The Wagner Group, mercenaries led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, revolted against the Kremlin over the weekend after its leader claimed the Russian military killed 2,000 of its fighters in Ukraine.
Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation, explains that “the Wagner Group is essentially a private paramilitary group run by Prigozhin, who was actually imprisoned for corruption at the end of the Soviet Union and then somehow became [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s private chef, and they established a very close relationship.” (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Coates also weighs in on whether she thinks the rank-and-file members of the Russian military have lost confidence in Putin.
“Well, they’ve certainly lost confidence in the top control of the ministry, particularly [Sergei] Shoigu, the minister of defense, who was never popular,” she says. “And in a way, Putin’s kept him around because he isn’t popular and he doesn’t threaten Putin’s popularity, and he was an offset to Prigozhin, who was an offset to Shoigu.”
“So, that kind of arrangement has worked for a while, but if there is a greater perception within Russia than we realize of how poorly the Ukraine war has gone, given the way it was sold as a three-day war, inevitable triumph, that obviously has not turned out to be the case, and the casualties have been horrific. And if that is starting to sink in, he might have another Afghanistan-style situation on his hands, and this could be a real emblem of that,” Coates says.
Coates joins today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to further discuss the events that unfolded in Russia, and what they mean for Putin and his government.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Joining today’s show is Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow here at The Heritage Foundation. Victoria, thanks so much for joining us.
Victoria Coates: Always a pleasure.
Aschieris: So over the weekend, we began seeing reports on Friday evening about Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, claiming that the Russian military struck and killed 2,000 of his fighters in Ukraine. This then turned into a revolt by the group that ended on Saturday.
First and foremost, what is this mercenary group and second, can you walk us through what happened exactly?
Coates: Well, the caveat is that anyone who tells you they know exactly what happened is lying unless they’re named Prigozhin or Putin, and neither of us bear those names so this all comes with many declarations of the unknowns that we know we know and then there are the unknown unknowns, which are also out there. So that’s something that’ll get unpacked over coming days and weeks.
Now, the Wagner Group is essentially a private paramilitary group run by Prigozhin, who was actually imprisoned for corruption at the end of the Soviet Union and then somehow became [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s private chef and they established a very close relationship.
I mean, Putin, like most dictators, is a little concerned about getting poisoned and so he and Prigozhin became close and eventually Prigozhin became head of this Wagner Group, which became active around the 2014 time frame after the seizure of Crimea, the original incursion into Ukraine.
And Ukraine is their most famous engagement and they’ve obviously been instrumental in what success Russia has had in the most recent 16-month war.
But make no mistake about it, this is a global operation. They are widely active in Russia, from Mali to Sudan, Sudan to Libya to South Africa. Mostly active there funneling natural resources that Russia needs back to the country proper.
But they’re also active in our own hemisphere. They were deployed to Venezuela in 2019 to put down popular protests there and may still well be active in not only Venezuela, but some of the other countries that have taken leftward lurches in the intervening years.
Aschieris: I wanted to also ask you about the response that we saw from the Russian military to this uprising. What did you think about the fact that they were able to cross the border, didn’t really meet any significant resistance crossing back into Russia, they were able to capture a major city? What did you think of that?
Coates: Yeah, that’s one of the major questions in my mind, is we have Wagner claiming that 2,000 people were killed. We have claims that planes were shot down, helicopters were shot down. We see pictures of shot down helicopters, but there’s no confirmed reporting. So we don’t know for sure that this happened over the weekend. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we have a single confirmed death. We have many reported deaths.
But you have to wonder, in Russia, if there’s not a major violent episode, if this is all really happening or if it is what it seems.
So certainly there is a kind of cult of personality around Prigozhin. He is enormously popular as a kind of Robin Hood-like figure, which is utterly inaccurate.
As I mentioned, he was in prison for fraud, so he’s more into the taking for the rich and keeping than doing any distributing, but I think it certainly shows you how unsympathetic the officials in the Russian Ministry of Defense are that someone like Prigozhin could have become a popular hero.
And we see his being cheered on his way out, people taking selfies with him. There really is a kind of celebrity there that I think, if I were Vladimir Putin, would really concern me.
Aschieris: And speaking of Vladimir Putin, what does this incident, what do these events that unfolded mean for him and the future of his government in Russia?
Coates: There are a lot of people who want to see Putin as an incredible, omnipotent mastermind who’s playing chess, four-dimensional chess, while we’re playing tiddlywinks—and that sometimes can feel like it is the case. But then again, Putin is not 100 feet high and faces a lot of challenges of his own. So it is very hard for me to see how this could have helped him in any way.
And I mean, the only scenario I could see is, if he for whatever reason wanted to get a large number of Wagner people, including Prigozhin, up to Belarus without creating a lot of suspicion that he was going to open another offensive into Ukraine. So if a large number of Wagner folk go up to Belarus, if Prigozhin turns up in Belarus, which he has yet to do, then I think we got to keep a real close eye on that.
But absent that, it is very hard for me to see how this does anything but weaken Putin because a lot of his mystique has depended on his image of being in complete control of Russia. And so if that facade starts to crack, even if he did manage this particular crisis and survive it, then he may have a real problem.
And there were some reports that the Russian media was being a lot less docile than it normally is. So that is something the United States should keep a very close eye on going forward.
Aschieris: And do you think, looking at the Russian military itself, do you think that the rank and file of the Russian military has lost its confidence in Putin?
Coates: Well, they’ve certainly lost confidence in the top control of the ministry, particularly [Sergei] Shoigu, the minister of defense, who was never popular. And in a way, Putin’s kept him around because he isn’t popular and he doesn’t threaten Putin’s popularity and he was an offset to Prigozhin, who was an offset to Shoigu.
So that kind of arrangement has worked for a while, but if there is a greater perception within Russia than we realize of how poorly the Ukraine war has gone, given the way it was sold as a three-day war, inevitable triumph, that obviously has not turned out to be the case and the casualties have been horrific. And if that is starting to sink in, he might have another Afghanistan-style situation on his hands and this could be a real emblem of that.
Aschieris: I wanted to just talk a little bit more about the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin is no longer on the battlefield. He posted a video on Monday saying, this was according to a translation, “We started our march due to injustice. We showed no aggression, but we were hit by missiles and helicopters. This was the trigger.” So first and foremost, what do you think all of this means for the war in Ukraine?
Coates: This could be a critical moment. Now, the only thing I would take out of the Prigozhin audio is that he was alive after the truce because he was referring to things that took place in the Saturday-Sunday time frame, so at some point in there, he was still alive, and we don’t know where he is.
There are some reports that he did go back into Ukraine. There are some reports that he’s in North Africa, which would suggest that he’s going to try to create his own sort of safe space with his guys that were deployed to North Africa around him. So we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out.
Now, if it does appear that Wagner is starting to fracture, and particularly if Prigozhin is off of the European continent, that is a real opportunity for the Ukrainians.
And [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has been pretty forward-leaning on this, that he would see it as an opportunity to press his advantage, and I think that is absolutely the case and that the Ukrainians should be the ones who take the lead on this, supported by our European allies. This should all be fully within their capabilities.
And I would say the United States’ attention would be better spent on these other theaters where Wagner has been active, where we have interests, particularly, as I said, in the Western Hemisphere.
Aschieris: And just speaking of the Wagner Group and kind of the fallout that we’ve been seeing, what happens to people that are in this group? Is there any accountability for those people who did participate in this revolt?
Coates: That, again, is an open question. There were reports over the weekend that amnesty was going to be provided, no charges would be brought against anyone. That has been qualified, that maybe there will be charges against Prigozhin personally and that Shoigu may require any Wagner folk who wish to stay on the right side of the law to sign enlistment contracts with the Russian army, which can be a tough spot to be in. That could be the equivalent of a death sentence. So we’ll see how that plays out.
But if the Russian army sort of eats Wagner, they’re going to have a lot of problems around the world, and particularly in Ukraine, that I don’t see how they’re going to be able to solve. So we should keep a close eye.
Aschieris: And just speaking of keeping a close eye, what should the U.S. and the West more broadly be on the lookout for relating to this event over the next couple of days as we hopefully learn more about what happened?
Coates: Yeah, I mean, gaining clarity is everyone’s top priority, and we’ve all become experts on this on Twitter. I would be very cautious about—any early reports are almost certain to be wrong.
But the key thing that the administration has to keep an eye on, and Congress needs to urge them to do this, is what is happening with the nuclear weapons.
Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and if there is instability in Moscow, that is something that has to be gotten ahold of immediately, or else you risk having a series of kind of disjointed little states with all having their own personal nuclear arsenals and no governance of any sort.
So that’s got to be the big concern for the United States and NATO, is not allowing that to spin out of control, fall into rogue hands, and keeping lines of communication with the Russian military open for that. It just simply has to remain the case.
So I would see that as the immediate crisis, and then just not jumping to conclusions before we have absolute clarity on what went on.
Aschieris: And just before we go, I wanted to get your thoughts on the support that we saw from China. China came out on Sunday reaffirming its support for Russia. How significant is this statement? Should the U.S. be concerned? How do we interpret this?
Coates: Yeah, it’s certainly not surprising. I mean, over the last 18 months, Putin and Chairman Xi [Jinping] of China have been very clear about their growing chumminess. And I want to be very careful not to use the word “alliance” in this context, because they’re not allies.
Basically, you’ve seen an imposition of the medieval feudal system here with China being the lord and Russia being the vassal state. So at this point, Russia continues to exist largely at China’s pleasure. China is using Russia as a source for natural resources, which Russia’s only too happy to oblige. And so that’s kind of the basis of that relationship.
So for Chairman Xi, as long as he keeps getting his shipments of oil and natural gas and what have you, I think he doesn’t particularly care what goes on in Russia. And so, from his perspective, it’s fine to have a weakened Putin as long as Putin is still in control.
One thing the United States could look at effectively within that context, though, is how do you make Russia toxic for China so that it isn’t just a kind of willing subordinate, it becomes a problem for them? If we’re going to peel those two apart, that looks to me to be the only path to achieve it.
Aschieris: Well, Victoria, thank you so much for joining us today. Just before we go, any final thoughts from you?
Coates: No—as I said, just everyone should retain a healthy skepticism about the newfound experts in social media and just bear in mind that the other thing Prigozhin did for Putin was run one of the world’s largest misinformation campaigns, and all the election meddling one reads about, that is coming from that man. And so this is almost certainly not what it seems.
Aschieris: Well, great. Victoria Coates, thanks so much for joining us.
Coates: My pleasure.
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