We are all one people and we are fighting with one external enemy! We believe in the Russian people and our president!
The electronic text displayed on the Rostov Area on June 24 exemplified the Russian media’s initial response to recent events in the city: an affirmation of support for the president against an unnamed external enemy while side-stepping the internal conflict that had taken place 24 hours prior. For the first time since the Second Chechen War, Moscow faced an armed conflict within the territory of the Russian Federation. Although terms like “coup” and “civil war” have been applied to the events of Rostov Oblast between June 23 and 24, perhaps it is best we settle on the more neutral “mutiny” to describe the actions of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. Rather than being limited to a single element of the military or localized to a specific oblast or territory, the Rostov Mutiny involved the active revolt of one of the largest components of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and was partially enabled by a broader dysfunction within Russia’s domestic security apparatus. Some observers have speculated that the mutiny was partially enabled by the support and collaboration of certain elements of the Russian government. Comparisons have already been drawn between the Rostov mutiny and the 1917 putsch by Lavr Kornilov against the Russian Provisional Government. While Kornilov failed to overthrow the Russian Provisional Government, his attempted coup accelerated the terminal decline of the Russian state.
The focal point of the Rostov Mutiny was the headquarters of the Southern Military District. This district is responsible for coordinating all of Russia’s military activities in the North Caucasus, Black Sea, and occupied territories of eastern Ukraine. This military district is also responsible for overseeing Russia’s military deployments in Abkhazia, Armenia, and South Ossetia. The 102nd Military base in Gyumri, Erebuni military airport, and peacekeeping mission to Artsakh are all constituent deployments of the 8th Guards Combined Army based out of Novocherkassk and are all formally under the authority of the district headquarters based in Rostov. Considering that the mutiny directly targeted the nerve center of Russia’s deployments to the South Caucasus, it is crucial that we consider how the events in Rostov have impacted Russia’s ability to project power in the region. This article will examine the implications of the Rostov Mutiny on the wider Armenian-Russian security partnership. In exploring this topic this piece will touch upon Wagner Group’s role in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the timeline of the events that transpired in Rostov Oblast on June 23 and 24.
A Splintered Military Front
Private military contractors (PMCs) are an increasingly common component of modern militaries. These groups are privately owned and operated armed forces and are often used to guard civilian missions, commercial areas, or specific VIPs in conflict zones where a traditional military presence may not be warranted. PMCs have also been used by states as a means of pursuing interests abroad while retaining plausible deniability of their own direct involvement. Certain PMC operations in modern conflicts are not focused on security and auxiliary support roles and instead work directly in conjunction with national militaries in an active conflict. Examples of PMCs operating in modern conflicts alongside conventional militaries include Blackwater (now “Academi”) during the War in Iraq and SADAT International Defence Consultancy in the 2020 Artsakh War. To describe Wagner Group as a PMC or mercenary force may not convey the scope and scale of the group’s operations. In addition to years of activity in eastern Ukraine and several ongoing deployments in Africa and Syria, Wagner Group today represents one of the largest factions fighting on behalf of the Russian Federation as part of the “Special Military Operation” and has become an increasingly indispensable element of the wider Russian military apparatus.
Although labels like “Russian forces” are often used in coverage of the war in Ukraine, it is worth noting that the combined Russian front in Ukraine is technically composed of several smaller elements with separate command structures and limited degrees of autonomy. Ostensibly all participants in the “Special Military Operation” are under command of three figures – President Putin, Defense Minister Shoigu, and the “Commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces in the Areas of the Special Military Operation” (initially General Aleksandr Dvornikov, followed by Sergei Surovikin, and now Valery Gerasimov). Although these three individuals have the authority to issue direct commands and coordinate forces, several factions within the wider Russian order of battle receive conflicting (and occasionally competing) instructions from their own chains of command.
To better understand this divide in the wider Russian front, we should begin by looking at the militias of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) and People’s Republic of Luhansk (LNR). Since the creation of these two unrecognized governments in 2014 there has been no ambiguity over the Russian government’s intent to provide material and political support. However, despite their existence as de facto extensions of the Russian government in Ukraine, both of these unrecognized states presented themselves as retaining their own leadership and civil functions. This extended to mobilization and military organization within the DNR and LNR. Although both separatist governments received clandestine support from the Russian military, the majority of their forces were ostensibly recruited from territories directly under their control. By the middle of 2015, it was estimated that the combined militaries of the DNR and LNR totaled 42,500 troops, with 9,000 being elements of the Russian military.
