Hudson Institute

The Russian Hezbollah Revolts: Wagner’s Mutiny Reveals a Dangerous Plague

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District's headquarters and return to their base on June 24, 2023, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers an assessment of the political-military ramifications of the Wagner Group's march toward Moscow. 

Today Kasapoğlu also joined Senior Fellows Peter RoughLuke Coffey, and Rebeccah Heinrichs for an event that analyzed the mutiny and explained what policymakers should focus on next. Be sure to watch it here.

How Did Wagner Get Here?

Last weekend the Wagner Private Military Company rapidly escalated its feud with the Russian military leadership while the world watched. But the telltale indicators of a confrontation were there beforehand. Ammunition and logistics issues exacerbated tensions months ago, and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin directly criticized Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov for their inefficiency. The parties eventually clashed near Bakhmut, where Wagner arrested and interrogated a Russian officer and leaked the footage to social media. The Russian Ministry of Defense then ordered all paramilitary, volunteer, and mercenary formations to subordinate themselves under its unified command no later than July 1, 2023. This act was directed at Wagner, and Prigozhin firmly rejected the decree and hardened his stance against the Russian high command. 

Wagner’s tag of “private military company” makes right-sizing its threat difficult. Wagner has little, if any, resemblance to private military contractors in the West. Notably, in recent years Prigozhin’s shady group of hired gunmen has evolved into a menacing, amorphous beast somewhere between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces. Like these entities, Wagner runs an independent wartime economy, has built a shadow army, and pursues a flamboyant and populist political agenda. 

While it is unclear if Prigozhin’s deep-rooted cooperation with these groups influenced Wagner’s structure, the group is not like other Russian mercenary networks. For example, Wagner’s war economy has a pronounced focus on Africa. It has extensive recruitment networks in Russia, including in the country’s prisons. While thousands of convicts have died as cannon fodder, thousands more have entered Russian society after serving their time in Wagner. 

Wagner, whose structure resembles the Russian Armed Forces, pays better than the Russian military and attracts many fighters, including recruits from Ukraine’s breakaway regions and Russian generals. Moreover, Wagner’s servicemen are generally better equipped than most of the Russian military. So Wagner is not a typical mercenary mafia, and it challenged both the Russian military leadership and the Russian security apparatus’ monopoly of force.

Wagner’s Mutiny Emphasizes the Weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s Russia

The contemporary Russian Federation suffers from chronic problems, most of which are vestiges of the Soviet Union. Wagner’s mutiny, therefore, was a symptom of an underlying disease plaguing Putin’s rule.

The siloviki elite have skillfully disguised Russia’s stumbling since the 1990s. Nuclear saber-rattling, military brinksmanship, and highbrow rhetoric from the Kremlin gerontocracy have given the illusion of a powerful and rejuvenated Russia. However, most of the dynamics that caused Boris Yeltsin’s Russia to falter against General Dzhokhar Dudayev’s Chechnya in the mid-1990s remain.

Consider Prigozhin’s actions thus far. First, Wagner columns rolled into the heart of Russia proper and faced little resistance, yet allegiance to Prigozhin alone cannot explain why Russian combat formations froze. There have not been major defections to Wagner’s ranks, and there is no reason to believe that the Russian military changed sides and betrayed Putin. Though the plot might be deeper than it seems, Prigozhin failed to spark a widespread uprising among the armed forces. 

Most Russian units, including at the Southern Military District Headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, were likely paralyzed because of a politicized and corrupt chain of command. Putin, like all tyrants, opted for loyalty when staffing his military at the expense of accountability and professionalism. These shortfalls manifested themselves in Wagner’s march from Rostov to Lipetsk Oblast. 

Early in the putsch, Prigozhin and his security detail entered the Southern Military District Headquarters—one of the most important military facilities in Russia. There, Wagner fighters filmed his meeting with the deputy defense minister, during which Prigozhin threatened Shoigu and Gerasimov and warned that Wagner would march to Moscow should the pair refuse to step down. 

Second, within a day, Wagner advanced hundreds of kilometers and downed six Russian helicopters and one Il-22 airborne command post. This outpaces the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in terms of operational tempo. Organic short-range air defenses, including Pantsir-S1s, accompanied Wagner’s columns, and Prigozhin brought T-80BV and T-72B3 main battle tanks from Rostov to Voronezh. Opposing this advance, the Russian Rosgvardya—commanded by Putin’s former bodyguard and sparring partner General Viktor Zolotov—deployed armored personnel carriers, and the Moscow metropolitan police helplessly tried to blockade the roads with municipal trucks. While Russian lines of defense in Ukraine have proven robust, the Wagner mutiny showed that Russia is weak inside its borders. On June 24, Moscow resembled Kyiv in February 2022—except that Wagner columns moved faster and more smoothly than the Russian military. 

Third, and perhaps most frighteningly for Putin, local populations often welcomed Wagner—even though he labeled its march a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back.” Wagner held Rostov for about 24 hours without any major protests. After reports of a deal to end the mutiny emerged, the people of Rostov still chanted for Prigozhin. These are not promising signs for the Russian leader. Tyrants can be unpopular, but they cannot be both unpopular and vulnerable simultaneously.

