30.06.23 Prigozhin Analytics

Hot Summer In Snowy Africa: Why the Prigozhin uprising was possible, how it ended, and what it revealed

Kirill Rogov
Director of the Re:Russia Project, Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna
Kirill Rogov

The Prigozhin uprising has shaken the Russian political landscape, dealing a deadly blow to the myth of 'Putin's stability.' At the same time, the uprising itself—its brevity and sudden end—has left observers puzzled. Attempts to answer the question 'What was it?' are multiplying and becoming increasingly conspiratorial. However, it is precisely in this type of case that comparative analysis can come to the rescue. Indeed, what do we actually know about military uprisings and their role in political history?

While there have been military uprisings since ancient Rome (the mercenary uprising in Carthage lasted for two years), in modern times, political scientists have paid little attention to them. In episodes of dramatic political upheaval, they play a small and usually auxiliary role, often becoming the beginning or harbinger of a coup, revolution, or civil war. At the same time, if we look at the political history of the past hundred or so years, we find that armed uprisings are mainly concentrated in specific historical periods and geographic areas, and these clusters tell us a lot about their nature.

Protracted war, uprising, and revolution 

The early 20th century saw a high concentration of armed uprisings. During the wave of strikes and mass demonstrations known as the Russian Revolution of 1905, a series of sailor uprisings occurred (the most famous, but by no means the only one, on the battleship 'Potemkin'). They unfolded against the backdrop of the Russo-Japanese War, in which Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, but they did not have any strategic significance and were merely a demonstration that the political crisis had engulfed the military sphere.

The next wave of military uprisings had a pan-European character and was directly linked to the exhausting bloodshed of the First World War, in which neither side could achieve decisive success. In the spring of 1917, following a failed offensive against the German army, a wave of mutinies engulfed French units: the soldiers refused to advance. In early 1918, a wave of uprisings, starting with the Kotor Uprising, spread throughout Austria-Hungary; the main motive there was also a reluctance to fight, which resulted in mass desertions from the front. As a result, in November, Austria-Hungary was forced to sign an armistice with the Entente and ceased to exist as a unified state. Finally, in October 1918, a mutiny broke out among sailors in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, and when the arrested mutineers were brought to Kiel, an uprising to liberate them began there, which in a matter of days transformed into a nationwide German revolution, leading to the fall of the monarchy.

In Russia, the situation unfolded in the opposite way in 1917. The frontlines were relatively stable, and the instability was concentrated in the capital Petrograd, where political tensions prevailed, intensified by a bread crisis. A military uprising was also inevitable here, but it consisted of the fact that the capital’s garrisoned regiments, intended to maintain order if necessary, moved en masse to the side of the protesters, ultimately determining the victory of the Petrograd uprising — the February Revolution, which transferred supreme power to the Provisional Government. There were plans to send reliable frontline units to the capital to suppress the rebellion.

The Generals' mutiny and the Civil War

Only a few theoretical works on military uprisings classify them based on the following criteria: the first type is a mutiny of soldiers against their 'higher-ups' - the military command. We have seen examples of this type above. The mutiny begins with soldiers (or sailors) refusing to obey orders. Such a rebellion usually ends in failure, but even if it fails, it can become a harbinger or a spark for a broad popular revolution.

The second type is an uprising of army leadership against their higher-ups — the civilian authorities. Such an uprising usually takes the form of a coup, resulting in a junta or its leader coming to power. However, sometimes such a mutiny starts not in the capital but on the periphery, and its leaders become formal or informal leaders of the military corporation (generals). It then takes the form of an armed campaign towards the capital with the aim of 'restoring order.' The famous Kornilov putsch had this character.

After the February Revolution, Petrograd was governed by a dual power structure of the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, led by revolutionary radicals. The weakness of central authority had a destabilising effect on the entire country and the front, which led to the failure of the Russian army's June offensive. In this situation, Commander-in-Chief Kornilov embarked on a campaign to Petrograd in August 1917, designed to end the dual power government and establish 'firm order' in the capital, which would help stabilise the front.

The mutiny failed due to the leaders' unwillingness to bring about large-scale bloodshed when they realised that the workers and previously rebellious military units had organised to defend Petrograd. In October, the Petrograd Soviet, dominated by radical Bolsheviks, organised a coup to overthrow the Provisional Government, marking the beginning of the bloody Civil War that lasted over four years and ended in victory for the Bolsheviks.

