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Has the Wagner mutiny ended Russia’s dream of hegemony in the global south?

July 5, 2023 at 9:38 am

Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin left the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Tensions which had long been brewing reached a climax on 24 June when the leader of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced a march on Moscow against the Russian army and government, which he finally blamed for the invasion of Ukraine. The “mutiny” was essentially the culmination of Prigozhin’s numerous criticisms of the Russian Defence Ministry’s apparently insufficient supply of arms and reinforcements to the group’s fighters, yet it was still a shock to many. It was hardly a shock in historical terms, though, as it was the perfect representation of the nature of mercenaries in relation to the state they are paid to serve.

The 16th century Italian diplomat Nicholo Machiavelli alluded to the phenomenon in his book The Prince, in which he called mercenaries “useless and dangerous”. He warned that, “If one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful.”

An infographic titled 'From restaurant manager to paramilitary group leader: Wagner's rebellious head' [Kemal Delikmen/Anadolu Agency]

An infographic titled ‘From restaurant manager to paramilitary group leader: Wagner’s rebellious head’ [Kemal Delikmen/Anadolu Agency]

Machiavelli observed that, “The ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries… They have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin learned this lesson the hard way, and his government and military have now woken up fully to the fact that there exists a parallel army — tens of thousands strong — which they must deal with, despite the Russian army still having the upper hand.

The Russian Defence Ministry’s preparation to receive the Wagner group’s heavy weaponry, as well as the previous order for the mercenaries to sign contracts, represent clear efforts by Moscow to integrate the guns-for-hire into the regular forces. How that will play out across the globe in terms of the integration of Wagner fighters currently based in Africa and the Middle East is still uncertain. So far, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has given an assurance that the militia can continue to operate within Mali, the Central African Republic and Africa in general, as it is up to the states in question to maintain those agreements.

Wagner’s fate in Syria, Libya and Sudan was not addressed, however. There are reportedly concerns in eastern Libya — which has for years sought the help of Wagner and its fighters — about whether the group should continue to operate there due to the very real threat of mercenary self-interest and betrayal.

If Wagner’s integration into the Russian army is successful, it would effectively mean that the Russian military command takes direct control over the group’s activities in Ukraine and all other areas of operation. It remains unclear whether or not Moscow would take a decentralised approach by granting some autonomy in terms of the chain of command to the former mercenaries.

Regardless of which strategy is adopted, the removal or replacement of the Wagner group from those operational fronts is likely set to have an impact on Russia’s hard power and expansion in many African and Middle Eastern countries. It also risks stretching the Russian military very thinly amid the other issues with which it is already dealing, such as the significant loss of manpower and morale in the ongoing war against Ukraine.

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Despite the perceived cracks in Putin’s leadership and any notions of definitive unbreakable unity in Russia, Moscow still retains its significant influence in the global south as a protector of dictatorships and an opponent of the West. It will likely continue to be viewed by friendly African and Middle Eastern governments or warlords as a credible security guarantor and as one of the prominent alternatives to Western hegemony.

Media outlets and think tanks in the US and Europe would be mistaken to believe otherwise. As the initial thrill of the alleged Wagner coup attempt has passed, the enduring reality of Russia’s place in the global south must not be underestimated, despite the very visible cracks in the unity of the Russian leadership and military.

The only potential scenarios that would alter that reality or warrant a shift in the status quo would be a pushback against the Russian Defence Ministry’s efforts to integrate Wagner fighters or Prigozhin — this is currently uncertain in the ongoing developments — or a decision by opponents of Russia and its allies to take advantage of any military restructuring to launch their own operations.

As I wrote last year, the Russian military’s “special operation” in Ukraine presented an opportunity to the Syrian opposition forces to launch a renewed assault against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and its positions in north-west Syria. The fact that Russian forces had become preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict and tied down in Moscow’s own backyard meant that, after years, Syrian rebels had the best chance of some kind of military redemption than they may even have in the near future.

That still holds true, but it is potentially even more so following the Wagner mutiny, the possible widespread restructuring of the Russian military, and the attempted replacement and integration of the Kremlin’s mercenary forces on multiple fronts.

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The Syrian rebels and their leadership remain largely fractured, disunited and seemingly undetermined or pessimistic about launching any renewed operation against the Assad regime, so it is a highly unlikely scenario. But if they do somehow decide to take advantage of the situation in Moscow, it would potentially serve to tie down Russian forces further on yet another front, which the Ukrainian military would undoubtedly use to its own advantage through the major counter-offensive against Russian positions that many have already long been expecting.

Until either of those scenarios take place — if ever — it looks wildly unlikely that Russian influence in Africa, Asia or Europe will decrease any time soon. The circumstances are simply not favourable, particularly at a time when political and military figures in Africa are attempting to push French and even UN forces out of their countries and replace them with Russians; authoritarians in the Middle East are increasingly seeking alternatives to Western powers; and certain areas in Europe are opposed to NATO and harbour pro-Russian factions in government.

Leaders and people in the “global south” still very much admire and look up to Putin and Russia. It will take more than a short-lived internal mutiny to change that.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.