Prigozhin has let the genie out of the bottle | Russia-Ukraine war

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“Bombing Voronezh” is an expression in the Russian language that roughly translates to hurting yourself while trying to do damage to someone else. On June 24, language met reality as Russian forces bombed the southern city of Voronezh trying to slow down the advance of the Wagner Group’s mercenary convoy towards Moscow.

Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef” for having made a fortune in Kremlin catering contracts, the Wagner Group’s fighters went on a “march for justice” trying to depose the leadership of the defence ministry and army, which ended just as abruptly as it started.

The private military company was established in 2014 to give cover for President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy adventures by providing plausible deniability for the Kremlin’s involvement in conflicts abroad. Over the following decade, the group and its founder grew more and more empowered and well-armed.

Last year, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner fighters became the Kremlin’s most effective shock troops on the battlefield, leading the eight-month-long siege of the strategic city of Bakhmut and capturing it.

But over the weekend, the group transformed from a loyal militia to Moscow’s foremost security threat, as Prigozhin openly rebelled against the Russian military.

His “march” on the Russian capital to try to overthrow military leaders – who he has accused of corruption, incompetence and sabotaging his mercenaries – revealed a deep weakness in the Russian state. By creating this irregular force, the Kremlin has indeed “bombed Voronezh”.

Prigozhin’s forces seized military facilities in southwestern Russia and moved on to Moscow without major resistance. Soon footage emerged of locals handing the Wagner mercenaries food and supplies and cheering them on.

The ease with which Wagner acted prompted panic in Moscow. Flights out of the country sold out and there were genuine concerns that violence and even war were coming to the doorstep. For the first time since Putin took power in 2000, the spectre of violent upheaval that could threaten his regime raised its head.

Moscow declared a state of emergency and made some weak attempts to stop the advance of Prigozhin’s fighters, tearing up roads and sending helicopters (at least six of which were destroyed by Wagner fighters) to bomb the convoy.

Wagner forces allegedly got to within 200km (124 miles) of the Russian capital before their leader suddenly announced they were turning back to avoid “spilling Russian blood”. It emerged afterwards that he had agreed to a deal put forward by Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, to stand down and go into exile in Belarus. Further details of the agreement remain murky.

What is clear, however, is that Putin appears greatly weakened by the mutiny, having lost the monopoly on the use of force in Russia and the illusion that he could provide security and stability for Russian citizens.

Prigozhin has let the genie out of the bottle, and if there was a continuation of these events that seriously challenges the Russian president’s power, it wouldn’t be without precedent in Russian history.

In his speech to the nation on June 24, Putin himself referred to one such episode: “The actions splitting our unity are a betrayal of our people, of our brothers in combat who fight now at the front line. It’s a stab in the back of our country and our people. It was such a blow that was dealt to Russia in 1917 when the country was fighting in World War I, but its victory was stolen.”

In February 1917, civil unrest erupted in Russia prompted in part by the disastrous performance of the Russian military in Eastern Europe during World War I and growing public dissatisfaction with how the country was run. Perceived weakening of the authority of Russian Emperor Nicholas II also played a role.

As popular anger grew, a garrison stationed in St Petersburg, the imperial capital, mutinied. Losing control of the city, the emperor was approached by his army chief and several members of the parliament and pressured to abdicate. Power was handed over to a provisional government led by liberal forces.

Seeing the popularity of Prigozhin among Russians, some have also drawn parallels with another episode of the eventful 1917. In August of that year, as the provisional government struggled to exert control over the internal affairs of the country, Lavr Kornilov, an infantry general who had just been appointed army chief due to his popularity among troops, refused to carry out the orders of Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky.

Kornilov then attempted to march on St Petersburg and take power but failed. This further weakened the government amid a raging economic crisis, social upheaval and a looming defeat in the war. It paved the way for the Bolsheviks to ride the wave of unrest among workers and soldiers and seize power in what came to be known as the October Revolution – a historical event that Putin has long lamented.

Indeed, the Russian president has reason to fear the parallels with 1917. The war against Ukraine he launched last year is not going “according to plan”, as he has claimed in the past. Last year, his blitzkrieg towards Kyiv and attempts to take all of Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper river and along the Black Sea coast failed. This year, his forces have not been able to take control of all of the Donetsk or Luhansk regions, which he declared part of Russia in October.

Meanwhile, Putin lost one of his most effective military commanders in Prigozhin, and however he tries to reconstitute the Wagner Group, it is unlikely to remain the powerful force it used to be. This will likely help Ukraine, which recently launched its counterattack and is liberating territories in the east and south. In the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion, Kyiv has reportedly established a bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region and has also claimed gains in the Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions.

The Russian economy has also taken a hard hit due to the war and the ever-expanding list of sanctions that the European Union, the United States and their allies have imposed. It has become more reliant on exports to China, which for its part has remained unwilling to provide Russia with substantial new finance. Beijing has also dragged its feet on an agreement to build the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline that Putin desperately needs to replace lost European gas sales.

A week before the unrest, Russian media reported Chinese banks were already restricting renminbi transfers from Russian banks to third countries and Beijing will hardly see any incentive to hitch itself more to Putin now.

Of course, the Kremlin is not yet in a crisis of the same scope as the one in 1917, but we have also yet to see how Prigozhin’s mutiny will end. He indeed pulled back his fighters from Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, but what will happen to him next remains unclear. The charges of treason against Prigozhin, which were supposed to be dropped under the deal he made with Lukashenko, are reportedly still in place.

There have been reports that he is in Minsk, though Belarusian officials have denied they are aware of his arrival and it is hard to see how they can provide a haven for him given past disputes between Prigozhin and Lukashenko. Putin is known for seeing betrayal as unforgivable, but taking further action against Prigozhin could also destabilise the situation further. Once the genie has been released from the bottle, it is hard to put it back in.

It is also unclear what will become of Wagner’s lucrative operations in Africa, where the group is said to be directly involved in the mining of gold and other precious minerals. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said these will remain in place, but the Wagner units involved are believed to be those that have served Prigozhin the longest and are likely most loyal to him. So whether they would accept a new leadership or resist remains to be seen.

On June 26, Prigozhin finally broke his silence, vowing that Wagner will continue to operate and stating that he did not aim to overthrow Putin. Those words would have been unthinkable just four days ago, and while Putin managed to survive his rebellion, the truce between the two may prove fleeting.  The wheels of change have been set in motion and it is hard to predict where they will take Russia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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