The mutiny of the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) last month continues to cast its shadow over Russian domestic and foreign policy.
The statement that Evgeny Prigozhin, leader of the PMC, released on his Telegram channel on 24 June protesting against Moscow’s strategies and directives in Ukraine and harshly criticising Russia’s senior military command threw many factors into relief.
Prigozhin is not opposed to the Russian military operation in Ukraine. Like others on the far right in Russia, he wants it to be more aggressive, possibly, in his case, so he can continue to strut around in military uniform.
Above all, the mutiny of the Wagner PMC after Prigozhin’s criticisms shows how it has evolved into a parallel wing of the Russian army, driving home the extent to which it has become a mainstay of Russian interests in its zones of influence.
As a consequence, Prigozhin has acquired considerable personal influence that may make Moscow think twice before dismantling the Wagner Group.
The Wagner mutiny was over in 24 hours, thanks to the mediating efforts of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin called off his march on Moscow, and the Wagner forces turned in their heavy weapons preparatory to being incorporated into the Russian army.
However, the tensions between Moscow and the Wagner Group have not subsided. Given the growing likelihood that the Russian military authorities will move to dismantle the Wagner Group or at least suspend its activities or cut its incentives, tensions could surge again.
This might induce some countries in the region, especially Iran and Turkey, to attempt to take advantage of the confusion to further their own agendas in areas where they are competing with Moscow for influence.
Tehran and Ankara immediately declared their support for Moscow and the steps it took to quell the Wagner Group mutiny, which was natural in view of the many common political and economic interests the three countries share.
However, this does not mean that Ankara and Tehran may not have seen a window of opportunity to advance their particular agendas following the exposure of a weakness in the Russian military structure.
During the mutiny, Prigozhin’s forces took over an operations command centre in Rostov-on-Dom and then marched halfway to Moscow without meeting any resistance.
Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the help of partners, succeeded in putting a speedy end to the march, Prigozhin’s act of defiance may have eroded popular support for him, undermined the Russian Government’s campaigns to justify the war in Ukraine, and affected the morale of regular Russian forces, which have been grumbling about the Russian military leadership.
While the Wagner problem may have been formally resolved, problems may continue to lurk beneath the surface.
Syria is one major country in which Russian, Turkish, and Iranian interests overlap. While the three countries have been working together to promote a resolution to the Syrian conflict through the Astana Process, Russia still opposes Turkish military operations in northern Syria.
However, Moscow’s tensions with the Wagner Group, the backbone of Russian military actions on the ground in Syria, could hamper Moscow’s ability to pressure Ankara on various political and military concerns in the country.
While Tehran, like Moscow, supports the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, Moscow opposes Iranian attempts to assert its control over the regime and vital Syrian facilities. Following the Wagner rebellion, Tehran may have greater leeway to bolster its strategic position in Syria.
Wagner forces have been deployed in Syrian oil fields east of Damascus as well as in the area that falls under the Turkish-Russian de-escalation agreement. More than 3,000 Syrian conscripts are reportedly serving under Wagner’s command in Syria.
Moscow’s preoccupation with the Wagner crisis, its concerns over the potential repercussions, and the need to fill anticipated gaps on the battle fronts in the light of the reductions in Wagner forces may all also offer Iran and Turkey an opportunity to strengthen their influence in Central Asia at Russia’s expense.
The Caucasus, situated directly between the three powers, has been a main locus of regional competition.
Turkey will have undoubtedly turned its attention to Libya as well. Wagner forces in the east of the country have long been a thorn in the side of Ankara’s attempts to assert its influence over the government in the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Seething tensions between Moscow and the Wagner Group might give Turkey greater manoeuvrability in Libya and strengthen its hand against the agendas of other regional and international players.
An estimated 1,200 Wagner forces support the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi. Many of them are based at the Al-Khadim Airbase and at other bases in Jufra and Sirte and are equipped with fighter planes and other defence systems. Turkey operates out of the Watiya Airbase near Tripoli and other facilities.
On the other hand, both Turkey and Iran might leap at the chance to export arms to Wagner. A leaked US intelligence report in May revealed that Wagner representatives had met with a “Turkish source” in February to discuss purchases of Turkish weapons and military equipment.
Possible changes in Russian policies towards Wagner’s activities in Africa may also open avenues for Turkey and Iran, particularly since reports in Western news outlets have suggested that African leaders are concerned over the future of Wagner PMC operations in their countries.
Wagner PMC has been operating in the Central African Republic (CAR) and several other Sub-Saharan African nations, especially since the withdrawal of French counterterrorist forces from the region.
At a recent press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained that the Wagner forces were in those countries in accordance with contracts concluded directly between their respective governments and Wagner PMC. It was up to the leaders of those countries to determine the future of the contracts, he said.
After the French military withdrawal from Central and West Africa, Turkey and Iran stepped up their efforts to increase their influence in the region. Turkey has been using defence and armaments deals towards this end, while Iran has been trying to build networks of influence through the Sufi orders and Shia currents in the region.
A shakier Wagner position in Africa and a shaken Russian image as a result of Wagner’s brief rebellion may be conducive to Ankara’s and Tehran’s strategic agendas in Africa as well as in other regions.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly