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Former Wagner commander: “Putin will lose the war in disgrace”

Marat Gabidullin on the failed rebellion, Wagner’s future in Africa and Prigozhin’s political ambitions.

By Bruno Maçães

The Wagner rebellion is far from over as both a chapter in the war in Ukraine and in recent Russian history.  

As hundreds of Wagner mercenary troops marched towards Moscow on 24 June Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, gave a televised address to the nation vowing that “those behind the mutiny will pay”. Yet while several hundred Wagner fighters have finally started arriving in Belarus, where they have been sent as part of an agreement with the Kremlin, nearly a month later there are no indications that the group will be dissolved or its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, exiled. On 13 July Putin told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that he had tried to change the paramilitary group’s leadership by replacing Prigozhin with Andrey Troshev, who helped to found Wagner in 2014. Yet, for reasons that remain unclear, Putin failed in his attempt. It seems that the Wagner leader can still command the loyalty of his troops.

What we know as a matter of fact: Prigozhin has been travelling freely inside Russia, meeting the Russian president, and calmly making plans about the future. A Russian television network reported on 12 July that companies with known links to the Wagner Group have been awarded over 1 billion rubles (£8.4m) in government contracts in the weeks since the rebellion. Over the weekend of 15 July a Wagner-affiliated account on the social messaging platform Telegram published a photo showing the arrival of new Wagner soldiers in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, adding that they would ensure the country’s security before a constitutional referendum on 30 July. Active in the country since 2018, Wagner has supported the government against rebels, while seeking to acquire control over the CAR’s rich mineral deposits. And on 19 July Prigozhin reappeared on video, addressing his fighters in Belarus in a clip posted online, saying that Wagner was gathering its strength and opening “new paths in Africa”. “We may return to Ukraine when we are not forced to disgrace ourselves there,” he added. 

In my account of the rebellion, published in these pages in June, just days after Prigozhin called off his march on Moscow, I argued that it signalled a new moment in the history of the Putin regime. The vertical of power had crumbled, exposed as incapable of executing an increasingly unpopular and unwinnable war. The exact nature of what is happening within the regime remains mysterious, but the initial impression of a crumbling state has been confirmed by recent developments. If anything, the Kremlin turned out to be even more timid and powerless in its response to Wagner than I first anticipated. What happened, instead, is that new foci of discontent have now come to the fore. The most notable was an audio message recorded by Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army – one of Russia’s elite military forces in Ukraine – accusing Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, and Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, of “treacherously and vilely decapitating the army at the most tense and difficult moment” by failing to provide the army with the necessary equipment. It was an echo of Prigozhin’s earlier attacks on the military leadership. The message, apparently intended only for his men, was leaked online on 12 July. In it, Popov explains he was dismissed from his post on the orders of Shoigu after criticising the army leadership.

To help make sense of these events I spoke with Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander. He joined the private military company in 2015, fighting first in eastern Ukraine and later in Syria. Gabidullin was directly involved in the dramatic Battle of Conoco Fields in February 2018 where Wagner mercenaries were killed by American forces in Syria while attempting to seize a natural gas plant. It was the first deadly clash between American and Russian forces since the Cold War, as reaper drones, F-22 stealth jets, B-52 bombers and Apache helicopter gunships took out the Wagner troops and Syrian recruits led by Gabidullin.

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That battle marked the beginning of the rift between Prigozhin and the army’s leadership, as Shoigu and Gerasimov refused to accept responsibility for the outcome; the leadership in Moscow preferred to deny the involvement of Russian forces. For Wagner, it was a betrayal, particularly as there were private communications between Washington and the Russian army beforehand, with the latter reportedly reassuring the Americans that no Russian soldiers were present at Conoco.

Gabidullin also worked closely with Prigozhin at Wagner’s Saint Petersburg headquarters in 2017, where for months they met more or less daily and where Gabidullin performed functions under the cryptic title of “adviser on tactical affairs”. When I asked him to describe Prigozhin, Gabidullin spoke of a brutal and violent man, an “admirer of totalitarian political systems”, but also someone with unusual intellectual abilities, including a taste for “big ideas” in politics. When I pressed him in a later conversation on what he thinks Prigozhin’s future political plans might be, he expressed his doubts that someone with his former leader’s ambition can stay out of Russian politics.

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When Gabidullin quit Wagner, in 2019, Prigozhin declared him a “personal enemy”, something Gabidullin regards as “practically a compliment”. He has recently finished a short book of reflections on Russia and on his years at Wagner with the title My Truth, where he expresses his opposition to the war in Ukraine. So far it has been published only in France, where he now lives. I spoke to Gabidullin via video link about why the rebellion failed, why he left Wagner and what lies ahead for Prigozhin.

