When mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led his rebels in a short-lived mutiny, many observers focused on how it would challenge the Kremlin politically – few looked at how the episode and the reaction of the Russian authorities undermine the country’s legal system.
On June 24, 2023, as the Wagner Group looked set to march on Moscow, the Russian Federal Security Bureau officially announced the opening of an investigation under Article 279 of the Criminal Code, which prosecutes armed mutiny.
The crime is a particularly grave one under the Russian Criminal Code, punishable by imprisonment ranging from 12 to 20 years.
Yet just a few hours after being opened, the case was closed. As a result of negotiations, Prigozhin ended the march some 200 kilometers (124 miles) short of Moscow. In return, the investigation into the rebels’ actions was dropped, and Prigozhin himself was granted passage to Belarus. The criminal case was officially dropped on June 27 in an announcement by the Federal Security Bureau.
Russia has long lost its status as a state governed by the rule of law. Since the invasion of Ukraine, it has been accused of massive human rights violations and the systematic repression of human rights defenders and opposition activists.
Nonetheless, the dropping of the criminal case against Prigozhin and his mercenaries is unprecedented – especially given the perceived threat to the Russian state, the destruction of military equipment and the deaths of some 15 Russian troops. As someone who has been involved in the Russian legal system for more than 12 years, as an attorney and a scholar of law, it is the first time I have heard of the dismissal of a criminal case involving such a massive violation of the law. It also runs counter to the experience of others in Russia who have been imprisoned for many years for expressing anti-war sentiment in public.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has increasingly employed repressive legal practices under the guise of protecting national security. Indeed, Putin at first tried to use the weight of the Russian legal system to pressure the Wagner Group to abandon its march on Moscow. The Russian president promised that all those responsible would be punished and referred to their actions as “treason.”
Since “treason” under the Russian Criminal Code refers to those defecting to an enemy, such a charge was not applicable. Instead, criminal proceedings were opened under the article on armed mutiny. Nonetheless, Putin initially sent a clear signal that Prigozhin’s actions were seen not only as a very serious crime that would be treated as such but as “a deadly threat” to Russian statehood and the nation.
The failure to carry through with such rhetoric undermines Putin’s long-cultivated image as someone who refuses to negotiate with criminals when given an ultimatum. It is, to my knowledge, the first public example of Putin breaking his own rule against negotiating with those who challenge his regime. Such a policy has been Putin’s default ever since he came to power. Then, with the backdrop of war in Chechnya, Russia faced a large number of terrorist attacks. Rather than negotiate, Putin would pursue a policy of destroying those attacking the Russian state – even at the heavy cost of hostages’ lives. That image of a man who will not negotiate has now been shattered.
‘Erosion of the legal system’
But the damage goes beyond denting Putin’s reputation – it also undermines Russia’s legal system itself. As St. Petersburg municipal council member Nikita Yuferev noted in the aftermath of the episode, the dropping of the criminal case represents the “gradual erosion of the legal system” in Russia.
In terms of Russian law, the Federal Security Bureau has presented nothing in the way of sound legal justification for dropping the criminal case against Prigozhin or the Wagner Group. It could have dismissed the case if the acts committed by the Wagner Group were not deemed to be mutinous or if the people involved in organizing and participating in it had died.
But in dropping the criminal case, the bureau merely offered that the rebels had “ceased their actions aimed at committing a crime.” From a legal standpoint, this looks extremely unconvincing. The Wagner Group seized several cities, including the headquarters of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces, and killed several Russian military personnel by the time it announced the end of its march on Moscow.
That the Russian authorities have so far failed to come up with any legal justification for dropping the case marks a departure from past precedent. As a rule, Putin has sought to shroud his actions in at least quasi-legal reasoning.
Take, for example, Russia’s annexation of the eastern territories of Ukraine. In order to give the annexation the appearance of legality, authorities organized referendums in the occupied territories and presented the annexation as being the result of the free expression of will. Recent rulings by Russia’s Constitutional Court against people who criticize Russian aggression against Ukraine, along with legislation on “foreign agents,” also provide evidence of how Putin uses quasi-legal tools for political ends.
Indeed, the whole Wagner Group episode, from its deployment in Ukraine to its leader’s negotiated exile, recalls the “wild 1990s” in Russia, a post-Soviet decade in which politics and organized crime went hand in hand.
Under the Russian Criminal Code, being part of a mercenary group is a crime. So too is the financing and other material support of mercenaries, punishable by imprisonment for up to 18 years. The state is prohibited from funding mercenary activities – something that raises legal questions over the financing of Prigozhin’s private army in Ukraine in the first place.
Laws not written in stone
The treatment of Prigozhin also contrasts with the experience and the use of law against other Russians. While Prigozhin avoided charges despite directly challenging the Russian state – and decrying Moscow’s military progress in Ukraine – many others have been imprisoned for simply speaking out against the conflict.
In the opening days of the February 2022 invasion, it became a criminal offense in Russia to spread “false information” or “discredit” the Russian army. The vaguely worded law has made possible the large-scale political persecution of Russian citizens with anti-war views. Since then, the state has initiated more than 150 criminal cases under the article on spreading “fake news” about the Russian army, 89 criminal cases on “discrediting” the Russian army and 7,182 administrative cases.
The idea that the rule of law can be used for political ends – be it to finance a private army, dismiss charges against such groups or used to suppress anti-war sentiment – is something that has been actively promoted by some Russian propagandists. For example, the editor in chief of state-controlled broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyan, said of the decision to drop charges in regard to the Prigozhin armed mutiny: “Legal norms are not the commandments of Christ or the tablets of Moses.” In other words, if necessary they can be ignored.
This public dismissal of law as the main regulator of social relations, and its replacement by agreements to settle criminal disputes, indicates a new stage of degradation of the Russian legal system. I fear it will give Russian authorities even more discretion and will entail a new round of repression inside the country.
Maxim Krupskiy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.