At the end of June, 2023, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt quickly began and quickly ended. Officials in the political West were quick to diagnose the weakness in Putin’s government and the vulnerability in Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
Neither diagnosis turned out to be true. Putin seems to have emerged, not only unscathed by the rebellion, but buttressed by many advantages. The publicly damaging infighting between Prigozhin and Shoigu and Wagner and the Russian military has entirely stopped. Wagner is safely exiled from Russia while, having been largely integrated into the Russian military, it goes on fighting for Russia in Ukraine. Wagner forces are training Belarusian forces and guarding the Belarusian border, while Wagner goes on doing Russia’s work in Africa. Having, in some not entirely clear way, reined in Prigozhin, Putin seems to be deriving increased benefit from Wagner now free of the risks.
It never was clear exactly what happened on that rebellious day nor what the real causes or consequences were. But Putin seems to have gotten everything he wanted. The sting has been taken out of Prigozhin while Wagner remains a sharp instrument of the Russian army, and whatever “parquet” generals and “carpet knights” who in time of actual war “are ineffective, to put it mildly,” as Putin said, have been discovered and dealt with.
Putin is rarely moved by panic or excitement to move spontaneously or rashly. His former wife, Lyudmila, says that “Everything he did was always thought through.” In the biography, Putin, Philip Short quotes a Swedish diplomat who knew Putin well saying that “he sizes up his opponents coldly and soberly, and anticipates his own and others’ actions well before he makes the first chess move.” Whether Putin is a strategic mastermind who played the Prigozhin rebellion perfectly or whether he was the fortunate beneficiary of circumstances, events seemed to have played out perfectly for Putin. Prigozhin and Wagner are nowhere they shouldn’t be and everywhere they should be.
In accordance with the options Putin provided, members of the Wagner forces seem to have either gone home, gone back to Ukraine integrated into the Russian military or gone to Belarus. Polish officials estimate that around 4,000 Wagner members are in Belarus where they are training Belarusian special forces. The Belarusian defense ministry has confirmed that “The armed forces of Belarus continue joint training with the fighters of the Wagner PMC (Private Military Company).”
Though the situation on the Belarusian-Polish border has become dangerous with Wagner forces massing on one side and Polish forces on the other and the two sides trading accusations, it is very unlikely that the plan for the Wagner forces in Belarus is to attack across the Polish border: Moscow no more wants a third world war with NATO than Washington does. It is more likely that the purpose of the Wagner forces in Belarus is to act a deterrent from Ukrainian attempts to draw Russian troops to the Belarusian front and as a deterrent to any direct Polish or NATO activity in Belarus. Wagner allows Russia to accomplish both those goals without the provocative or self-harming redeployment of its own troops.
Rather than attacking across the Polish border, Alexander Hill, professor of military history at the University of Calgary, told me that “It seems more likely that Wagner will seek to get more involved again in the sort of thing that had been its core focus before the February 2022 escalation of the war in Ukraine, i.e. in its operations in support of clients in Africa.” That’s what the US is now afraid of.
On July 19, the military of Niger took the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, into custody in a coup. On July 28, General Abdourahamane Tchiani declared himself the head of state.
Though there has been, according to Olayinka Ajala, senior lecturer of Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett University, the constant threat of coups, Niger has experienced its longest run at democracy since gaining independence from France in 1960. Niger has been seen by the political West as a partner, and France and the US have more than 2,500 military personnel there.
But the new coup government has cut ties with the US and “ended all connections including military agreements with France.” Of concern to the US is that a group of Nigeriens marched on the French military base “waving Russian flags.” Thousands of supporters of the coup marched through the streets of Niamey, the capital, waving Russian flags and chanting “Putin” and “Wagner.”
Russia has condemned the coup, calling it a “cause for serious concern.” The Kremlin called for all sides to show restraint and to restore the legal order as quickly as possible. Prigozhin, however, has apparently classified the coup as part of “the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers” and praised Niger because “they have got rid of the colonisers.” There is concern in the political West that Niger’s coup government could join Mali in inviting the Wagner group to work with them and increase Russia’s influence in Africa. The Wagner group has provided military support and security services in some African countries. In neighbouring Mali, Russia is reported to be very popular and, along with Wagner, is seen by many as the best partner in the fight against increasing insurgent attacks.
On August 6, as the now passed deadline imposed by The Economic Community of West African States for reinstating President Bazoum approached, France 24 reported that Niger’s coup government “asked for help from the Russian Wagner group.” According to The Associated Press, the request was made by one of the coup leaders who made contact with Wagner during a trip to Mali.
Prigozhin’s relationship to Putin and Wagner and his role in Africa remain mysteriously unclear. He is reported to have attended the recent Russi-Africa summit in St. Petersburgh in July where he is said to have met with African representatives. He is reported to have praised Putin, whom he allegedly tried to remove in a coup a month before, for his handling of the summit and of Russian-African relations.
What really happened during the June coup and however it was really resolved, Putin seems to be enjoying all of the benefits of a new relationship with the Wagner group while having eliminated all of the costs in Moscow, Belarus, Ukraine and Africa.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.