Kimberly St. Julian Varnon on the short-lived insurrection in Russia

The history Ph.D. candidate discusses the shocking weekend revolt and march on Moscow by Wagner Group militia members.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company sits inside a military vehicle posing for a selfie photo with a local civilian on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, right, sits inside a military vehicle posing for a selfie photo with a local civilian on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023, prior to leaving an area of the headquarters of the Southern Military District. (Image: AP Photo)

The brief uprising against Russia’s military over the weekend, where Wagner Group militia members led by the company’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin took over a command center in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and then began a march on Moscow, was by turns shocking and confusing. The immediate crisis ended when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko negotiated a deal for the mercenaries to pull out of Russian cities and for Prigozhin to head into exile in Belarus, but serious questions and concerns remain.

Kimberly St. Julian Varnon, a history Ph.D. candidate and Penn Presidential Ph.D. Fellow and expert on policy in the post-Soviet space, offers her perspective in the following Q&A on what happened and what it all means for the war in Ukraine, Putin’s image, and the Wagner Group going forward.

Most Americans were shocked by the turn of events this weekend. Was this surprising to people keeping an eye on events in Russia and Ukraine?

There were whispers and rumors that Prigozhin was planning something, but I do not think most people who specialize in Russian studies expected Prigozhin to lead an armed uprising. I certainly did not. 

Why did it fall to Belarus to negotiate a deal for Wagner troops to retreat? What are the implications of this?

Many theories are floating around as to why Belarus was critical to the negotiations. I fall into the group of researchers who think it is because Prigozhin and Lukashenko have been friends for over two decades. Prigozhin’s “March for Justice” seems like a show of force, but it is also a show of desperation. Why did Prigozhin resort to armed insurrection to get Putin’s attention? If anything, it shows how strained relations are between Prigozhin and Putin. It is worse for Belarusians because they will now be a staging ground for the regular Russian military and Wagner mercenaries.

What does this mean for Russia’s relationship with Wagner? What about all the African assets Wagner controls for Russia?

Wagner remains an important element of Russian foreign policy. Not only are its highly trained soldiers essential for Russian fighting in Ukraine, but they are also on the ground in Syria and throughout the African continent, acting in the Russian state interest. Wagner controls considerable interests in gold and diamond mines in Africa, and those provide important capital for Wagner’s continued existence. I would think the Russian state also reaps some of these economic benefits. Despite all these elements, Prigozhin’s behavior means Wagner is a point of weakness for Putin’s regime. At the end of the day, he is untrustworthy, and Putin has alluded to such in both of his public speeches addressing the insurrection.

What does this mean for the war in Ukraine? Can Ukraine capitalize on this chaos?

Short term, it does not seem to have a significant impact on the ground in Ukraine. Russians shelled Kyiv and Kherson after the initial phases of Prigozhin’s uprising, though Ukrainians made some gains near Bakhmut. It was a huge moral boost for Ukrainians, but I do not think it will have long-term consequences. The Wagner forces are supposed to be returning to Ukraine, and it is important to remember that a primary reason for Prigozhin’s anger was how poorly Russia was performing in the war. That Prigozhin and Wagner need to prove their loyalty to Putin does not bode well for Ukrainians. Loyalty is proven through strength and victory on the battlefield, and we have already seen that Wagner is capable of atrocity. 

Where does this leave Putin? 

I do not believe this leaves Putin as weak or vulnerable as many other commentators believe. At first glance, it seems ridiculous that Prigozhin is allowed to exile to Belarus relatively unscathed while the Wagner participants are given amnesty. However, we must think about this more broadly. Keeping Prigozhin alive in Belarus while moving many of Wagner’s troops there allows Russia to hit Ukraine from the Northwest and provides the Russian security forces time to evaluate the risks of getting rid of (we can wonder how) Prigozhin. Will Wagner’s troops be loyal to a new leader? How will those troops in Africa respond? Keeping Prigozhin on ice is the safest option to maintain the use of Wagner in Ukraine and keep the benefits from the African natural resource holdings. Finally, it provides Putin and the Ministry of Defense time to work out how they want to integrate Wagner troops into the Russian military, if they still want to.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about Prigozhin’s actions this weekend?

First, this was not an attempted coup. Prigozhin has not directly called out or disrespected Putin. His anger and frustration were targeted toward Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the general leading the Russian forces in Ukraine, because of Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine. In the video he released of him haranguing the Southern Military District Command commander in Rostov-on-Don, we see Prigozhin yelling about how he feels he and Wagner have been disrespected, and their sacrifices for the Russian effort in Ukraine undermined. Second, Prigozhin is not a good person or a viable/democratic alternative to Putin. He and his men have committed atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic. He has recruited violent criminals from Russian prisons to send them to Ukraine for battle. We must remember these elements when describing what happened over the weekend and its meaning for Russia and the war in Ukraine.