The political division between the Russian government and the self-proclaimed governments of the DNR and LNR has extended to their roles in the “Special Military Operation”. Ostensibly, the militias of the DNR and LNR are under the command of the Russian military. However, there have been several instances of DNR and LNR militias exercising selective adherence to the direction of the Russian military. This has included refusals to be deployed outside of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts – or in some cases, refusals to be deployed between different separatist held areas. The militias of the DNR and LNR are also visually distinct from the other elements of the Russian military. These units are often not coherent with one another in their usage of uniforms and camouflage and are often armed with outdated, poorly maintained weapons including literal museum pieces. The legal “Russification” of these two states following their formal incorporation into the Russian Federation in the fall of 2022 has eroded much of their limited autonomy. It is believed that the militias of the DNR and LNR will be incorporated into the Russian military following their formal annexation during the summer of 2022.
The largest faction of the Special Military Operation is the Russian military itself. This group can be defined as any troops under the direct, unambiguous command of the Russian Ministry of Defense and any other paramilitary forces incorporated from other state agencies (such as OMON or SOBR police tactical units). Servicemen in the Russian military can be divided between professional contract soldiers (“kontraktniki”) and conscripts (“srotchniki”) with an additional subdivide existing between normal conscript cohorts and individuals mobilized in September 2022 (“mobiks”). Protocols within the Russian military would discourage usage of conscripts in the Battalion Tactical Group (one of the most common formations used in the Russian military) and it is illegal to deploy conscripts abroad. However, first hand accounts and investigative research have uncovered the usage of conscripts in the war in Ukraine from the opening hours of the invasion.
Although the legacy of the Second World War has left many with the impression that Russia is willing to withstand great self-inflicted losses in the pursuit of victory, the reality is that the modern Russian military is just as casualty adverse as any other military. The political organization seen among mothers of conscripted soldiers during the carnage of the Second Chechen War was enough to drastically overhaul conscription policies and lead to future deployment of conscripts to warzones being concealed or obscured. This political liability, combined with the broader downsides seen with the usage of conscription such as poor morale and evasion of service was a major motivation behind the Russian government’s gradual pivot towards professional contract soldiers. When examining Russian military activity in the war in Ukraine, we should consider that the drawn-out artillery sieges of industrial cities like Severodonetsk and Lysychansk over a period of several weeks are not necessarily a complete reflection of a sophisticated Russian artillery strategy as much as they are partially the result of hesitancy by Russian leadership to commit large amounts of manpower to urban fighting after the invasion’s momentum had stalled.
Aversion toward high-attrition engagements was one of the likely motivations behind the usage of different armed factions outside the traditional Russian military within the “Special Military Operation”. One of the most noteworthy of these factions would be the Chechen forces under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov. The forces under Kadyrov’s direct command are formally known as the 141st Special Motorized Regiment and are colloquially referred to as Kadyrovites (“Kadyrovtsy”). Although technically part of the Russian National Guard (“Rosgvardia”), Kadyrov’s forces operate as a de-facto independent military unit. After participating in the initial armed push on Kyiv in early spring of 2022, Chechen forces played a major role in the Siege of Mariupol. More specifically, Chechen units were used extensively to assault heavily defended Ukrainian positions throughout the city and its vast network of underground tunnels and industrial structures amidst ongoing Russian shelling. The city was eventually captured following extensive fighting by a final garrison of Ukrainian troops located within the basement of the Azovstal plant.
