The Wagner Group Revolt and Future Course of the War

In January 2022 (and before the Russian invasion of Ukraine) it was clear that Russian imperialism was operating from a situation of fear. We wrote in Revolutionary Perspectives 19 that Putin was:

aware of Russia’s relative weakness against the combined forces of NATO. The Ukrainian conscript army itself is the third largest in Europe (over 170,000 frontline troops with many more in reserve), and is undergoing reform and reorganisation, which, with new and sophisticated weaponry from NATO powers, will make it more effective. Putin worries that Ukraine may soon be strong enough to recover the Donbass.

The failure to capture Kyiv in the “special military operation” at the beginning of the invasion lies at the root of the recent Wagner “revolt”. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, the logistical incompetence of the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, and the commander of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov, has also been a factor as the Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has made clear. Shoigu is not a soldier but a trained civil engineer who had a record of success in dealing with civilian emergencies. The previous Defence Minister was sacked in 2008, after the Russian Army struggled in Georgia, but what also recommended Shoigu to Putin was that he was not controlled by any of the oligarchic clans vying for power at the head of the Russian state.

But if Shoigu was Putin’s man, so too was Prigozhin. Prigozhin, as is well known, had long been given free rein by Putin. The ex-convict and street food seller had eventually become a caterer to Putin in St Petersburg. Although no military expert himself, he teamed up with ex-members of Russian military intelligence to set up Wagner (the name epitomises the neo-Nazi and racist views of the founders). Wagner was not the only private military company (PMC) or mercenary group employed by the state. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops have fulfilled a similar role in pacifying Chechnya, but Wagner is by far the largest.

The recent privatisation of war is also not new, nor unique to Russia. In the US invasion of Iraq, military “contractors” like Blackwater (notorious for a massacre of civilians in 2007) and Halliburton (logistical and catering support to the military) were used extensively. The appeal for both the USA and Russia was that they did not have to use conscript armies which caused them their problems with their own societies in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. A war fought by professionals, who sign up to kill and be killed, rather than compulsory conscription of the eligible population, is a safer option from the point of view of the system, as the movement against the Vietnam War demonstrated in the 1960s.

Nor are such mercenary units just confined to the USA and Russia. In Syria, Yemen and Sudan, the state has used irregulars to carry out their dirty work. This is not without its consequences, as the current war in Sudan between the regular Army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the command of Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, is a direct result of that policy. If the definition of a state is to have a recognised governmental regime with a monopoly of arms within its own territory, then Prigozhin and Hemedti are Frankenstein monsters, created by the system itself only to get out of control and challenge their masters.

The Wagner Group forces have been an important part of Russian imperialism for a decade, especially in doing its dirty work in Africa where they operate in 13 countries to support the local dictators, as in the Central African Republic. In a snub to the West they have also replaced the French Army in Mali as the chosen forces of the local regime to take on the jihadists. Until the current Ukraine war, Putin and the Russian government denied any connection to this mercenary outfit. PMCs are illegal under Russian law but Prigozhin has set up a network of shell companies to camouflage its activities. In Africa it usually takes payment in local economic assets which in Sudan means control of the gold mines. Prigozhin has become a billionaire on the strength of this. After its brutal operations in Syria and Libya, it first made itself useful in Ukraine in 2014 by bolstering the local pro-Russian militias in the Donbass, and aiding in the takeover of Crimea.

In the current war they have morphed from being a support unit (carrying out brutal atrocities against civilians) into the main Russian assault force. Although Wagner have been given equipment equivalent to the regular Army, Prigozhin constantly criticised the Russian high command over the lack of logistical support as thousands of his troops died in Bakhmut.

In fact, it seems that Wagner was no longer useful. Shoigu had already decided that the next phase of the war would be defensive, to retain all Russia held east of the Dnieper. The Wagner brigade was no longer essential, and could even become a liability. This is why Shoigu wanted to integrate them into the regular Russian Army (where they would be paid a lot less – even though the recruitment posters have been offering 7 times a workers’ wage for signing up for the regular Army since the war began). Prigozhin was given a deadline of 1 July for this to take place. The approach of this deadline was the fundamental reason behind the Wagner Group’s capture of the Russian Southern Command HQ in Rostov on 23 June, whilst 2,500 of them headed in convoy towards Moscow. Prigozhin alleged the Russian Army launched a missile at a Wagner base as the spark for the revolt but it is clear that, whether that is true or not, Wagner’s plans to take over Rostov had to have been made some time before.

