President Putin has emerged strengthened from whatever it was exactly that may or may not have happened in Russia this weekend; strengthened, that is, compared to his situation of ten days ago – which is not saying a great deal. For months now, the open public dispute between Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, and the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry had escalated to the point where Putin’s inability or unwillingness to end it was undermining his authority.
Three weeks ago, Prigozhin began to extend his criticism from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to the regime and the elites in general; and, although he was careful not to attack Putin himself, the implications of his remarks were clear enough. Prigozhin’s attacks were so damaging to the regime both because of the prestige that Wagner amassed in Russia as a result of its fighting record in Ukraine, and because his criticisms have been essentially true.
Not only did Shoigu and Gerasimov plan and conduct the invasion of Ukraine with monstrous incompetence, recklessness and indifference to civilian deaths and suffering, but since they have both held their present positions since 2012, they bear direct personal responsibility for the logistical chaos, lack of coordination, and generally lamentable condition of the Russian armed forces. Equally true have been Prigozhin’s attacks on elite corruption, the evasion of taxes and military service by the rich, and finally – and most strikingly of all – the lies about Ukraine told by the regime (and above all by Putin himself) to justify the invasion.
Prigozhin’s abortive rebellion this weekend seems likely to have been what is called in German a Flucht nach vorn – an “escape forwards,” driven not by considered hope of success but fear of the alternatives and the existing situation. Prigozhin had good reason to fear that unless he acted first, Shoigu and Gerasimov would use the vastly superior power of the Russian armed forces to destroy him; or perhaps just to have him assassinated, something that is always easier on a battlefield. Above all, the precipitating factor may have been Putin’s announcement on June 14 that Wagner was to be brought under the full control of the Defense Ministry. This indicated that Putin was finally coming off the fence and siding with Shoigu and Gerasimov against Prigozhin.
Given the extent to which Wagner is outnumbered and outgunned by the Russian military, Prigozhin had only two (overlapping) chances of success: that enough of the Russian regular army itself would mutiny and join Wagner, and that Putin’s own nerve would crack and that he would surrender to Prigozhin’s demands or even resign. Neither occurred.
From the point of view of Russian military loyalties, a key moment came Saturday when General Sergei Surovikin condemned the rebellion and called on Russian soldiers to resist it and Wagner fighters to return to their duty:
“The enemy is eagerly awaiting a worsening of our internal disputes. In these difficult times for our country, you must not play into the hands of our enemies. Before it is too late, it is urgently necessary to obey the orders of the elected President of the Russian Federation.”
This was important both because of Surovikin’s personal stature as the former commander in Syria and the only really successful Russian general in Ukraine; and because in remarks three weeks ago, Prigozhin had called for him to be appointed to replace Gerasimov. Prigozhin must have assumed that Surovikin’s removal as commander-in-chief in Ukraine by Shoigu and Gerasimov in January would have inclined him to support Wagner (to which he was believed to have been close since his time as commander in Syria). Once he refused, it was very unlikely that any other Russian generals would do so.
As to Putin, his nerve seems as strong as ever. If his address on Saturday condemning the rebellion as treason lacked the rhetorical and moral force of de Gaulle’s in response to the coup of French generals in Algeria in April 1961, it was still sufficiently tough and resolute to show his determination to remain in power, rally the doubtful, and re-establish a measure of personal authority:
"We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history," he said.
However, the background (and perhaps also the solution) to the Wagner revolt have displayed some key features of Putin’s approach to the exercise of power. By training and instinct he is a secret serviceman, not a soldier. His preference has always been when possible to opt for ruthless but indirect, semi-covert and quasi-deniable methods over direct military force. Hence his hesitation to invade Ukraine, something long urged on him by hardliners within his regime. Hence, too, his sponsorship of Wagner, which as a “private military company” could pursue Russian goals in the Donbas, Syria and Africa while allowing the Russian government to maintain official distance from its actions.
Secondly, while Putin is regarded in the West and is presented in his own domestic propaganda as an absolutist autocrat, he has in fact often functioned more like the chairman of a squabbling collection of state oligarchs. He has even encouraged their feuds as part of a strategy of “divide and rule,” and he has only stepped in to resolve them – in this case, very belatedly – when they have risked breaking out in public and threatening his own authority. Putin has also been a master in the distribution of state patronage, making sure that as long as they remain loyal to him, the losers in intra-regime disputes have still been compensated with considerable wealth.
Can this regime and this form of government continue? Everything still depends on what happens on the battlefield in Ukraine. If the Russians can hold their present line, Putin’s rule will most probably survive. Another major defeat would probably finish it. Concerning his personal authority, an early question will be whether having suppressed Prigozhin, Putin can now act to replace Shoigu and Gerasimov, as so many Russian soldiers would wish – or whether he is still inextricably bound to these and other cronies (of whom Prigozhin was previously one), irrespective of their manifest failures and crimes. For a key factor in the disastrous decision to invade Ukraine and the general decline of the Putin regime’s competence has been his increasing tendency to surround himself with an ever-smaller group of close associates and rely exclusively on them for advice.
Finally, the Wagner revolt, however brief and unsuccessful, will inevitably renew speculation about whether Putin’s prestige has been so badly damaged that he will decide not to stand again for president in the elections due (according to the constitution) early next year, and instead hand over to a chosen successor (as President Yeltsin handed over to him in 1999). However, while the revolt has been a bad blow to Putin, it may also have underlined once again his vital personal importance to the political system that he has created – which could lead his associates in that system to beg him to stay on, for fear that without him they would be incapable of peacefully mediating their own rivalries.
For if Putin was instrumental in the rise of Wagner to the point that it became a menace to the Russian state, it also seems likely that only he could have brought the Wagner revolt to an end quickly and without bloodshed and possible civil war. At the start of the Cold War, George Kennan wrote presciently that if Communist Party authority faltered, “Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.” It is possible to wonder whether that may be true today of Putin’s authority, however diminished.