Wagner Uprising Is Reckoning for Putin’s Rule

Press service of “Concord”/Handout via REUTERS
Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks inside the headquarters of the Russian southern army military command center, which is taken under control of Wagner PMC, according to him, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia in this still image taken from a video released June 24, 2023.

Vladimir Putin faced the gravest challenge to his presidency after the system he has presided over for the last 23 years buckled this weekend under the pressure of the war he launched in Ukraine and, for a moment, devolved into armed conflict inside Russia.

The march on Moscow by an irate onetime ally, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, accompanied by a convoy of armed members of his private Wagner mercenary group, was a reckoning for a presidency that till now has thrived on Putin’s ability to divide and rule by pitting rival groups against each other and serving as the ultimate arbiter among feuding elites.

Although eventually aborted, Prigozhin’s insurrection exposed the deep weaknesses inside Putin’s rule, raising the specter of civil war and, for several hours on Saturday, appearing to pose a threat to Putin’s position itself. After more than two decades of autocratic rule, Putin’s hubris has repeatedly clouded his judgment – both in invading Ukraine and in misjudging whether Prigozhin could pose a threat – and allowed a months-long standoff between the Wagner chief and the Russian military leadership to spiral this weekend into armed rebellion.

“Recently, Putin has been making mistake after mistake, and Prigozhin could become for him a critical mistake,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s onetime richest man who became a leading exiled opposition figure after Putin jailed him for ten years. “When you are in power for twenty years and everyone tells you what a genius you are, who knows what happens to your consciousness.”

The current crisis, however it ends, will ultimately further weaken Putin’s regime, Khodorkovsky said.

For weeks, members of the Russian elite had been watching open-mouthed as Prigozhin launched volley after volley of abuse at the Russian military’s command, accusing it of incompetence, corruption and throwing away the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers in Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

Putin had seemed to accept – and even approve – the confrontation, as long as Prigozhin remained loyal to Putin himself and channeled his growing dissatisfaction over the course of the war from within the “patriotic camp,” analysts noted. But Prigozhin’s open rebellion demanding the ouster of Russia’s military leadership on Friday sent Putin’s rule into uncharted territory.

Prigozhin “took a more serious role than Putin saw,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R-Politik, a political consultancy firm. “He didn’t understand that people now live through social media, the internet. He didn’t understand that Prigozhin has scale now.”

Other observers said the uprising was “a symptom of a deep sickness” within the Russian state brought on by Putin’s messianic mission to capture what he believes are Russia’s historical lands in Ukraine. To achieve his aims, the Russian president has jettisoned any remnants of the rule of law.

Particularly destabilizing had been Putin’s decision to allow the rapid growth of private mercenary groups, such as Wagner, to ease the pressure on the armed forces, and to allow prisoners to be freed to fight on Russia’s behalf.

“The state has not been able to control its own functions. It outsourced the use of force, and more than this, it has allowed its own laws to be broken,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He added that this “is a conscious loss of the state’s monopoly on the use of force.” Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, he said, “is the collapse of the institutions of state.”

The Russian elite has been growing uneasy about the war in Ukraine and about the Wagner Group’s growing role ever since Putin invaded Ukraine in February last year and failed to swiftly oust Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government as hoped. After Putin partly mobilized the Russian population after Moscow’s shock retreat from Kharkiv last autumn, Konstantin Remchukov, a well-connected editor of Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, warned in an interview with the BBC that the emergence of private military groups could devolve into civil war.

“Different factions within the government,” he said, “will fight for the power [to rule] because evidently the competition between clans will increase . . . because they have a lot of weapons now. Even criminals have weapons . . . Everybody has weapons.”

One senior member of Russian diplomatic circles, who remains in contact with members of the Russian government, said that Prigozhin’s increasingly vocal criticism over the conduct of the war had nevertheless resonated with parts of the elite and reflected a growing divide over Putin’s war. He pointed in particular to the Wagner leader’s outburst on Friday in which, for the first time, he dismissed Putin’s main pretext for going to war, declaring that Russia faced no extraordinary security threat from Ukraine or NATO, and said Russian military officials had tricked Putin into going to war.

“For a long time, there have been different approaches [among the elite] to the conduct of the military operation and to how the economy should be managed and the political situation,” said this member of Russian diplomatic circles, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Prigozhin didn’t say anything principally new, but now these disagreements have broken out into the open and unfortunately matters have reached the stage of open conflict.”

A recent sign that tension was mounting within the Russian elite was the public declaration earlier this month by an influential Russian MP – Konstantin Zatulin, close to senior members of Russia’s FSB security agency – that Moscow had failed to achieve any of its war aims and that many of them had become “senseless.”

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant known for his hawkish views, said Prigozhin’s insurrection represented “a colossal shock and failure” for the Russian president. “For Putin, it was a failure that the special military operation collapsed. It was a failure that the West totally and firmly joined this war, and now it is a total failure that the most battle-ready part of the Russian armed forces turned against him, and the Russian authorities,” Markov said.

Putin, he said, “now has three wars. War in Ukraine. War with the West. And now a war domestically.”

Markov blamed the uprising on a recent government decree that all “volunteer formations,” including the Wagner Group, sign a contract with the Defense Ministry by July 1. Prigozhin had balked at that order. “If everyone had signed the contracts, then the Wagner Group would become the subordinates of the Defense Minister, and Prigozhin would lose Wagner within two months,” Markov said.

Other observers said they thought it unlikely the situation would have escalated into civil war. “This is purely a settling of scores between different clans,” said a Russian billionaire, also speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Civil war is always a reflection of deep social contradictions between different segments of society. This is just one boss against the other.”

Carnegie’s Kolesnikov said that Prigozhin’s relatively free movement across Russia – despite a warrant for his arrest for inciting the armed insurrection – reflected the fear and apathy of local officials rather than active support for Prigozhin. Local officials “do not want to die when it’s not clear what for. This is more cowardice than anything else.” Kolesnikov said there remains support for Putin “but it is automatic and mechanical, because he’s the boss.”