Russian propaganda looking for an explanation for the Wagner mercenary revolt

Private military company (PMC) Wagner Group servicemen prepare to leave downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, 24 June 2023
© EPA-EFE/ARKADY BUDNITSKY   |   Private military company (PMC) Wagner Group servicemen prepare to leave downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, 24 June 2023

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At first, Wagner group’s revolt confused the representatives of the Kremlin propaganda– officials, politicians, journalists, analysts, etc. – who found themselves in a position where they could no longer promote the old narratives about Russia and the Putin regime. Therefore, the first attempts to fit the revolt launched by the leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, into the ideological schemes of Russian propaganda were quite unsuccessful: messages were contradicting, and rumors started dominating the information space.

Over the course of three days, Prigozhin’s image underwent radical transformations. First, the leader of the Wagner group was called a nuclear terrorist and traitor, then he was described as a patriot manipulated by the West. There were even rumors of a secret deal between Putin and Prigozhin, as a result of which the latter would have agreed to fake the uprising in order to prepare new operations - for example, an assault on Kyiv from Belarus.

One goal of the narratives, especially with the immediate danger removed, was to convince that, despite the evidence showing an unprecedented weakness of the Putin regime, the regime was in fact as strong as ever. Pardoning Prigozhin is a clear reference to the myth of the "good emperor", the last step before returning to the usual propaganda narratives.

Narrative transformations in Moscow: from alarmist theses on a nuclear disaster caused by Wagner to a secret plan to attack Kyiv

In the first phase of the launch of the rebellion, the Russians were not offered any explanation that would fit into the theses commonly used by propaganda, which since Vladimir Putin came to power has sought to create an image of him as a force, the powerful leader that also empowers Russia, unchallenged from within the system (the opposition is irrelevant because the people want Putin) and invincible, both externally and internally.

In the midst of the Wagner march,  Dmitri Medvedev, vice-president of Russia’s Security Council, stated that the Kremlin had to stop the uprising of the Wagner troops because the entire world would be faced with a disaster if Russian nuclear weapons fell into the hands of Yevgeny Prigozhin .

The leader of the Wagner group was presented as a dangerous person for the security of Russia and of the entire world.

Dmitri Medvedev’s alarmist message was spread by the Russian state media with the aim of strengthening public support for the authorities and discredit Prigozhin both domestically and at international level. It is very unlikely that the Wagner group would’ve wanted to get their hands on nuclear weapons, in the context of Prigozhin's exclusive claims to the leadership of the Ministry of Defense.

The day after Prigozhin gave up his march, the Russian press wrote about the scenario of the Wagner group storming Kyiv, citing a British reserve general. The Tsargrad publication wrote that Russia handled itself admirably during the crisis caused by the rebellion of the Wagner group and now the West was fearing an attack on Kyiv by the mercenary group. The Wagner group would represent a serious issue for the Ukrainian defense, and the redeployment of the group to Belarus would be an unpleasant surprise for Ukraine, the story went.

This media narrative, which developed the statement of a British general, was shared by most news agencies close to the Kremlin, giving Russian readers another perspective on the rebellion launched by Prigozhin. The weakness of the Putin regime was presented as a strategic step, aimed to mislead the enemy.

In reality, the Wagner group would not pose serious problems for the Ukrainian defense, taking into account the shameful withdrawal from the Kyiv region of the Russian regular army last spring.

Moreover, Kyiv got prepared for the scenario of the resumption of the Russian offensive against the capital,  being supported in this regard by the West. The Wagner group failed to score a decisive victory, despite the huge loss of human life;  on the contrary, after Wagner announced the capture of the town and retreated, the Ukrainian forces, far from being defeated, launched a series of offensive operations on the flanks that have continued to this day and could lead to the encirclement of the Russian units stationed in the town, which is almost completely destroyed.

Exonerating Prigozhin in Russia’s public space: a patriot manipulated by the West

Prigozhin's refusal to continue the rebellion was explained by, a news portal owned by the state media trust Russia Today, as just him wanting to avoid harsh legal consequences. The leader of the Wagner group is shown as a person who has been manipulated by Russia's enemies. "I didn't think everything would end so quickly," admits columnist Rostislav Ishchenko, adding that  Prigozhin was manipulated  by "foreign forces, some Russian politicians and some people from his entourage."

According to the Russian publication, Yevgeny Prigozhin thought he was the main organizer of the march to Moscow, but it was not so. Kyiv, Warsaw and Washington were accused of manipulating Prigozhin's entourage, noting that on the day the rebellion was started, the Armed Forces of Ukraine were very active on the battlefield.

In Prigozhin’s case, Russia’s laws must be interpreted differently

The director of the state media trust Russia Today, Margarita Simonian, probably the most important representative of Kremlin propaganda, had to explain both on her Telegram channel and on various television stations that the closure of the criminal case against Prigozhin    is in line with Russia’s informal legal norms.  She stated that the laws of Russia are not like the Testament of Jesus Christ. That is why some laws can be ignored in situations when the interests of the citizens must be defended and stability in the state ensured. Margarita Simonian's explanation was intended to calm spirits in Russia and block some criticism of the idea that Prigozhin’s case was closed so fast as a result of a political decision.

While on June 25 the Russian press wrote that the leader of the Wagner group was afraid of the legal consequences of his actions and the strict legislation of the Russian state, on the morning of June 26, Simonian explained that the laws of Russia can be ignored or negotiated when it comes to citizens’ legitimate interests. In the case of Yevgeni Prigozhin, Russian laws must be interpreted differently because he is a patriot of his country.

Putin has once again saved Russia, and the West understood that Moscow cannot be defeated

After the speech on June 26, during which Vladimir Putin thanked the Russians and claimed that Ukraine and Western countries were behind the head of the paramilitary group, repeating a press narrative that had appeared the day before in Moscow, the narrative of the Kremlin leader as, once again, the savior of the Russian people started being built.

According to Russian political scientist Anton Orlov,  Director of the Institute for the Study of Current Political Issues, the Wagner case is evidence that  the West cannot defeat Russia from the outside  . The rebellion was orchestrated by the West to divide Russia from within, and Vladimir Putin's actions once again saved the Russian people.

Russia's invincibility has become an axiom in the West, according to the Russian expert, quoted by the publication "It was important for Putin to convey to the West that this phase is over, and that Russia and its multinational people have successfully overcome this external challenge," Orlov said. The publication also reads that, thanks to Putin, Russian society has become much more united in the face of the existential danger represented by Kyiv and the West.

The myth of the Good Emperor and Russia's return to classical war propaganda

Building official narratives around the myth of the good emperor, who forgave his subjects manipulated by the "forces of evil", the Kremlin offered all mercenaries in the Wagner group the opportunity to join the regular army, to die for the benefit of the country. At the same time, Yevgeni Prigozhin was forgiven for falling into the trap of external manipulation.

Yevgeni Prigozhin’'s capitulation was presented as a victory for Putin, and not as a defeat for the Wagner Group. Like a good emperor, Putin loves his people and defends them from Nazi Kyiv, encouraged by the West. This latest narrative development has marked Russia's return to the classic patterns of war propaganda that we have come to know quite well over the last 16 months of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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Marin Gherman

Marin Gherman

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