A weekend of chaos in Russia has left Russians, and the world, with more questions than answers.
With shocking ease and the stated aim of ousting Russia’s defense minister, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner troops swept into Rostov on Saturday and seized the military headquarters there.
Then they continued to move hundreds of miles north on a march to Moscow – meeting little resistance and only words of warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Then as quickly as it happened, it seemed to be over. A deal was reached and the march was stopped without a word from the key players. In short remarks, Putin said that the rebellion’s leaders “miscalculated” and were determined to divide the country and for “Russian soldiers to kill each other, for soldiers and civilians alike to die, so that Russia ultimately loses.”
On Saturday, the paramilitary rebellion reportedly took control of the city of Rostov-on-Don and Prigozhin said that the insurrection was on its way to Moscow. But then he abruptly announced that they were turning back, with the Kremlin’s spokesman later telling reporters that Prigozhin would go to Belarus and a criminal case against him would be dropped. Prigozhin said in a Telegram post on Monday that the intent was not to overthrow the government but to protest the handling of the Ukraine invasion.
Put another way, and borrowing from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: Western intelligence parties have a number of “known unknowns” about Putin, what comes after him, and the future of a vast former empire that stretches over 11 time zones. With nukes and oil both in play, not to mention strategic considerations about Russia’s geopolitical power vis a vis China and India, there was a whole lot of Monday-morning discussion of Washington’s blind spots when it comes to its rival after being given the first tangible evidence that the invasion of Ukraine may not be as popular as once argued inside the Kremlin.
But there’s also this corollary: a damaged leader can survive this style of challenge. The power of incumbency is one that has few rivals. Being commander in chief of Russia’s military complex—and the world’s largest reserve of nuclear weapons—comes with an advantage. And the open secret is that it may not be in the West’s interest to have Putin ousted.
A leadership vacuum in Russia could easily turn into a quagmire in the region, transitioning a stable and consistently vexing autocratic state into something approaching chaos. At the White House and State Department on Monday, spokesmen doubled-down on the standing assertion that the United States has no position in choosing Russia’s leaders.
Putin himself brought up 1917 as an analogy. Bad idea putting himself in the place of Tsar Nicholas II but apt: Nicholas II presided over an unsuccessful war, incompetently led. So is Putin. The Russian state by 1917 was huge but hollow. The burden is now on Putin to show that Putinism means something other than chaos and a failing war, weakness clear to Russians and to Putin’s friends and foes in the wider world. That’s a challenge Putin may have trouble meeting.
Especially striking about this whole incident are three things. First, the ease with which Wagnerites were able to seize a major Russian city (Rostov-on-Don) and their subsequent rapid progress to within 200 km of Moscow indicates they may well have been picking up followers from regular Russian military units as they went. That would explain, second, Putin’s speech to the Russian people where he seemed to be preparing the country for civil war more than assuring his fellow citizens that this was just a mutiny by a ragtag bunch of mercenaries. He seemed genuinely frightened. This undermines the narrative of Putin the all-powerful both at home and abroad — an image he has cultivated carefully through his control of the Russian media. But it doesn’t provide evidence of a serious undermining of his authority. Third, the entire rebellion ended with Prigozhin going into exile in Belarus, a Russian vassal state, rather than to a labor camp in Siberia and his mercenaries going back to barracks. Why? We still don’t know what exactly he was promised but given that we know Putin doesn’t easily forgive and forget those whom he considers traitors (recall the poisoning of former KGB spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K. a few years ago, for example), Prigozhin likely is not sleeping well in Minsk.
This whole incident, however, is a reminder that Putin is powerful, but not infallible. The war in Ukraine is causing division among his clients and he lost control of one temporarily. The other lesson is that Putin has demonstrated that he fears internal dissent and rebellion more than he fears NATO and purported “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine.
Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter that Putin was delivering a mixed message.
“Putin’s message tonight to the Wagner mercenaries was EXACTLY what Prigozhin was trying to say a few days ago to the Russian conventional soldiers. ‘You guys are good. Your commanders are bad.’”
McFaul added, “When Putin doubled down tonight on labeling Wagner commanders as traitors, did he mean Progozhin as well? How could he not? Yet, he also said Wagner soldiers could go to Belarus with their commander?”
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