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The Wagner ‘Musicians’ and Circus Tanks

Prigozhin’s mercenary force is not a private military company but a sub-division of the Russian Ministry of Defence. So what is really going on with the short lived mutiny?

A Wagner tank jammed in the entrance to a circus in Rostov on Don as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s troops took over the city during a brief mutiny. Screenshot: Twitter

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On a day full of chaos and uncertainty, in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a tank got stuck in the gates of a local circus. High school prom queens and local drunks took selfies, against the pink of ‘Lucky Ticket’ circus posters and camouflage nets. The international media ran headlines like ‘Putin on the Brink’ and ‘Russian Rebellion’. 

By the end of 23 June 2023, all eyes were on Russia.

A so-called private military company (PMC) Wagner, also known as ‘the Musicians’ and alleged to consist of 25,000 convicts-turned-soldiers, marched on Moscow. Its so-called founder, Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch – also known as ‘Putin’s chef’ – demanded that Russia’s Defence Minister be fired as well as others in the leadership, accusing them of corruption and treason.

The Russian airforce fired on the Wagner group’s ‘march of justice’. Wagner’s air defence shot down the aircraft, killing 13 pilots. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) took over several cities.  In Kyiv, Ukraine, popcorn and champagne sold out. Foreign military experts promised a ceasefire.

The next morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally broke his silence and gave a rehearsed speech, promising punishment for traitors and recalling the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Those following events on social media claimed that Putin and his elite had fled the capital. Nothing made sense. Was this the start of a civil war? 

Then, suddenly, it all stopped.

Two hundred kilometres from Moscow, Prigozhin ordered his troops to march back. Cleared of any charges, he headed to Belarus. The world tried to make sense of the Russian circus. Multiple op-eds and political analyses followed, focusing on the private military company Wagner. But some of us knew that there was never any such thing.

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A Wholly Owned Subsidiary

Wagner is not ‘a private military company’ but a secret sub-division of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, the GRU (formerly the Main Intelligence Directorate), according to Artem Kruglov, a popular Russian blogger and the author of Acute Angle, currently in hiding, in an exclusive interview from his undisclosed location with Byline Times. 

“Journalists started to apply the term ‘private military company’ to the Wagner group, and it stuck,” explained Marat Gabidullin, a former assistant to Prigozhin and a former officer in the Wagner group. “In reality, Wagner is a subsidiary of the formation of the Ministry of Defence and, as such, it is completely dependent on the Ministry of Defence.”

“A better term for it, rather than a PMC or mercenary outfit, might be an informal semi-state security group,” explained Kimberly Marten, Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Barnard College, Columbia University in ‘The GRU, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia’s Wagner Group: Malign Russian Actors and Possible US Responses’ for the American House of Representatives in 2020.

Establishing Wagner’s subordination to the GRU is critical to understanding the events of 23-24 June 2023. The GRU directly reports to the Ministry of Defence of Russia, to the Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu, who, in turn, reports to Putin. 

Andrei Soldatov, one of the leading experts on the Russian secret services, confirmed that Prigozhin works for the GRU. The historian Yuri Felshtinsky says that Prigozhin most likely was an FSB agent recruited in the penal colony serving a nine-year sentence in the 1980s. Felshtinsky argues that while in prison, Prigozhin could only be recruited by the FSB, and that the FSB would never allow a GRU agent to serve as Putin’s chef. Multiple experts consulted confirmed that Prigozhin works for the Russian secret services. 

The financing of the group sheds light on its origin, according to Artem Kruglov. In December 2012, a month after Sergey Shoigu became the Minister of Defence, Prigozhin’s company Concord received its first contract for 92,000,000,000 roubles ($3,000,000,000) for the army food supply. Since then, Prigozhin has remained the main food supply contractor for the Russian Federation army.

Founder of Wagner, Dmitry Utkin, with Nazi insignia tattoos

Prigozhin directed part of the money from state contracts to the accounts of fictitious companies in Russian banks. The funds were then transferred to the GRU communal fund, obschak. A mercenary group founded in 2014 and later called Wagner was one of the GRU projects funded with this money. Before the war with Ukraine, the group received ammunition, weapons, and training from the warehouses of the 10th brigade of the GRU in Molkino of Krasnodar region in southern Russia, says Kruglov.

According to Marat Gabidullin, Prigozhin will only be able to claim his living quarters on the Molkino training ground if it is located on the Ministry of Defence land. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation can exclude Wagner units from the supply chain of ammunition, fuel, and everything necessary. Prigozhin cannot be the owner of an entity that exists only de facto, not de jure

Most importantly of all the very existence of a mercenary group would not be possible without its powerful protection, krysha, in Russian mafia state lingo. The provision of military services by private companies is prohibited by law in Russia. Participation in armed conflicts on the territory of another country is punished by up to seven years in prison, according to the Article 359 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Yet, the mercenary group reporting to the Ministry of Defense and Putin gets away with not just breaking the law. 