Following the capture of Mariupol and the Azovstal plant there was a precipitous drop in reports of Chechen units being deployed towards frontline positions in Ukraine. In June 2022, Kadyrov announced four new Chechen battalions (Akhmat North, East, South, and West) would be deployed in eastern Ukraine. Two additional battalions were reportedly deployed – yet visual evidence suggests these two groupings held a lower headcount than normal for battalion-strength units. It was later specified that these two battalions were sourced from local police and emergency services. Observers have suggested that in the wake of Azovstal and the ongoing reconstitution of Chechen forces, Kadyrov has not fully redeployed forces to Ukraine in anticipation of future internal conflicts in the North Caucasus. Kadyrov has since become a vocal critic of the Russian military’s management of the invasion in Ukraine, having expressed an opposition to peace talks with Ukraine and prisoner exchanges as well as being a vocal proponent of the usage of low-yield nuclear weapons in the war. In the wake of the Ukrainian counter offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall of 2022, Kadyrov directly attacked the leadership of Defense Minister Shoigu and faced no meaningful repercussions from the federal government.
Wagner Group represents the largest and most sophisticated faction of the Special Military Operation outside of the Russian military itself. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s PMC has expanded its operations from its initial support role within the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine to making regular usage of armor, aircraft, and artillery normally reserved for conventional military forces. Wagner Group forces have made regular usage of the T-90, the most modern main battle tank in regular production within the Russian military-industrial complex. The group has also made regular use of Su-24 bombers and Su-25 close air support aircraft. The expanding footprint of the group’s operations has led to competition with the Ministry of Defense over the procurement of artillery shells and other equipment – suggesting that either an authority has designated Wagner Group’s operations to be of equal importance to that of the actual Russian military, or that the group’s commercial contacts have allowed it to bypass procurement through government sources. In a video uploaded on May 5th 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened to pull Wagner Group forces out of Bakhmut unless more shells were delivered to the PMC. Prigozhin insinuated that interference from the Ministry of Defense prevented the delivery of ammunition and explicitly named this shortage as being the cause of death for several Wagner Group fighters – several of whom lay behind him covered in tarps.
In addition to ammunition and war material, Wagner Group and the Russian military have increasingly competed with one-another over recruitment and manpower. Unlike the Russian military, the entirety of Wanger Group’s forces are contract soldiers. These individuals are often veterans, prisoners, and young men who would otherwise be candidates for contract service in the Russian military. Wagner Group reportedly offers greater compensation compared to contract service within the Russian military and has built its own sense of identity and prestige parallel to traditional military service. Interviews with captured Wagner Group pilots reveal a pattern wherein middle-aged veterans of the Russian air force have been repeatedly contracted to fly dangerous close air support missions using Su-25 aircraft for a sum of $3,200 a month. The exclusive usage of professional contract soldiers means that Wagner Group does not face the challenges of morale or political liabilities seen in the Russian military’s conscript-dependent force. In addition to its main headquarters in Saint Petersburg, Wagner Group maintains regional recruitment offices throughout Russia including in the “Antares” sports club in Rostov.
Throughout the invasion of Ukraine Wagner Group has shown itself to be willing to commit copious amounts of manpower and material to costly, high-attrition battles with questionable benefit. Perhaps the most prominent examples of this would be the concluding months of the Battle of Bakhmut. In February 2023 it was estimated that Wagner Group had taken 30,000 casualties (9,000 being fatalities) in the invasion of Ukraine. By Prigozhin’s own admission this number would rise to at least 20,000 Wagner Group members killed in action in the battle of Bakhmut alone by May 2023. In addition to the city of Bakhmut, Wagner Group had committed considerable manpower to the seizure of neighboring Soledar in early 2023. Observers have hinted at the seizure of Soledar being less related to the town’s strategic importance or the commercial value of its mines and moreso Wagner Group’s willingness to erode Ukrainian manpower reserves by committing large amounts of forces to the grinding, high-attrition fighting seen in the city. Prigozhin was also quick to announce the “heroic capture” of Soledar as being the work of Wagner Group. Analysts have also suggested that the Russian Ministry of Defense is willing to let Wagner Group commit itself to costly, high attrition battles as an alternative to using normal Russian troops. In addition to these high-attrition deployments, Wagner Group has also come to be associated with particularly eggregious examples of torture and rules of engagement violations, included repeated usage of sledgehammers as a means of execution in Ukraine and abroad.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s initial frustrations with the Russian Ministry of Defense grew more acute and vocal throughout the invasion of Ukraine. Like Kadyrov, Prigozhin has labeled the Russian leadership as being feckless and overly willing to abandon territories gained during the opening months of the conflict. Although Prigozhin’s criticisms of Putin are often indirect and utilize euphemisms, no subtleties have been reserved for recurring targets Shoigu and Gerasimov.