If the first type of rebellion represented an uprising 'from below' sometimes merging with the revolutionary leftist movement, the second type was driven by the military leadership revolting against the civilian authorities. The second type was driven by generals, who withdrew from the central government and accused it of failing to provide stability to the home front and of pandering to leftist radicals (communists).

The famous 'March on Rome' by Mussolini's supporters bears similarities to this type of mutiny, as it followed the same movement from the periphery to the capital and aimed to establish a strong authority against the left-wing radicals. However, the main role in it was played not by regular units but by paramilitary formations (although the Wagner PMC also qualifies as a paramilitary formation, albeit one that has been upgraded to the level of an elite unit). The coup by military officers on July 17-18, 1936, in Spain against the republican government is also more consistent with the type of conservative military mutiny. The military generals on the outskirts of the country revolted against the republican government, but it met organised resistance from supporters of the republic. Only a third of the country was under military control and, as in Russia, this marked the beginning of a civil war which lasted two and a half years but ended in the victory of the conservative nationalist forces led by the military.

Thus, military rebellions played an important role in the downfall of the old monarchical order in Europe in the first third of the 20th century. Mutinies 'from below' were caused by a prolonged war and often became a stage in the development of a revolution. Mutinies 'from above,' organised by the military command, had a counterrevolutionary character. However, in both cases, they were manifestations of deep political divisions in society (between 'left' and 'right'), its radicalisation, and the involvement of the military in this confrontation.

Both of these types have a rather tangential relationship to the Prigozhin rebellion. Although Russia is engaged in a protracted war, the mutiny was not motivated by war weariness or a desire to end it. The motive of marching on the capital, where those responsible for military failures were believed to reside, to restore order, was widely propagated by Prigozhin before the mutiny. However, this mutiny was not the result of a long-standing political division. Prigozhin is not Kornilov, and those who perceived the actions of the Wagner group as a rebellion against Putin's regime and authority were likely mistaken.

African insurgency and 'tactical communication'

An up-to-date database of all the coups and coup attempts from 1945 to 2022 provides an overview of the role played by military uprisings in the post-World War II era. The database records a total of 982 such events, with 591 attempts to change power involving the military (60%). However, in the category of 'Rebels' (referring to 'revolts initiated by organised militarised groups breaking with the existing authority and actively opposing government forces'), there are only 62 events recorded.

Thus, military coups account for just 6% of all attempts at regime change. Of these, 39 are considered successful, which is slightly less than two-thirds of the total. It is important to note that success implies the overthrow of the incumbent, but not necessarily the establishment of military rule. Nearly half of all cases (29) occurred in Africa, which is not surprising given that military coups are often seen as indicative of a weak state. Interestingly, among the remaining 33 coups, five took place in former Soviet republics in the 1990s (one each in Georgia and Azerbaijan, and three in Tajikistan), four occurred in Afghanistan, and three each in Costa Rica and Paraguay. The recurrence of coups is a key characteristic: out of the 34 countries where they were recorded, 15 countries experienced more than one coup, accounting for more than 70% of all coups.

The frequency of African insurgencies has attracted the attention of researchers. Maggie Dwyer, a renowned political scientist and author of a book dedicated to this phenomenon, explains in her article 'Tactical Communication: Rebellion as Dialogue'that, contrary to the perception of African military uprisings as chaotic, most of them adhere to a clear logic and are not aimed at seizing power. Typically, these rebellions arise from discontent among soldiers and junior officers regarding their pay, service conditions, rank within the army, or the power structure itself. A coup becomes a means to express this dissatisfaction to the political leadership by engaging in a dialogue via senior commanders, whom the rebels accuse of corruption and unfair treatment. Understanding the nature of such a coup, Dwyer notes, is crucial because, while the threat of violence is inherent, the rebels seek to avoid it and do so in more than half of cases.

Indeed, the recent Prigozhin rebellion can be explained within this framework. As we know, the immediate cause of the uprising was Defence Minister Shoygu's demand for the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defence, depriving the Wagner members of autonomy and an exclusive privileged status. The aim of the rebellion was primarily to demonstrate their disagreement with this decision. Such disagreement needed to be addressed through the head of the new immediate command (the Ministry of Defence, which they accused of incompetence and corruption) and communicated to the higher political leadership.

This comparison adequately explains the abrupt end to the Prigozhin rebellion. It followed the African pattern in that it did not entail actual combat actions but rather a display of the threat. As is well known, when agitating the Wagner members, Prigozhin urged them to join the 'convoy to Moscow.' The Wagner column attacked aerial targets that posed a potential threat, but according to their logic, it was in defence of the 'convoy.' However, when the column approached the Moscow region, where bridges were mined, and some border forces were assembled, and Putin never emerged for negotiations, the 'convoy’ lost its purpose. To attack regular troops, even if they were relatively weak, would have meant transitioning to a different scenario that was most likely not their intention.

This explanation for the Prigozhin rebellion becomes even more compelling considering that Prigozhin's main sphere of activity in recent years was Africa, where his main base was the Central African Republic (CAR). According to the aforementioned database, CAR (alongside Afghanistan) holds the record when it comes to the number of military coups, with four cases since 2001, the history of which Prigozhin most likely learned from direct participants in those events.

Unintended consequences of the African scenario

While the African insurgency scenario does not involve far-reaching plans to seize power or effect regime change, and instead focuses on limited objectives, these uprisings often have significant unintended consequences, as researchers have acknowledged (one of the chapters in Dwyer's book is titled 'Rebellion with Unintended Consequences'). In another study of African military rebellions, the authors note that, although these rebellions rarely evolve into full-fledged coups resulting in a change of power, they do indicate an increased likelihood of future coups. The logic behind this process is clear: a military rebellion signals problems within the triangle of 'military units — senior military command — political leadership.' A rebellion signifies conflict between the military and upper levels of command, while a coup attempt represents a conflict between the army or its senior leadership and the civilian authorities. The second conflict may be a consequence or a development of the first.

Moreover, Jacqueline Johnson’s already cited theoretical work on military rebellions describes another type of rebellion. These rebellions are linked to the fixation of civil authorities on preventing potential coups. In order to minimise this risk, the political authorities themselves create or deliberately exacerbate coordination problems within the armed forces, that is, disagreements and conflicts within the army that ultimately lead to rebellions. This bears a striking resemblance to the Russian case. By fuelling or not mitigating the conflict between Prigozhin and the leadership of the Ministry of Defence, the Kremlin eventually agreed to subordinate the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) to the Ministry, but made no efforts to coordinate this process. Prigozhin, on the other hand, had reason to believe that the decision in favour of the ministry was forced and strategically uncomfortable for Putin. Apparently, he received direct information about this from his sources.

Either way, a military rebellion, if it occurs, is a sign of a weak state, the researchers agree. Regardless of its triggering factors, significant institutional conditions made it possible. Its explosive effect, the rupture of the status quo, exposes circumstances that we could previously only speculate about but which were firmly cemented by faith in the 'stability of the regime.' There are two such circumstances.

First, the rebellion exposed the presence of internal rifts within Putin's circle and his power structure, linked to the deliberate policy of a 'divided' elite. But this is now reaching a stage where these rifts may spiral out of control, and the 'supreme arbiter' may be unable to resolve them through bureaucratic means.

Second, in preparation for a decisive confrontation with the military leadership, Prigozhin sought public support (video appeals, trips to the regions), which is categorically taboo for elite conflicts in stable authoritarian regimes. However, it quickly became apparent that the strongest response was criticism from militaristic-conservative positions, not only from the top military leadership but also of the war itself and the reasons for the full-scale invasion. This circumstance exposed the ambiguity and unreliability of the status quo of loyalty to the war, which was camouflaged by the militaristic fervour of officialdom and propaganda. And, the evident sympathies of part of the public towards Prigozhin revealed the fragility and conditional nature of Putin's position as the leader of 'Russian patriotism' and the potential for 'alternative patriotism' which is disloyal to the war and its rhetoric.

In essence, the aforementioned circumstances — the transformation of a managed conflict within the ruling coalition into an unmanageable one, and the emergence of signs of division in public opinion — constitute the main prerequisites for the 'elite split' that journalists are now so fond of discussing. It is not the split itself, but the conditions that could potentially lead to rupture if societal demand for an alternative continues to expand and take on visible features. This, in fact, may not be a significant shift, but it is immeasurably greater than what it was just the day before yesterday.