No Mercenaries, No Coup, No Peace
A week after Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group made their abortive “march for justice” the mainstream media and their featured experts continue to repeat the same story using inaccurate terminology and shallow thinking. The result is a flawed guide to the meaning of an incident that has generated more heat than light on the future of the Ukraine War.
In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli famously advised against the use of mercenaries. He found “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline.” Prigozhin and his Wagner Group are called "mercenaries" and their recent mutiny would seem to confirm Machiavelli’s warning. They do not, however, fit the 16th Century Florentine thinker’s description. Machiavelli’s complaint was that mercenaries find their “stipend… is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.”
The Wagner Group has fought hard in Ukraine, outdoing the performance of the regular Russian army. It took heavy casualties with shortfalls in supplies and air support. Whether due to jealousy and rivalry with the Russian high command, or just the poor logistics that have plagued the entire war effort is open to question. Either way, Prigozhin had grounds to question how the war was being fought.
The Wagner Group may recruit its soldiers as mercenaries and engage in lucrative business ventures, but Prigozhin is a Russian loyal to his country. He is not a freelancer. In Syria, Africa, and cyberspace, he has served as an agent of the empire. This makes the 17th-century warlord Albrecht von Wallenstein a better historical example than anything out of Machiavelli.
During the early part of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Wallenstein commanded the Imperial Army of Ferdinand II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and head of the Habsburg dynasty. He was then dismissed because he was unpopular with the Catholic hierarchy. However, the war took a bad turn for the Empire with the intervention of Sweden on the Protestant side and Wallenstein was reinstated. He recruited his own regiments whose officers swore an oath to him alone and usurped the imperial authority in the territories he occupied. Like Prigozhin, he exercised an independent command and accrued great wealth and prestige as he built a large army on the mercenary model which fought well and won several battles.
Wallenstein’s enemies at the Imperial Court seized on rumors that he was plotting to take the Bohemian crown and carve out his own kingdom. Ferdinand ordered his arrest. Wallenstein sought exile in Saxony, but a cabal of his own (truly mercenary) officers were well rewarded by the emperor for assassinating him in 1634. Prigozhin would do well not to hold any banquets in Belarus.
Wallenstein’s death did not cripple the Catholic war effort. Seven months later, the Spanish-Imperial army won such a major victory at Nordlingen that France, which had been supporting the Protestant cause from the sidelines, needed to enter the war directly to stem the Habsburg advance.
It is inaccurate to call Prigozhin’s march an attempted coup. His target was the Minister of War, not the President. Putin has replaced several field commanders for their defeats in Ukraine, but Minister Sergei Shoigu is part of the regime. Prigozhin had long been calling for changes in the military high command and its strategy. Instead, the high command was going to take control of the Wagner Group. In that case, Prigozhin wanted to become the high command. Putin called this “treason.” Prigozhin replied, "we are patriots of our motherland" then backed down rather than “spill Russian blood.” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, to whom Putin had recently given the support of tactical nuclear weapons, provided Prigozhin a way out while at the same time reinforcing Putin’s image as undisputed ruler of Russia. Without sparking a wider uprising, Prigozhin’s position collapsed so quickly he was compelled to abandon his beloved troops to save himself. It is wishful thinking to believe this incident signals imminent regime change in Moscow.
It does, however, signal two important things. First, Prigozhin exposed the “lie” behind the invasion of Ukraine that is at the heart of Putin’s propaganda and of those in the West who oppose support for Ukraine because they find a contentious world uncomfortable. "The ministry of defense now is trying to deceive society, the president, and tell a story there was insane aggression from Ukraine and that they intended to attack us with the whole NATO bloc," said Prigozhin. He claimed a "clan of oligarchs" started the war "to rob" Ukraine and divide up its assets, as he said had happened in Crimea after it was seized in 2014. While his hyperbole can be dismissed in the same way as the similar charge in the West that support for Kyiv has been pushed to profit the military-industrial complex, its core confirms the obvious. The invasion was for revanchist conquest not pre-emptive defense.
Putin has made no secret of his belief that Ukraine has no right to independence and should be returned to the domain of Mother Russia. Kyiv’s desire to join NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, only to Putin’s ambition to rebuild its empire. A former KGB officer, Putin laments the collapse of the Soviet Union (which he has recently equated with “historical Russia”) that the West celebrates in the name of peace and freedom. There is certainly no moral equivalence between NATO expansion by the free association of nations seeking collective security and Russia’s long history of expansion by fire and sword. The same history Putin cites to justify Russian domination of its borderlands drives those liberated lands to seek protection from a return to the brutality they so suffered for so long. It is their perspective, not Putin’s, that deserves support.
Second, Prigozhin’s mutiny was born out of frustration of how poorly the war is going. Russia’s offensive capability has been crippled with its heavy losses in armor and well-trained infantry. Even elite units have been rebuilt with hastily trained replacements. They may do better in prepared defenses, but a prolonged war may not be any better for Putin than a Ukrainian summer blitz. While many have argued that a war of attrition benefits the larger power, material calculations do not always determine political outcomes. Failure in war is a major cause of internal regime change, whether it is the Argentine junta that couldn’t hold the Falklands or an American President (LBJ) who could not quickly win in Vietnam. Putin claims the Ukraine war is an existential struggle for Russia when it is really an existential struggle for him. His macho image would not survive losing an arm-wrestling match in a bar, let alone a war.
War has a way of putting into sharp focus inept leadership and corrupted institutions. Putin’s reference in his address to 1917 was more revealing than intended. It was Russia’s battlefield defeats in World War I that discredited the Romanov dynasty and ignited revolution. Putin emerged from the Prigozhin incident stronger than ever, but he knows this will not last if the war continues to go badly. Though there has been a lull in attacks on cities, we can expect some form of escalation in Ukraine (and perhaps elsewhere). But Prigozhin was not calling for just more action, but for a better strategy. That cannot be produced overnight, so the immediate results may just be more casualties. Putin’s fear of upping the costs too much by mobilizing society and expanding conscription makes his decision-making difficult and unpredictable.
Since the situation inside Russia is uncertain, dangerous and beyond our control, NATO must prepare for the situation deteriorating before it gets better. The aim must remain to bring the war in Ukraine to an end on favorable terms. Such an outcome is dependent on standing firm so that Putin (or his successor) concludes that peace is in the best interest of Russia given stark alternatives that are worse both at home and abroad.
William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.