Following Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government find themselves in unchartered territory. The crisis appears to have been averted, for now, but what happens next for Russia and the Wagner Group remains uncertain.
“All bets are off,” Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
“We simply don’t have any fixed data points that we can rely on to figure out what’s going to happen next.”
The events, which began on Saturday, appeared to take everyone but the battle-hardened mercenary group by surprise. Wagner forces rapidly took control of Rostov, one of Russia’s largest cities, where they were met with minimal resistance from local security forces and occupied the regional military headquarters.
They continued to march on Moscow before Prigozhin ordered his mercenaries to turn back 200km (124 miles) from the capital. He agreed to go into exile in Belarus after brokering a deal with the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko.
The mutiny appears to be over, but the fate of the mercenary group that has proven so influential in Ukraine, as well as Syria and many African countries, remains to be seen.
Lack of clarity around the Lukashenko deal
The Kremlin has publicly announced aspects of the deal, including the agreement that Prigozhin will be allowed to go to Belarus without facing criminal charges.
Lukashenko’s office said the settlement contains security guarantees for Wagner troops, but details are scant and, according to Giles, confusing.
The specifics of the #Lukashenko-negotiated deal, how and on what timeline it will be implemented, the expected outcomes for each party, and the extent to which all involved parties will follow the agreement, remain unclear at this time. https://t.co/M5yx53y7GV https://t.co/LKDSQ1lGGh
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 25, 2023
“There are too many unanswered questions around this supposed deal that they’ve arrived at, but even the questions that do seem to be being answered make no sense,” Giles said.
Joana de Deus Pereira, a senior research fellow at RUSI Europe, told Al Jazeera that it is “crucial to exercise caution and critically analyse the information” coming out of Russia in the past 24 hours.
“Nothing is what it seems, and what it seems is not frequently what it is,” she said in an email.
Prigozhin’s uncertain future
Public challenges of the Russian president rarely end well, with many leading critics, such as opposition figure Alexey Navalny, often ending up poisoned or dying under suspicious circumstances.
“People that cross Vladimir Putin tend to have a bad track record of falling out of windows in Russia. We’ve seen them eliminated with little fanfare and in multiple, very brutal ways,” Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, told Al Jazeera.
On Saturday, in a televised speech, Putin accused Prigozhin of “betrayal” and “treason” and described his actions as “a stab in the back of our troops and the people of Russia”.
“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said, adding, “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”
Clarke said that Prigozhin’s deal with Belarus does not necessarily guarantee his safety.
“I don’t think Putin will shy away from exacting revenge and punishing Prigozhin if he thinks that that’s necessary, and I think he probably will,” he said.
Putin has also proven to not be very accepting of criticism of Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine, and has called for a “self-purification” to rid his country of anyone who questions the invasion.
Prigozhin publicly questioned the rationale behind Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24, 2022.
“The Ministry of Defence is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there was insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO block,”, he said in a post on his Telegram channel.
Since the Lukashenko deal was struck, Putin and top Russian officials have remained tight-lipped on Prigozhin’s future.
Other leaders allied to Putin, however, have come out with criticism of the Wagner chief, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro calls Prigozhin a “terrorist” and condemned the Wagner Group’s “irrational threat”
One of the only Russian allies to explicitly condemn Prigozhin by name, which underscores the limited international support that Putin got during this crisis
— Samuel Ramani (@SamRamani2) June 24, 2023
Deus Pereira believes that Prigozhin will “remain quiet for the next days” having left Rostov with much fanfare.
“This is one of his biggest objectives – he was recognised by the population,” she explained.
Prigozhin’s rhetoric following the deal may also have been a public relations exercise, according to Deus Pereira.
After the deal was struck, she said, Prigozhin claimed it was to avoid “Russian blood” being shed – and he projected an image of “dignity” that stood in contrast to the “manifestations of warlordism portrayed by Kadyrov”.
Wagner troops will not face charges, according to deal
The Russian government has said it will not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part in the mutiny, while those who did not join were to be offered contracts by the Defence Ministry.
Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they had been fighting alongside regular Russian soldiers.
On Saturday, Russian media reported Wagner troops downed several helicopters and a military communications plane. Russia’s Defence Ministry has not commented on these events.
“While Prigozhin may be the face of the group, Wagner is a product and creation of Putin’s regime to be able to operate in several scenarios with plausible deniability. This will continue, possibly under a new name,” Deus Pereira said.
Repercussions in Africa
The events of Saturday could have major repercussions in Africa, where the mercenary group has played an increasingly central role in long-running internal conflicts.
The United States has accused the group of exploiting natural resources in Mali, the Central African Republic and elsewhere to fund fighting in Ukraine.
The group has also been accused of playing an active role in Sudan – where there is an ongoing civil war.
A suspension of Wagner operations in Africa could impact the group’s finances.
However, Clarke believes that the Wagner Group’s influence abroad could help protect it from being completely isolated by the Russian government.
“It’s not possible for the Kremlin to marginalise Wagner,” he said. “Russia and Vladimir Putin depend on and, in fact, need the Wagner Group to carry out Russian foreign policy, not just in Ukraine, but around the world, in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, Mali and elsewhere.”