Wagner is named after the call name of the group leader Dmitry Utkin, a GRU officer and confirmed neo-Nazi, inspired by Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner. He is not the only one with Third Reich fantasies in the group; Gabidullin speaks of other openly Nazi mercenaries. How can an illegal entity with an open reference to the Nazi regime fight for the “de-Nazification of Ukraine,” the primary goal of Putin’s “special military operation”?  Under the protection of the Ministry of Defence and the Kremlin, anything is possible. 

In December 2016, Utkin received a medal for bravery directly from Putin at the Kremlin.

A Reichstag Moment?

Like the monster created by Dr Frankenstein, Kruglov believes that Wagner outgrew the Kremlin’s initial plan and presented a threat to its creator. Putin’s “informal semi-state security group” was used as a cover in Crimea, Donbas, and Syria when the Kremlin needed to conceal the presence of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Before the full-scale aggression in Ukraine, the GRU had a total of 10,000 – 15,000 soldiers and consisted of 8 official brigades with and one “unofficial” Wagner brigade, said Kruglov.

During the war with Ukraine, due to the recruitment of convicts, the Wagner group increased significantly, up to 50,000. Prigozhin’s ambitions grew proportionally and might have caused the brief rebellion in question.

Other commentators believe that the Kremlin and security services orchestrated the mutiny. 

Why? Multiple parties may have benefited from the short-lived rebellion. 

In this classic scenario, the staged mutiny would give the Kremlin an excellent reason to establish a military junta regime. In fact, in Moscow, the Moscow region and other territories, a counter-terrorist regime was introduced on 23-24 June, 2022 for the first time in history.

Under such a regime, the FSB becomes the primary authority; the security forces monitor all communication and have the right to disrupt all connections, search individuals and search and confiscate the transport, and premises and utilize the property of citizens and organizations.

Critics of such a theory believe such a move is obsolete. Atrem Kruglov said that Russia already lives under a full-fledged fascist regime, so there is no need to “burn down the Reichstag.”

The police and FSB torture is widespread. In June 2023, Anatoly Bereznikov, an anti-war activist from Rostov-on-Don, died in prison after being brought to court with broken ribs and signs of torture with electric shocks. In March 2023, archaeologist Oleg Belousov from St. Petersburg was sentenced to 5.5 years for one anti-Putin and anti-war comment on the Vkontakte network. The opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza received a 25-year term for an anti-war YouTube video. New political charges against the imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny are brought up and might lead to a life sentence. 

A Russian lawyer, human rights defender, and the author of a popular site Vladimir Osechkin suggested that the special operation was being prepared for more than eight months by the GRU to conduct a significant purge in the military. According to him, more than 15 criminal cases have already been initiated against the military personnel who did not pass a loyalty check and sided with Prigozhin. 

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A History of Mutinies and Uprisings

Many international experts expressed concern that Putin would be unable to justify pardoning Prigozhin. After all, Wagner is to blame for the deaths of the Russian military. The difference in mentalities needs to be stressed here.

Unlike democratic societies, public opinion in a dictatorship presents barely any obstacle to a dictator. The life of an individual citizen of the Russian Federation, military or civilian, does not carry the same value as that of individuals in the West.

Hundreds of critics, dissidents, journalists, and opposition leaders have been killed during Putin’s reign. In the mafia state, these deaths are mourned but taken for granted. The population has been conditioned to accept its helplessness in the face of omnipotent power. During the mutiny in question, the residents of Moscow, Voronezh, and Rostov-on-Don expressed fear of losing property and looting.

Overall, many experts, influencers, and public figures believe that Prigozhin failed “march for justice” led to the destabilization of centralized power in the Russian Federation. Kruglov thinks that in the near future, the Russian Federation will become an arena of conflict between armed groups and private armies.

The Ukrainian analyst Alexander Kovalenko says that this week’s developments in Russia will not critically affect the situation in the war zone for Ukraine. If the confrontation dragged on for at least a week, he believes, we would begin to observe the collapse of the control system and the integrity of the structure of the Russian armed forces. For now, the effect is negligible.

Russia has a long tradition of meaningless and bloody riots. From Strenka Razin, a Cossack leader who led a major uprising against the nobility in 1670–1671, and Yemelyan Pugachev rebelling in 1773–1775 to the Bloody Sunday of 1905 when a priest and a police informant Father Gapon led workers to their deaths, right up to the Bolshevik revolution ending in series of genocides and civil wars, the country seems to be stuck in the eternal return of violence and unfreedom, like a tank in the circus.

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