The Events of Rostov
On June 23, 2023 at 8:09 pm Moscow time footage circulated on Telegram depicting Wagner Group forces in Donetsk allegedly coming under fire from the Russian military. In a audio clip posted to the now-deleted VK Page of Concord Management and Consulting (a company which operates as the legal front of Wagner Group) and Wagner-affiliated telegram pages, Prigozhin claimed “huge amounts” of Wagner Group forces were killed following an artillery barrage from the Russian military. This was followed by a call to arms directed at the Russian public and a claim that 25,000 Wagner Group fighters were willing to “resolve the situation”. The Russian Ministry of Defense was quick to deny the situation claiming that Prigozhin’s statements did not reflect reality. Prigozhin clarified that his call to arms was not a coup but rather a “march for justice”. By 10:30pm Moscow time reports had circulated of heightened alert within the FSB and Russian National Guard with separatist figure Igor Strelkov writing “the coup has begun”. Text-only Telegram posts alleged gunfights had started between Russian troops and Wagner Group members fighting near Bakhmut and Interior Ministry troops had been deployed to Wagner positions in Belgorod Oblast. Prigozhin alleged that Russian Defense Minister Shoygu not only personally gave the order to fire on Wagner Group, but had fled his office in Rostov afterwards.
“Fortress” contingency plans were soon activated in the cities of Moscow and Rostov. Telegram users describe Russian security forces providing no resistance as a column of Wagner Group forces moved towards Novocherkaassk while Prigozhin personally thanked the pilots that disobeyed orders to fire on Wagner forces traveling in Russia. Just over an hour later at 3:45 AM local time Prigozhin announced that a helicopter was downed by Wagner AA systems after it had fired upon a column of civilian vehicles. By 4:30 AM local time videos of Wagner forces arriving in Rostov appeared on telegram. With the morning light came the first evidence of armed exchanges between Wagner Group and the Russian military. Smoldering remains of several helicopters were photographed near Rostov. Additionally, the fuselage of an Il-22 aerial command post was recovered. The governor of Ivanovo oblast confirmed the death of all airmen aboard the plane. If the list of crew killed in the downing of the Il-22 circulated on Telegram is true, then the loss of the aircraft also meant the loss of several experienced, high ranking airmen. Russian losses during the Rostov mutiny are currently believed to be 29 airmen across six helicopters (one Ka-52 attack helicopter, one Mi-25 assault helicopter, and four Mi-8 transport helicopters) and the aforementioned Il-22. By 5:15 AM local time Wagner Group forces had surrounded the Ministry of Internal Affairs building in Rostov with additional columns traveling along the M4 highway to Voronezh. Wagner Group would continue to meet minimal resistance as its forces spread throughout southern Russia on the morning of June 24th.
Although the events in Rostov were initially perceived as a spontaneous act following weeks and months of increased tension between Wagner and the Russian military, details have emerged that suggest Prigozhin’s mutiny was planned out in advance. Metadata pulled from Prigozhin’s audio messages suggested that they were not recorded in real time throughout the mutiny but were instead recorded hours prior. Relatives of Wagner Group members reportedly received farewell calls in the days leading up to the mutiny. A source within Wagner Group claims that the organization had been stockpiling ammunition for at least two months and that the earlier claims of shell-shortages near Bakhmut were largely exaggerated. Hours before the mutiny on the morning of June 23rd, a pro-Wagner military and sporting goods store in Novocherkassk announced that a rally would be held in support of Wagner Group on the following day without any prior context.
Lukashenko’s Intervention, Putin’s Ultimatum
The mutiny’s resolution came with the announcement of a brokered agreement between Belarusian president Lukashenko and elements of the Russian Federal Government. The Belarusian government claims that Prigozhin accepted an agreement to “stop the movement of Wagner Forces through Russia and take steps to deescalate the situation”. Although the specific details of Lukashenko’s proposal have not been made public, it is possible that part of this agreement was nullification of terrorism charges levied by the FSB during the mutiny. It is possible that the removal of Defense Minister Shoigu and General Gerasimov from power was included among Prigozhin’s demands in ending the mutiny. As of July 14th Sergey Shoigu remains Minister of Defense.
