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Wagner's Rebellion: Unravelling Russia's New Ideology in the Putin Era

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By Marlon Struver

On 23 June, Russia was brought into a state of convulsion by a declaration of rebellion from the leader of the Private Military Company, or PMC Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin. On the 24th, Russia, once more in its history, awoke to dissonant notes of revolution with Wagner advancing on Moscow. What does Wagner’s march and its quick demise tell us about the current state of Russian statehood?

Putin, Prigozhin, and Wagner

Wagner’s March for Revenge

Wagner's emergence in Russia is rooted in two historical epochs. In the former empire, Russia’s sheer size, ethnic diversity, and inaccessible geography forced Russian leaders to rely on covert and local military forces to uphold order.

The second epoch was the collapse of the USSR which created cuts in military personnel. Many of the discharged soldiers were recruited into private protection companies during the anarchic 1990s, creating the prerequisites for the emergence of Wagner.

On the night of 23 June, Prigozhin, via Telegram, accused the Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD) of hindering progress in Ukraine and even attacking Wagner soldiers. Wagner would therefore march on Moscow to overthrow the command of the Ministry of Defence, or MOD.

Prigozhin’s demand for removing the MOD elites, but not the head of state Putin, was already unusual for a rebellion.

Consequently, 5,000 loyal Wagner fighters captured the city of Rostov-on-Don. Considering that Wagner, at minimum, consisted of 25,000 recruits, this group of 5,000 was quite limited. After capturing Rostov-on-Don,

Prigozhin started his march on Moscow. For the whole day, no public support from any elites, or military figures came forth. Also, no anti-Putin fraction staged any other rebellious acts. So far, only General Surovikin has been alleged to support the rebellion, although no definite statements have yet been released.

However, acts of kindness from Rostov residents towards Wagner fighters were seen by Western Media as defiant anti-Putin actions, but the reality is more convoluted. Prigozhin’s worldview only deviates from Putin’s by being more extreme.

Kind gestures to Wagner fighters by the populace, without acts targeted against Putin, do not indicate dissatisfaction by the populace with the policy direction of Putin, maybe even desiring Prigozhin’s harder stance.

What the Outcome Means to Russian Statehood

As again demonstrated, Russia’s centralised government and lack of multiple institutional layers are susceptible to coup attempts. But where previous rebellions destabilised Russia, the Wagner uprising did not, owing to significant domestic changes of the past two decades.

At its start the Putin government focused on centralising power, away from regional elites, to create domestic stability. However, Putin did not only centralise power.

His policies are shaping Russia away from the modern Westphalian nation-state model, and the associatedliberal doctrine, for an empire-model nation-state. This model has created a new Russian ethos after the loss of the Communist identity.

The new Russian ethos is built upon collectivist and traditional values, in polar opposition to Liberal ideology. The regained importance of Christian Orthodoxy and other religions, Russia’s history as a global power and its long history of being invaded have all helped to create this collectivist communal identity.

The new ethos is not solely built on ethnicity or religion, as was the case at the beginning of the Westphalian nation-states. Minority Russian ethnic regions, like Chechnya, have been given autonomy on issues of religion, showcased by the recent approval for a pilot for Islamic banking in Islamic regions and Chechnya’s position in the Russian Federation.

This type of legislation appears to be more in line with the old empire model for nations.

This push for traditionalism and communalism also creates an antagonism against the West and its values. This antagonism helps to create a union of the many ethnicities within Russia who value their traditions and own value systems.

Additionally, the 1990s were helpful in pushing Liberal ideology to the fringes of Russian politics with many Russians having lost their faith in Liberalism and its values because of the chaos during this time. Russians credit Putin for solving the crisis of the 1990s and building a new ethos, which according to some, has elevated him above day-to-day political discourse.

The complete lack of support for Prigozhin and the complete absence of other oppositions to the Russian government during the chaos of the rebellion indicates a Russia united behind its new ethos and its implementer.

Although the Wagner rebellion shows the institutional weakness of the Russian state, the stability provided by a new ethos and ideology should not be underestimated.

The complete lack of garnered support for Prigozhin and the lack of additional uprisings by domestic liberal groups during Wagner’s rebellion indicates that Putin, and his policies, enjoy the support of the population and elites.

Expecting a quick demise of his government could therefore, for the time being, be more wishful thinking than an actual strategy.

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Carl Schmitt and International Relations, Failed Crusade (S. Cohen), the Moscow Times, The Idea of Empire (A. de Benoist), Ukrainski Pravda

Written by Marlon Struver

September 2023

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MJPE or its Board. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MJPE concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.

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