We do not know if Vladimir Putin has watched the video of the ecstatic welcome that the Wagner mercenary boss Evgeny Prigozhin received at the start and end of his 24-hour mutiny. Putin does not use a smartphone, but if his aides have shown him the video of the mutineer’s reception in Rostov-on-Don, it would surely remind him of one of the seminal events of his life: the terror he experienced as a mid-level KGB operative in Dresden when crowds of angry East Germans besieged his office as the Communist state tottered towards collapse.
Even if Putin remains unaware of events in the southern city, it is certain that Kremlin insiders and the elites who have become rich and powerful under his rule will not ignore it. Public opinion counts for little in Russia. But the message from Rostov – the logistical and command hub for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – seems to be that the Russian people want a strong leader, have little affection for Putin, and would gladly acclaim a new president.
There is no clear route for the removal of a sitting Russian president. In 1964, the Soviet Communist Party’s highest authority, the Politburo, voted Nikita Khrushchev out of power on the grounds that his “hare-brained schemes” had made him unfit to lead. By any standard, Putin’s ill-planned, poorly implemented, and totally unnecessary invasion of Ukraine is as hare-brained as anything Khrushchev ever did.
Talk of ending Putin’s 23 years in power – even in the absence of a politburo to vote him out – brings to mind a previous coup attempt, in 1991 when the Soviet military and the KGB plotted to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev. We do not know exactly what Prigozhin’s goals were — and perhaps he didn’t know himself — but the failure of his march on Moscow was no surprise. Russia has no recent tradition of successful military coups, and 1991 (which in some ways was equally baffling) was a spectacular failure that revealed the exhaustion and hollowness of the Soviet regime.
I vividly recall that the military was so tardy in dispatching its tanks to central Moscow that they got snarled up in the rush-hour traffic. Young men clambered onto the armored vehicles, unraveled their steel towropes, and hitched the vehicles together, leaving them hog-tied in the middle of the road. The KGB performed even worse. They failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, the opposition leader, allowing him to climb on top of a tank, face down the putschists, outmaneuver Gorbachev, and lead the way to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
There is no clear sign yet that Prigozhin’s mutiny heralds the imminent collapse of the Putin regime. But undeniably it has revealed the hollowness of his popular support and the weakness of the state’s security services at a time when private armies — of which Wagner was the most powerful — are springing up around Russia. Putin’s propaganda has always portrayed him as a man of action whose enemies at home and abroad live in fear of assassination. The brief mutiny has revealed a different aspect of his character – his tendency to procrastinate (and unlike Yeltsin, to disappear at critical moments.)
Prigozhin’s mutation from a close associate of the president to a mutineer had been clear for several weeks. With the Russian army seemingly incapable of making progress against the Ukrainian forces, the more mobile Wagner soldiers were used as an assault force to take the town of Bakhmut, a symbolic prize. Thousands of Wagner troops were chewed up in the meat grinder that the Ukrainians had set up for them in Bakhmut. Prigozhin began to issue emotional tirades against the incompetent army leadership recklessly spilling so much Russian blood. Soon he was clamoring for the removal, and then the death of the Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the army Chief of Staff, General Valery Gerasimov.
But the army had had enough of Wagner and its shouty leader. The defense ministry decreed on June 10 that all Wagner soldiers should be enrolled in the regular army by July 1, effectively liquidating Prigozhin’s mercenary force in Russia. The demand was supported by Putin, but the mercenary leader and former convict toured the Russian provinces, adopting full opposition as he was greeted as a hero for exposing the failures of the army leadership and the corruption of the ruling elite.
Having withdrawn his forces from Bakhmut he mounted a lighting assault on Rostov, where the army offered no resistance. At the local army headquarters, senior generals invited him in, unsure whether he was an envoy of the president, a provocateur sent to test their loyalty, or their future commander. The video of their exchanges encapsulates the murkiness of Putin’s rule – personal connections and corrupt networks trump state institutions.
When, in a clear display of mutiny, Prigozhin ordered an armored column to head for Moscow, the Russian people showed their traditional passivity in the face of perplexing Kremlin intrigues. No crowds cheered the convoy, and no military units defected en masse. Everyone was waiting to see who would emerge victorious. Churchill once compared Kremlin intrigues to “a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”
After weeks of seeming lassitude, Putin finally growled, delivering a televised address to denounce Prigozhin as a traitor who would be tried for stabbing the country in the back, but without mentioning his name.
Support for the president from top officials was notably slow in coming until an announcement that the Belarusian strongman, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, had stepped in to defuse the crisis and persuaded Prigozhin to turn back his convoy. The mercenary leader gave in and agreed to go into near-exile in Belarus as the price for avoiding prosecution (though no one has seen him since.)
To use Churchill’s terms, the growling is over, the gobby Prigozhin has been silenced and seems to have been thrown out, and yet it is not clear that Putin is really the winner.
It all happened so speedily that questions are being asked to what extent the whole mutiny was just theater organized by the Putin regime, or at least tolerated by elements of Putin’s support network.
There is some evidence for this. Prigozhin is a creation of Putin from his St Petersburg network. The president has a tradition of allowing Kremlin factions to quarrel, allowing him to step in and appear as the good Tsar at critical moments. There are many suggestions as to the purpose of this dangerous game: Putin let the mutiny run its course so as to flush out traitors, or Putin could only remove his over-mighty subject by giving him enough leash to prove he was a traitor.
In any case, If Putin was behind this piece of theatre, he let it run for far too long. If he needed to tolerate a full-scale mutiny to bring Prigozhin down, that is clear proof that he has lost control.
Putin has been in power for 23 years and is apparently planning to stand in March next year for another six-year term, at the end of which he will be 77. The choice of winner will not be up to the voters, but up to factions in the Kremlin who must decide if Putin will stand again and if not, who should be presented to the Russian people as a replacement. For those who have got rich under his rule, Putin is underperforming: most have become poorer under sanctions and lost their freedom to travel to Europe. The marinas of western and southern Europe are chock-a-block with the impounded yachts of billionaires The promise of being able to loot Ukraine – which Prigozhin has identified as one of the reasons for Putin’s war – is now a chimera. As the election approaches, expect more dog fights under the Kremlin carpets.
In the short term, Putin will no doubt follow the post-coup Turkish model. After the 2016 attempt to overthrow him, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan locked up all real and potential opponents and even won a narrow election victory.
But the fact remains that Russia is not the same country as it was before the mutiny. Significantly more people in Russia will be questioning what the army is doing in Ukraine. The all-out invasion was sold as a way to defend Russia against the concocted threat of a NATO-backed Ukrainian invasion of Russia.
In practice, the backwash from the invasion has made Russia less secure and its repercussions will continue at home. Putin will be hard-pressed to explain why he, and not someone new, should be president next year.
Alan Philps is the author of The Red Hotel, published in the UK by Headline and to be released in the US and Canada by Pegasus on July 4. He served as a Moscow correspondent for Reuters and the Daily Telegraph. He has been the foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph and Editor of The World Today, the Chatham House magazine.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.