[See also: It is naïve the think that Vladimir Putin’s fall is imminent]

Bruno Maçães: Events in the wake of the stalled rebellion are confusing. As it was unfolding Putin called the Wagner leadership traitors but he has since met with Prigozhin, who now seems to travel freely in Russia. Can you help us understand what is happening?

Marat Gabidullin: Actually Putin never called his name, did he? It was never said directly in a sentence that “Prigozhin” or “Wagner” are traitors. The paradox is the paradox of Russia itself. It should not be surprising to people. More seriously, Prigozhin is a very valuable asset for Putin. The situation is that if the Kremlin, hypothetically, wanted to eliminate the Wagner Group, by doing so they would only harm themselves. 

BM: Is Putin afraid of Wagner? 

MG: You know, I think at the moment even Putin, with all his cockroaches in his head, understands that he will not win this war. [But] the presence of such a formation as the Wagner Group will help him to not lose this war in disgrace. To not lose it on an absolute, catastrophic scale, with a shameful defeat.

BM: Why did Prigozhin do it – the rebellion, the so-called march for justice? He has apparently told people he went crazy, but at the same time there were preparations weeks before that suggest this was planned.

MG: The march was definitely a planned event but it was planned not in the form that happened in the end. Of course he did not go crazy! Prigozhin sometimes can be overly confident. This is due to his ego. A good example of this happened in 2018 in the Conoco Fields. Knowing him it is all quite predictable.

BM: What was the original plan? 

MG: It became more violent than planned in his head. He was not planning to change the regime. In Russia you cannot have a military coup. The objective was not a military coup but to ask Putin to choose between him and Shoigu. The turning point was when he realised that trying to get rid of Shoigu meant he had to overthrow Putin, which he did not plan to do. But it was not possible to get rid of Shoigu alone.

BM: So the plan failed? 

MG: In that sense yes. Shoigu is still in place. 

BM: Will Wagner survive? 

MG: Both sides are co-dependent. Putin cannot eliminate Wagner and Wagner cannot eliminate Putin. So it will stay as it is. It will survive and do what it is doing right now.

BM: Let me ask you about Major General Popov. He echoed Prigozhin’s criticisms and views, so it seems those views are widespread inside the army itself. 

MG: Absolutely, this is widespread. Everyone inside the army knows about the losses, the lack of capacities. Everyone has known this since the beginning, but Prigozhin was the first one to speak up, to finally describe things in an objective way. Everyone supports the view, but not everyone has the courage to express it. The military knows that Prigozhin is right, but they adapt to the situation. Popov, until recently, was one of the beneficiaries of the system. When he was removed, for whatever reason – maybe he was drunk and insulted Gerasimov – then he turned into a loser and began criticising. It is common in the Russian army that people support one view, then another, then another. People who do not know the Russian system think the army has a unified view. The army is a variety of people, with many internal conflicts [that are] always changing. People do not wait for orders, so there is complete chaos. In the Russian system you cannot find military leaders like De Gaulle or Eisenhower.

[See also: What realists get wrong about Ukraine’s counteroffensive]

BM: Not Gerasimov? 

MG: Gerasimov is an empty place. 

BM: Who takes the place of the empty place? 

MG: Most of the orders come from Shoigu. 

BM: Can you tell me what happened to General Sergey Surovikin, former commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine? He seems to have disappeared as he has not been seen in public for weeks. Did he support Prigozhin? 

MG: I don’t know where he is. Maybe he was isolated as an alleged friend of Prigozhin. He supported Prigozhin only until he, Surovikin, needed to take a risk with his career and future.

BM: What is the future of Wagner in Africa? 

MG: It would be insane, irrational to get rid of Wagner in Africa. Only when Putin and his people become completely crazy – maybe then they will remove it. Wagner will stay in Africa. Many foreign countries are hoping Wagner will leave, maybe that is where the question comes from. Even the United Nations would have a big problem if Wagner disappeared. If Wagner is not in the Central African Republic, there will be another civil war there. And it will be very difficult for the United Nations to justify why they again could not do anything to prevent this war. 

BM: Why did you leave Wagner?

MG: In a mercenary army, you get an order, you have to follow an order. You just follow an order to kill people. For example, to fight against the terrorists of the Islamic State was one thing. But to fight against Ukraine is not only a crime against Ukraine but it is bad for Russia as well. But if I had stayed, then again, according to the instructions, I should have participated in this war. Then I would have had to leave, only a little later than I did. But I would have had to leave anyway. 

BM: Does Prigozhin have a political future? Or will he write a book like you did? 

MG: He won’t calm down. He will continue to be active in both business and the development of other projects – including political ones.

[See also: The broker of Belarus]