Since last summer Vladimir Putin, who distrusted the Ministry of Defense and the Russian General Staff, has been bolstering the Wagner Group as an alternative to official military structures. By fall, Evgeny Prigozhin and the faction surrounding Putin, that supported the “Prigozhin project”, has already been competing for influence in appointing the chief of the Russian military corps in Ukraine.
In December 2022 the conflict between the Wagner Military Group and the Ministry of Defense became public. Prigozhin demonstrated his refusal to obey the General Staff of Russia’s Ministry of Defense by insulting and vilifying the military leadership and thereby earning points for himself. The Kremlin considered his actions advantageous for a while — by focusing responsibility for military failures on the army leadership, Prigozhin shielded Vladimir Putin from blame. The task required significant effort, as at the beginning of the war Putin, confident in the victory, assumed excessive responsibility for it.
It seemed Prigozhin could be stopped at any moment. And that was true. As always, every creator of the Golem believes he can control it. And therefore, makes the creature more and more lifelike to intimidate all others more effectively. Until it turns out that the Golem has started to believe in itself — which sets off a completely new story.
The issue at hand, however, is not even military, but a rhetorical mutiny. Prigozhin delivered a devastating blow to Putin’s war by speaking against it not in the language of the war's liberal opponents but in the language of its supporters. He has employed the same rhetoric as Vladimir Putin himself does.
So when Putin follows up delivering a video address and calling on the rebels to stop, it takes but a bit of imagination to interpret that the traitors in his speech are the very leadership of the Ministry of Defense, whereas Prigozhin’s armed units are indeed the forces of patriotism and unity.
Entire Russia is covered in posters urging people to join the Wagner Group. For six months now, students and schoolchildren have been hearing about the Wagner Group as an embodiment of patriotism in today’s Russia. The rupture in the image strikes directly at Putin himself: could it be that he is the one doing the betraying?
The discourse of war has thus exploded from within. The true patriot of his homeland is then someone who can criticise those who started the war, those who have treated their soldiers as cannon fodder (by the way, Prigozhin himself cynically exploited this model of combat just earlier), and those who have killed 100,000 servicemen without any purpose.
By the way, the fact that Prigozhin mentioned these 100,000 killed Russian soldiers in his video address is in itself an informational breakthrough. Even if the actual losses are fewer (which I personally am not sure of), it will not be so easy to erase the figure from the public eye.
Today’s military revolt is happening primarily in the field of rhetoric. Previously, those in favor of the war were deemed patriots, those against the war — renegades. Now a true patriot can be both — for or against the war. Prigozhin began promoting this rhetoric a couple of months ago, and today it has become common knowledge.
Another important effect of the mutiny is that the Russian television has ceased to be a means of safeguarding and controlling the information space. The mutiny has been unfolding on social media, and for a while, it was unclear whether it was genuine or fake. In the future social networks with the videos and threads disseminated through them will be the primary channels for information on “what is really happening.” However, the Kremlin does not control these channels and mechanisms of information dissemination. So those in the Russian society who have previously gotten their news from TV only will grow more suspicious that they are not being told something.
Currently, it is unclear how the rebellion will end and how the clashes between regular army and the Wagner Group will actually unfold in the depths of Russia. However, the crisis on the front is not limited to the “Wagner problem” only. There is also a clear potential for a second crisis, a second rebellion. It involves the mobilised Russians who were conscripted during the raids in September-October 2022.
They have been “at war” for eight months now, but there seems to be no mechanism to replace them. In order for that to happen, a new mobilisation must take place — a task more challenging today than previously. Therefore, the mobilised will ultimately have to take care of themselves. However, were they to protest, they will now enjoy much greater public support for their claims: a rebellion has become legitimate.
It appears that Putin has on his hands the second major defeat in the current war, following the one of Russian forces failing to take Kiev. Analogies to the events of 1917, which have been looming for quite some time, are now in their full force. The artificial patriotic fervor is extremely dangerous, because, in the face of military failures, it threatens the complete collapse of the frontlines and the war machine itself. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has proven a success.
However, one of the short-term consequences of the revolt could be a new repressive shift in Russia. It could bring back the death penalty, which, in fact, both sides of the current confrontation within the Russian military have long dreamt of.