It certainly was well-coordinated, and it took the Kremlin and its supporters in the military off-guard. Putin may now be able to congratulate the regular Army for avoiding a civil war, but there were serious attempts to halt the Wagner column as it got to the border of the Moscow gubernia (region). Many sources state that 6 attack helicopters and an Ilyushin bomber were brought down (using the sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry supplied to Wagner by the Russian Army) and 13 of the pilots are thought to have been killed. At this point the deal (allegedly brokered by Belarus’ President Lukashenko) was announced in which Wagner would pull back its troops and accept integration into the Russian Army (if they had committed no crime) whilst Prigozhin and the Wagner rebels would go into exile to Belarus although whether this is actually happening remains unclear. Much has been made by the Western press about how a “traitor” with an arrest warrant out for him could get off so lightly. It has certainly undermined Putin’s previous image as the strong man holding the Russian state together, but he may have wider geo-political concerns.

The complicating factor for Russian imperialism is that Wagner still represents its interests in Africa where, as we noted, it has extensive holdings. This means just crushing it was not so simple. There is ambiguity about the terms of the deal with Wagner. It is not clear what integration into the Russian Army may involve, and whether some of them would carry on working for Wagner in Africa for the benefit of Russia. However, it seems that a purge is also underway there too as several top Wagner officials are said to have been arrested in Sudan already.

Zelensky, of course, has missed no opportunity to use the Wagner revolt for his own propaganda purposes, and is now claiming that Ukraine’s long awaited offensive has begun and claims some small gains. With a new phase opening in the war in Ukraine, amid Western claims that the Wagner episode reveals the fundamental division and demoralisation in the Russian Army, the coming months will be critical. Change in the Russian high command is already apparently underway but not the one Prigozhin called for. It seems that Sergey Surovikin, the butcher of Syria (who tried the same tactics of mass destruction in Southern Ukraine last year) gave his support to Prigozhin, and is now under arrest. Ironically this may even be Shoigu’s time. His engineering training is now likely to be put to the test in Ukraine in the next few months as the Russian Army has dug in with massive defences. It will be a lot easier to maintain fighting morale in a defensive war than in an offensive which at times has been almost suicidal on both sides. If they hold off the long expected Ukrainian counter-offensive then Shoigu will be safe. If not, there will be yet another reshuffle at the top of the Russian military.

For the West of course there has been much speculation about the debacle in Moscow and that Putin’s time is up. Taking a leaf from Putin’s first speech on the Wagner revolt (Putin blamed the Bolsheviks for making Ukraine independent before the war and now he is turning historical fact on its head by blaming them for undermining the Russian war effort in 1917) they obscenely compared it to the October Revolution as another “coup” attempt. However, Western politicians have themselves been more cautious. Biden announced that the US had nothing to do with it and this (for once) is probably true. This had “made in Russia” stamped all over it. EU Commission President Josep Borrell went further and openly stated that the dysfunction at the head of a nuclear power could be dangerous for the world. Although Western propaganda rested on the demonisation of Putin (and why not?) the fact is that, if Putin goes, there are even more nationalist figures waiting in the wings. Wagner was greeted with water and flowers by some Rostov residents and there seems little doubt that Prigozhin is more popular than any of the liberal opposition who might seek peace in Russia. Any Ukrainian gains in the Donbass would be far more of a threat to Putin than the protest of the Wagner Group.

On the international front nothing has changed. The same tendency towards the formation of two armed camps that the war brought about is continuing. It is significant that China re-affirmed its support for Russia during the crisis and, with other BRICs like South Africa and Brazil not joining in Western campaigns of condemnation, the alliance remains firm. Imperialist interplay goes on, with the USA weaning Modi’s India away from Russian arms dependence due to its fears of China, whilst Iran has finally entered the Shanghai Cooperation Council as a full member. Those who thought the Wagner Group revolt would lead to peace in Ukraine are going to have to wait a lot longer as the globe becomes even more dangerous and divided.

Communist Workers’ Organisation



Monday, July 10, 2023

Revolutionary Perspectives

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