Russia Is Sitting on a Bomb

The Prigozhin episode has seemingly come to a pause, but Russia will not be more stable going forward. Prigozhin negotiated an exile to Belarus, and his whereabouts are currently unknown. His message, however, lives on. 

Prigozhin combined populist ultranationalism with political militancy and a call for leadership change in Moscow. Exemplifying this nationalist militancy, pro-Wagner accounts highlighted Shoigu’s ethnic Tuvan background during the putsch. The combination of renegade armies, radical ideologies, and armed political activism does not bode well for the post-Soviet space. Russia is sitting on a ticking bomb, and the country is now at constant risk of civil war. In intelligence analysis parlance, the prospect of a civil war in Russia was previously a low-probability, high-impact scenario. At present, the risk has reached a dangerous point.

Only weeks before Wagner’s columns rode toward the gates of Putin’s capital, two anti-Kremlin armed groups—the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion—raided Belgorod. They captured Russian personnel and sought a prisoner-of-war deal with the local governor. After the governor turned down the offer, these groups reportedly came to terms with Prigozhin. While this intra-Russianprisoner-of-war exchange diplomacy did not make the headlines, it is a textbook indicator of a looming civil war. Humiliatingly, the Russian military had to dispatch a high-ranking general, Alexander Lapin, to hunt down insurgents in Belgorod.

Amid intra-Russian violence, other trends are unfolding. As previous editions of Hudson’s Ukraine Military Situation Report covered, a subtle Chechen civil war is occurring in Ukraine as Ramzan Kadyrov’s pro-Putin private army faces off against Chechen independence groups fighting for Ukraine. Several other paramilitaries, from Belarusian armed opposition to the Georgian Legion, are also fighting alongside the Ukrainian military. While Kadyrov seems fanatically loyal to Putin, his loyalty may flinch should the Chechen leader perceive a wounded Moscow regime.

Finally, the Western strategic community acts as though Wagner is being dismantled or disarmed. This is a delusion. Wagner servicemen have kept their arms. Prigozhin could still make a political comeback in the digital information space. Most importantly, should Shoigu lose his position, pro-Wagner accounts will portray the mutiny as a historic success that unseated a strong regime elite under the shadow of guns.

Wagner Is Not Finished

Those who claim that the thwarted mutiny has ended the Wagner saga have little, if any, understanding of Wagner’s geopolitical worldview.

Above all, Wagner runs on revenues that do not predominantly stem from Ukraine, and the group does not live solely on Putin’s generous turf. Although the bulk of the Western strategic community associates Prigozhin’s forces with Bakhmut, the key to understanding Wagner is Africa.

Wagner’s operations there revolve around the Sahel, where dangerous Islamist insurgencies corner states in the region. Prigozhin craftily preys on such security threats. But the business model is not simply about providing protection in exchange for cash. Wagner is a new-generation mercenary network. Prigozhin seeks gold, diamond, mining, and port deals in exchange for his security services. Wagner-affiliated shell companies—such as Lobaye Invest, M Invest, and Meroe Gold—run these business fronts. The group’s paramilitaries have killed residents and journalists to protect these gains. Wagner then invests its African revenues in projects like the technology center in St. Petersburg, an ambitious drone program, and sensational hackathonsto develop offensive cyber capabilities

Furthermore, Wagner has a fast-growing global network. US officials have confirmed that Prigozhin’s shadow military has procured arms from Pyongyang. In January 2023, the Department of the Treasury designated Spacety, a Chinese technology company, for offering satellite imagery intelligence services to Wagner. Contrary to mainstream Russian affairs research by most Western think tanks, Prigozhin’s footprint is not confined to the former Soviet space. Wagner’s warlord has a much larger vision.

Geopolitical Ramifications

Wagner’s mutiny has gone well beyond challenging Putin’s throne. The Kremlin faced a grim reality check before a global audience. The siloviki elite, who rule Russia with an iron fist, hail from the last generation of Soviet intelligence. Putin was a sworn KGB officer—his previous real position was in the Soviet liaison headquarters in Dresden, East Germany—and his oath has defined his tenure as president. He has never hidden his true intentions in international affairs—he considers the collapse of the Soviet Union a “geopolitical catastrophe.” Manifested in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech, Putin and his siloviki clan have attempted to reestablish Russia as a great power on par with the United States. Today, however, Russia is not even in the same league as Xi Jinping’s China. 

Great powers do not crater highways to halt a private military company from entering the capital, nor do they lose seven aircraft within 24 hours in their own airspace against their own weapon systems. Great powers do not require diplomatic mediation from their satellite states to quell a mutiny. 

Nevertheless, like North Korea, Russia remains dangerous. Worse, a Russian civil war could haunt the European security architecture for decades. As NATO’s Strategic Concept emphasizes, Russia will remain a direct threat to the alliance. Yet the country is not a great power—not anymore. The Wagner mutiny manifested this reality.

Subscribe to Hudson's Re: Ukraine Newsletter Here