Following the announcement of Lukashenko’s brokered end to the mutiny, President Putin delivered a brief national address on the events of Rostov. Three options were given to Wager Group members: sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, relocate to Belarus, or “go home”. An emergency meeting was held afterward with the Russian Ministry of Defense, FSB, and Russian National Guard. It should be noted that the location and whereabouts of Prigozhin himself were unknown during this period and only later would evidence emerge of Minsk being his current location.
The implications of Putin’s ultimatum remain unclear. Would Wagner Group retain its structure and simply have its leadership transferred to the Ministry of Defense, or would all individual members be required to sign military contracts for regular military service? Would individual units and formations be reconstituted? Would “Wagner Group” as a distinct entity even exist anymore? Lavrov was quick to comment that the group’s activities in Africa would continue but conflicting reports emerged on whether or not the group’s headquarters and recruitment centers are still allowed to operate. It’s also unclear how much autonomy the Belarusian government would be willing to extend to the group as Wagner Group members were previously arrested by the Belarusian KGB on June 30th 2020 on suspicion of planning to “Destabilize” the country prior to the 2020 election and were only released following intervention from the Russian government. Individual military volunteer units in eastern Ukraine have signaled their support for Wagner Group. This includes the semi-independent neo-nazi “Rusich” unit. Would these groups be extended the same amnesty as whatever will be applied to Wagner Group? As alluded to above, a persisting question in the wake of Lukashenko’s brokered agreement was whether or not Wagner Group’s actions would have an impact on the command structure of the Russian military. At the time of this writing, rumors still persist over whether or not Sergey Shoigu would remain in his current position as Minister of Defense. Additionally, some have alleged that General Surovikin has been arrested due to his supposed collaboration with the Wagner Group during the Rostov mutiny. There has been no confirmation of this by the Ministry of Defense nor the Ministry of Internal affairs.
The Rostov Mutiny’s Implications for Armenian-Russian Security Cooperation
With a full understanding of Wagner Group’s function within the wider Russian war effort and the events of the Rostov mutiny, we can begin to infer how the events of June 23rd and 24th will impact the Armenian-Russian security partnership in the near future. First and foremost, we should recognize that the Russian government allowed Wagner Group to become indispensable to its efforts in the War in Ukraine yet failed to mitigate the internal threat posed by the group and its leadership. Wagner Group was able to gather the material, manpower, and organizational ability to plan and execute an armed insurrection in Southern Russia without interference from the FSB, downed seven aircraft, and seized the headquarters of the Southern military district. If nothing else, this should raise serious doubts on Russia’s ability to accurately forecast threats and leverage its intelligence network.
Additionally, we should consider how much of a division exists within the Russian military and government and how this has eroded discipline within its state functions. Prigozhin’s columns of vehicles and tanks were allowed to travel unobstructed to Rostov, Voronezh, Lipitsk, and nearly to Moscow Oblast. In addition to facing effectively zero resistance from the Russian National Guard during this advance, Yevgeny Prigozhin was able to continuously upload voice messages and commentary to his VK page throughout the mutiny with zero intervention from Russia’s state censor authority Roskomnadzor. This displays either an inability or unwillingness of the state apparatus to act effectively.
Russia’s security partnership with Armenia involves three different elements of the Russian government and military. The FSB has jurisdiction over the two terrestrial crossings and Zvartnots International Airport, troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs patrol the western frontier, and forces from the Ministry of Defense are stationed at Gyumri and Erebuni. What if the divisions currently seen within the Russian military and wider Russian government impact its deployments abroad? What if in this new, deteriorated security environment, the FSB or Ministry of Internal Affairs comes into a power struggle with the Ministry of Defense? What if changes in the leadership of any of these three organizations leads to mutinies in the lower ranks? While the chances of this are admittedly very small, after the downing of multiple aircraft and death of 29 airmen this is no longer a matter of political fantasy or palace intrigue but rather a possibility. If nothing else, we should consider that a man led a mutiny against the Russian military and faced minimal repercussions amidst a costly and unpopular war – what will this do to the morale of the garrison in Gyumri?
The end of the mutiny only came following intervention from Alexander Lukashenko who claims to have made an “emotional, explicit laden phone call” directly to Prigozhin himself. What does this say about the power dynamic between Russia and Belarus? Although the notion of Belarus being a “junior partner” is a misrepresentation of the dynamic between both states, it’s doubtful that analysts and observers ever considered the possibility of Belarusian political intervention in defense of Russia in a time of crisis. Is this the same Russia that is expected to act as a meaningful provider of security guarantees? We have already seen the Belarusian government’s willingness to prioritize its own bilateral relationships with other authoritarian states rather than adhere to the written statutes of an organization like the CSTO – in this strong-man calculus, what role does Armenia play with a politically inert Russia?
In the simplest terms, we should consider that a state which has constantly framed itself as an authoritarian, illiberal government with realist foreign policy orientations has failed to deter an internal armed mutiny and or utilize its own security apparatus. Who is deterred by Russia after the Rostov mutiny? Would any of the neighboring authoritarian, illiberal states bordering Armenia seriously consider the possibility of Moscow coming to Yerevan’s aid after providing zero resistance to an armed insurrection inside Russian territory? What does it mean to project power and influence in the South Caucasus if the headquarters of the military district that operates as the nerve center for Russian activity in the region has come under armed occupation? More importantly, why would anyone assume Russia is willing to actualize the collective defense elements of the CSTO or the 1997 bilateral treaty when it seems increasingly apparent that Moscow is unable to do so? This is not to suggest that the right course of action would have been the complete annihilation of the Wagner Group or that a stricter, more extreme authoritarian government is needed as a security partner, but rather that the events in Rostov are downstream of a deeper dysfunction within the Russian military since the invasion of Ukraine that has unquestionably eroded Moscow’s security posturing in the South Caucasus.
Parallel to this, the other centers of the “multivector foreign policy” had retained or expanded their influence. The European Union has undergone a process which could realistically be described as “militarization” since the invasion of Ukraine with the union directly supplying arms and ammunition to Kyiv while expanding the scope of the Common Security and Defense Policy. The EU has survived the complete shutoff of Russian energy and emerged with the same — if not greater — sense of political unity than was seen during the summer and fall of 2022. When we expand our focus outward to the centers of the “multipolar world”, has Russia meaningfully elaborated any of these relationships? None of the other members of BRICS have committed meaningful political or material support to Russia’s war in Ukraine or risk their individual bilateral relations with the European Union or United States. Russia’s disconnect from SWIFT remains a major barrier to international trade and despite numerous protocols for trading directly in national currencies, few states have actually put this process into action. Even nominal political allies of Russia like Egypt and Serbia have provided minimal, tacit political support to Moscow while directly supplying ammunition to the Ukrainian military. In a reversal of an earlier claim regarding the statehood of former Soviet republics, China’s ambassador to the European Union responded “I don’t see why not” when asked about restoring Ukraine’s 1991 international borders. These developments have all come over a year and a half into a war which has included the loss of two capital cities of Ukrainian oblasts after their formal annexation by Russia. Amid all these developments, the importance of a sclerotic Russia among the emerging economies of the world and the enduring partners of Armenia should be considered.
In navigating the aftermath of the Rostov mutiny, several possible contingency plans lay ahead for Armenian decision makers as highlighted by Dr. Kopalyan’s security assessment. What is undoubtable, however, is that the events of Rostov are indicative of a deeper dysfunction within Russia’s military that is unlikely to be mended in the near future. With this in mind, perhaps it is time that Yerevan either minimize the hard limits of cooperation and integration with outside partners brought about by CSTO membership, or consider a new partner for bilateral security altogether.
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EVN Security Report
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Examining the Context
EVN Report’s Editor-in-Chief Maria Titizian speaks with Dr. Nerses Kopalyan, author of the monthly EVN Security Report, about the necessity of scenario and contingency planning to prepare courses of actions and outcomes to address unexpected situations and mitigate significant impact to Armenia due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and its effect upon Russia’s domestic political order.