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Photo illustration by John Lyman

Wagner’s failed rebellion is a clear indication that things are not going well for Vladimir Putin.

On June 23, the Wagner Group launched a failed rebellion against its own government. The uprising was triggered by escalating tensions between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Established in 2014, Wagner is a private military organization that operates as a de facto private army for Yevgeny Prigozhin, a once close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

By some estimates, Wagner has around 50,000 fighters. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin recruited fighters from Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine which partly explains the number of fighters that it has at its disposal.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has reported that Wagner often maintains direct links with the Russian government and participated in actions in Ukraine in 2014. Due to its nature as a private paramilitary organization, Wagner can be considered a traditional proxy organization.

Besides Ukraine, the Wagner Group is primarily operating in Syria, Mali, Libya, Madagascar, Sudan, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso. In Libya, Wagner forces have fought on the side of the Khalifa Haftar, and in Syria, they helped President Bashar al-Assad hold onto power.

In the countries where it is operating, Wagner has been accused of all manner of war crimes. Sky News reports on its activities in the Central African Republic. “[The] Washington-based anti-corruption organization The Sentry has found that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary group has been ‘perfecting a nightmarish blueprint for state capture’ in the CAR to enable it to plunder the country’s national resources, particularly gold, and diamonds. Over the past five years, soldiers and militiamen have reportedly undergone Wagner training that has involved ‘ultraviolent’ techniques of torture and killing, including how to cut fingers and legs, remove nails, strangle, throw fuel, and burn people alive. In close cooperation with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the Wagner Group has significant control over the nation’s political and military leadership, as well as huge sway over its economy. The report also found that part of Wagner’s training involved ‘sweeping’ or ‘cleansing’ which sources in the Central African military said meant killing everyone, including women and children.”

What ultimately prompted Wagner’s rebellion is Prigozhin’s accusation that Russia’s military leadership purposefully attacked his forces in Ukraine, although he provided no supporting evidence. Through his official Telegram account, Prigozhin vowed to punish those responsible for killing Wagner fighters. He portrayed the rebellion as a quest for justice rather than an armed uprising.

Vladimir Putin has publicly portrayed Prigozhin and Wagner’s actions as an act of betrayal. Extra security measures were implemented in Moscow, with military vehicles stationed in central Moscow to prevent any incidents. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord, and a close ally of Putin, said that he was prepared to use force if necessary to suppress the rebellion.

Before Prigozhin had ordered his fighters to stand down to prevent further bloodshed, Wagner fighters had taken control of Rostov-on-Don and were en route to Moscow. Following discussions with Putin, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko engaged in negotiations with Prigozhin to halt Wagner’s advance. Depending on what sourcing you believe, Prigozhin agreed to Lukashenko’s suggestion of halting his rebellion and taking additional measures to defuse the situation. Lukashenko announced that considering the risk of Russian bloodshed, Wagner fighters would turn back and return to their base.

Wagner’s rebellion has been the most significant threat to Putin’s 22-year rule. It was announced that no charges would be filed against Prigozhin, and he has now relocated to Belarus. A Kremlin source revealed that Wagner fighters who abstained from marching on Moscow would be offered the opportunity to sign military contracts with the Ministry of Defense.

During an interview following the rebellion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described it as a clear indication of Putin’s vulnerability. Zelensky has emphasized Ukraine’s fight to remove Russian soldiers from occupied territories, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow has used as a staging area and supply route during the 16-month conflict and unlawfully annexed in 2014. If the counteroffensive successfully breaches Russian positions in the south, Ukrainian forces may attempt to reach two captured port cities on the Sea of Azov and disrupt Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.

All eyes are on Ukraine’s military as to whether it can take advantage of the chaos in Russia’s military and make further gains in retaking territory occupied by Russian forces.

Jahedul Islam is a writer and researcher in public health. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology from the University of Chittagong and is currently pursuing a postgraduate diploma in Project Management (PGDPM) from the Academy of Business Professionals (ABP). He is a research assistant at Brac University's James P. Grant School of Public Health. At the regional and national levels, he has received the Best Writer Award three times.