Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion and march towards Moscow are the culmination of the tension that started building up at the beginning of May between the Wagner paramilitary group (henceforth Wagner) and the high command of the Russian armed forces. What happened on the night of 23-24 June raises three questions: (1) what were the real motives, goals and results of Prigozhin’s rebellion; (2) how will these events influence Vladimir Putin’s future?; and (3) how will they impact the war in Ukraine?
(1) What were the motives, goals and results of Prigozhin’s rebellion?
The tensions between Prigozhin and the military leadership came to light when the Wagner leader appeared in a video, surrounded by the dead bodies of his men, and accused the Russian army’s high command and in particular the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, of being corrupt and incompetent, starving him of munitions and lying to the Russian people, inventing successes on the battlefield, where things were going from bad to worse. Since then, hostilities grew steadily worse, finally exploding in open rebellion by Wagner, which left its quarters in Ukraine and embarked on a march towards Moscow, first seizing the Russian army’s headquarters in Rostov without a shot being fired. These actions were interpreted as the start of a political revolution, but if Prigozhin’s goal was to overthrow Putin’s government, he failed abjectly. Rather than a coup d’etat it has been a mere mutiny, a temper tantrum, limited and localised, against the established order. Its failure was a consequence of a lack of support among the political elites and the economic oligarchy, as well as from a civilian population that was ill-disposed to endorsing a revolution led by a mercenary. This is to say nothing of the weakened opposition to the regime, which has perceived the conflict as the outcome of a rivalry between Praetorians and mercenaries fuelled by Vladimir Putin himself.
The pathetic unravelling –Prigozhin fleeing to Belarus and the tacit pardon the despot in the Kremlin granted him after accusing him of treachery and promising exemplary punishment– reveals, as well as the dark personal relationship between Putin and Prigozhin, the weakness of the Russian President’s domestic political position, and how enmity between military and paramilitary leaders is starting to threaten the regime’s existence.
The strong relationship between Putin and Prigozhin is proved by the fact that the latter was the personal chef to the former, a position of the utmost trust given most tyrants’ paranoid fear of being poisoned. Putin’s grandfather was chef to Lenin and Stalin, as the Russian President has boasted on several occasions. But his culinary confidence does not explain why Putin has put up with Prigozhin’s misdemeanours. He has done so because he needs him to retain power.
Wagner’s pre-eminence is the consequence of a long history of Russian and Soviet dependency on the armed forces dating back to the Stalin era. The Russian people learned about the existence of Wagner in 2015, because of its activities in Ukraine, but it was probably created earlier, as it had intervened in Syria. Wagner has always depended on four agencies: the military Main Intelligence Directorate (known as the GRU), the armed forces, the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB, now the FSB) and Putin himself. Since coming to power, Putin has encouraged rivalry between the state security bodies, as well as between the oligarchs and the political elites, in order to present himself as the only arbiter of all conflict. Until now, Putin, the GRU and the FSB have supported Prigozhin, while the military leadership have been opposed to the former chef since the invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin’s mutiny reflects the fact that all mutual support has disappeared and that Wagner will cease to be an instrument enabling Putin to control the power and influence of the military. But Wagner is not the only paramilitary group close to power. The difference between Wagner and the others is Prigozhin’s refusal to subordinate himself to the armed forces –unlike, for instance, the Potok group (financed by Gazprom) or the Chechens of Ramzan Kadyrov, who are loyal both to Putin and to the Russian army–.
The strangest aspect of the unravelling of the mutiny is Putin’s pardon (because up until now he has never forgiven betrayal) and Prigozhin’s apparent exile to Belarus. Aleksander Lukashenko’s mediation to avoid the ‘spilling of Russian blood’ has a clear purpose: to become Prigozhin’s new master. Both the Belarussian opposition to Lukashenko’s regime, and Lukashenko himself, know that his dictatorship depends exclusively on Putin. Having Prigozhin in Belarus suggests employing Wagner in the work that the group has already undertaken in Sudan, Burkina Faso and Mali, at the request of the governments of these countries, to secure effective results in eliminating insurrectionist armed groups and political opposition. Prigozhin seems to have changed his boss, but only apparently, because Putin needs Lukashenko’s support in his war against Ukraine, just as he needs his dictatorship, which every day is coming under more scrutiny from the opposition. Wagner is not going to disappear: it will continue operating in Africa and the Middle East (financed by regional governments) and getting rich from the mining industry contracts (gold and diamonds, above all) that it has secured thanks to the Kremlin. Those who remain in Ukraine will come under the command of the Russian army.
(2) How will these events influence Vladimir Putin’s government?
In his address, which lasted slightly more than five minutes, Vladimir Putin alluded to the 1917 Russian Revolution, which reflects his self-image as a tsar who is betrayed and falls victim to overthrow attempts, his fear of a palace coup (hence the order to liquidate Wagner and its leader) and the weakness of his domestic political position, but it above all reflects his despondency and defeatism. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive were to succeed, Putin would blame his defeat on betrayal, just as Tsar Nicholas II did during the Great War, referring to the coup d’etat of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and the latter’s signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which Russia capitulated to Germany, Bulgaria and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, ceding Finland, the Baltic states, half of Poland, Moldavia and Ukraine. If the Russian army manages to contain the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Vladimir Putin will use this episode in next year’s election campaign and present himself, as he has done in previous campaigns, as the saviour of Russia.
Despite the weakness of the Putin regime, it is not clear that it is going to collapse in the short term. Until now, Putinism has survived all domestic opposition, because in personality-based authoritarian regimes, where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual rather than being shared by political elites, military juntas or families, the leader is rarely ejected from his post by war, even when defeated, because the elites are weak, divided and dependent for everything on their links to power. History shows, however, that repressive regimes such as Putin’s often see themselves as more stable than they are, although unstable regimes too can last for a significant length of time. The former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, survived hyperinflation and electoral defeat, remaining in power until two years before his death. The Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains in charge, despite the fact that the Venezuelan economy has utterly collapsed. Similarly, leaders who appear strong can be suddenly overthrown, as in the case of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in the same year.
Putin has taken a great risk by attacking Ukraine and there is a possibility, although no clear signs, that the rebellion could mark the beginning of the end. The Wagner mutiny has seriously damaged his aura of mediator between power factions. It may be that the fall of Putin is not imminent, but his grasp on power is certainly weaker than it was before the invasion of Ukraine and Prigozhin’s mutiny. The image of a stable system no longer exists and the Russian elites will withdraw their support from the President if they conclude he no longer represents their interests and cannot protect them.
Putin’s probable strategy for hanging onto power will be to ratchet up the repression even more.
(3) How do these events influence the war in Ukraine?
Prigozhin’s mutiny is not going to influence the war in Ukraine directly, because there was a transfer of power to the Russian army in the areas that Prigozhin conquered. Wagner had already withdrawn from Ukrainian operations. Moreover, and most importantly, Wagner is an offensive force that no longer forms part of the Kremlin’s strategy, because the Russian army is focused on its defensive strategy against the Ukrainian counteroffensive. There is thus no rupture between the soldiers at the front. It may, however, have an impact on the soldiers’ morale and make the Ukrainians’ task easier.
Vladimir Putin has become his own hostage because he has lost the role of mediator between divided elites and rivals and between the security forces, but above all because the failure of his criminal policy in Ukraine is being transferred to Russian soil. Prigozhin’s mutiny reveals weaknesses in the system of personal power and the corruption of elites, although Russia has operated in this way for centuries. As shown by the mutiny, the key to political change in Russia lies with the people, who did not want to support a mercenary leader and for whom, for now, Putin seems to be the lesser evil.
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