of Ukrainian blood for Western capitalist interests, as shown in many parts of the world where the imperialist military alliance has intervened.

And the events of the last few days have underlined that there is nothing progressive about the rotten Putin regime or any section of the ruling elite in Russia. Building a mass anti-war movement, alongside independent mass working-class organisations, like genuine trade unions and workers’ parties, with a political programme to oppose a reactionary war and the ruling elite, is vital to stop the carnage in Ukraine and to remove the scourge of the oligarch-gangster regime.

Internationally, the workers’ movement must regard the events of the last few days as an urgent wake-up call, as the conflict can move into ever more dangerous directions, and adopt an independent stance that campaigns for an end to the war, for immediate Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, opposition to Nato, and full support for the building of a powerful movement of the working class in Ukraine and Russia. A socialist federation of the region, on a voluntary and equal basis, would fully guarantee the rights of all minorities, including the people of east Ukraine and Crimea, and all across Ukraine and Russia.

On Saturday 24 June, Putin made a television broadcast furiously condemning the coup attempt and implicitly compared it to the Bolsheviks leading the working class to take power in October 1917. Putin made the ludicrous and historically incorrect claim that Tsarist Russia was on the verge of victory in the First World War until the revolutionary events of 1917.  In reality, the calamitous war conducted by the Tsarist generals had led to mass disaffection among Russian troops on the front, and to bread shortages and other privations in Russia.

The provisional government which arose from the February Revolution in 1917 continued with the war, which over several months led to mass opposition from the working class and peasantry, and to the Bolshevik socialist revolution in October 1917. This ended the war for Russia and also hastened the end of the slaughter in the trenches.

Just as Putin condemned Lenin’s sensitive and democratic approach to the rights of oppressed nations to self-determination in a rambling speech (and document) to justify the launching of the invasion of Ukraine  – that included the claim that Lenin assisted in creating the ‘artificial’ nation of Ukraine – his latest historically ignorant comments are testament to the completely reactionary motivations of the ruling elite in Moscow and the oligarchs.

Like the Tsars of old, Putin won the support of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, against Prigozhin’s coup attempt, as well as that of generals and politicians. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, denounced Prigozhin as a traitor and said he would send battle-hardened Chechen fighters to quash the mutineers.