Perspectives: History shows when Russia’s strong hand loses its grip, turmoil follows
The final chapter of the Prigozhinshchina remains to be written.
It was Russia that first implemented the concept of “hybrid” warfare, a blend of traditional aggression mixed with cyber tricks, disinformation and political skullduggery. Now, Russia has given the world the hybrid coup attempt, a traditional armed uprising blended with social media-driven political theater, featuring profanity-laced airings of grievances, accusations of betrayal and unfulfilled vows of revenge.
With the dust settling from the June 23-24 spectacle, it’s clear the show is not yet ready for the main stage. What started out as a compelling drama quickly descended into an absurd display that soiled the reputations of all the leading players.
Coups attempts - whether successful or not – usually provide clarity. Either the incumbent is ousted, or the plot fizzles, the challenged leader is emboldened, and the conspirators suffer the usual consequences. Neither happened during last weekend’s events, a hastily conceived and haphazardly executed mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, impresario of the band of mercenaries known as the Wagner Group.
Rather than fomenting clarity, Prigozhin’s hybrid coup succeeded only in muddling Russia’s future. It did not end with a dénouement, but with a political punt in which both sides somehow loose.
Violent, misguided and destructive episodes in Russian history are often denoted with the suffix “shchina,” and indelibly associated with their protagonists. Thus, a term for the Great Terror of 1937-38 is the Yezhovshchina, named after Stalin’s NKVD boss who oversaw mass arrests and executions. In this manner, it is apt to label the events surrounding the June 23-24 uprising as the Prigozhinshchina.
There are lots of unanswered questions about the Prigozhinshchina. Let’s start with the protagonist: Prigozhin has been offered sanctuary in Belarus, but what are the terms of his exile? He’s still a billionaire, with money likely stashed in various offshore accounts, and Wagner has troops not only in Ukraine, but beyond the Russian government’s immediate reach in Africa. How much mischief will Prigozhin be able to make? Will he continue to be a social-media agitator? How much influence will he continue to wield over the Wagner Group?
Initial indicators have been contradictory. In an audio released June 26, his first public statement since abandoning his advance on Moscow, Prigozhin dialed down his rhetoric, claiming he never aimed to topple Putin’s regime, describing Wagner’s actions as “a demonstration of protest.” At the same time, the Kremlin has dropped treason charge against him, and at least some Wagner mercenaries will be allowed to set up a new base of operations in Belarus. This implies that Prigozhin is certainly weakened and may remain comparatively docile over the short-term, but he retains an ability to make noise down the road.
Some American pundits have joked that Prigozhin should avoid standing on balconies or near open windows, citing a curious trend in which those who have somehow fallen out of favor with authorities in Russia and the rest of Eurasia have mysteriously fallen to their deaths. But it’s really Putin who needs to watch his own back.
One likely result of the Prigozhinshchina is that it has blown up the top-down system built by Putin, exposing the Kremlin kingpin as weak, even cowardly. Recent history has proven unforgiving to Kremlin leaders who have wielded anything less than total control over the governing structure, just ask Nikita Khrushchev or Mikhail Gorbachev.
In sharp contrast to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who defiantly remained in the Russian White House and resisted a coup attempt in August 1991, Putin disappeared from sight last weekend and reportedly fled the capital for a more secure location. Whether true or not, the mere perception that Putin abandoned the capital undermines respect for his authority.
The sequence of events during Prigozhin’s 36-hour adventure also raises questions about the loyalty of the Russian military and security structures to Putin. Recall that hours after Prigozhin initiated the mutiny on June 23, the Russian Federal Security Service called for the Wagner chief’s arrest and announced the opening of a criminal investigation against him. But that was pretty much the last anyone saw or heard from the FSB as events played out. The FSB has a legion of well-trained troops at its disposal, but the security services made no discernable move to confront, or detain the Wagner warlord. Until it halted on its own, the Wagner column on the M-4 highway was making steady, largely unhindered progress toward the capital.
The mutiny also exposed weakness within the Russian military. A verified video released by Prigozhin amid the uprising showed that that the deputies of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Military Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov acted submissively in a high-stakes discussion with the Wagner chief. The military also offered little resistance to Wagner mercenaries as they occupied the southern city of Rostov, then started convoying toward Moscow.
One can only wonder how many FSB and military officers were obeying Kremlin orders during the crisis. Putin, after all, took to the airwaves, calling Prigozhin a traitorous back-stabber and vowing to annihilate him. But all that occurred after he made those threats was Wagner shootdowns of a few military attack helicopters and an observation plane. Putin clearly had trouble mustering a force capable of crushing the rebellion before it reached Moscow. Large segments of the army and FSB appeared to be sitting on the sidelines during the brewing confrontation.
Perhaps the clearest sign of weakness for Putin is that he had to summon Chechen fighters to defend the capital, according to the Turkish state broadcaster TRT World. He apparently couldn’t depend on the FSB and military to do the job. The Chechen contingent led by Ramzan Kadyrov could be the lone armed element in Russia that Putin can fully trust anymore.
The unappealing prospect of a gunfight between Wagner troops and Chechen fighters may well have prompted the out-of-left-field ending to the uprising, with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko acting as mediator. If the bullets had started to fly, it could easily have precipitated a blood feud for the ages with unpredictable consequences not only for the Kremlin, but for the Russian Federation. No one in Moscow wanted to see that.
Putin re-emerged on June 26 wounded, yet defiant. He resumed ranting against Prigozhin’s “blackmail,” while trying to pretend as if nothing had happened. He attempted to recast his inability to carry out his threats to destroy Prigozhin as a show of restraint, a noble decision to avoid spilling Russian blood. Such reasoning, though, is at odds with Putin’s past behavior toward his enemies, and with the Russian strategy in Ukraine, which does not seem to place much value on the lives of Russian troops. It seems likely Putin would have killed Prigozhin if he could have. And there is also no way he would have gone into political debt to Lukashenko or Kadyrov to salvage the situation unless he was desperate. Agreeing to a compromise ending was deeply humiliating for Putin.
Putin in his June 26 televised address asked Russians to remain “united” around his regime. The trouble is Russians can’t unsee what happened over last weekend. Putin’s popularity has long rested on his “strong-hand” image. That image has been shattered, and it will be tough, if not impossible, for Putin to put the pieces back together again. He’s violated the cardinal rule of Russia’s political coda: strongmen don’t compromise, they dictate.
All of this is not necessarily good news for Ukraine. In the immediate future, a weakened Putin and/or a weakened Russian military could very well ratchet up the destruction in Ukraine in a misguided attempt to regain lost stature. And any potential Ukrainian breakthrough in its ongoing offensive now might be more likely to draw a nuclear response than before the Prigozhinshchina. A weakened Russia is a highly dangerous Russia.
Ultimately, it’s too early to label Prigozhin’s rebellion a failed coup. It still may end up precipitating Putin’s downfall. It already has severely undermined Russia’s power structure, which depends on a leader in firm control at the top. Without that, it’s historically been a matter of time before incumbent exits the stage. Gorbachev survived the coup against his leadership in August 1991, but he was gone by the end of the year. The same type of fate could await Putin in the medium term, depending on if the various interest groups maneuvering behind the scenes can agree on a new power-sharing arrangement.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.