“Good morning, my name is Prigozhin, my armed colleagues, and I am taking control here now.” This, or something similar, would have been heard on the morning of June 24 at the headquarters of Russia’s war against Ukraine in Rostov-on-Don.
Prigozhin and his armed mercenaries strolled into Russia’s main war HQ without anyone even trying to stop them. The Wagner boss was filmed talking condescendingly to a deputy defense minister and other generals, and eventually sent his troops toward Moscow, realizing that his arch-enemy, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, did not plan to confront him.
By now, if not before, everyone in Russia and the entire world was looking spellbound at the Wagner mercenary revolt and wondering, “What the hell is this?” Nobody stopped the “orchestra”, nobody defended Mother Russia, and nobody resolutely threw himself into the breach for Vladimir Putin. On the contrary, they all kept their heads down, turned off their cell phones, crawled under their office desks, and appeared ready to cheer on a new regime if it had the power to prevail.
Putin finally broke the momentum of the March on Moscow with a mysterious “deal”. However, it remains unclear how the situation is to be permanently resolved. Vladimir Vladimirovich has nevertheless thanked all the authorities, the churches and the citizenry for their support, and has handed out medals. He then nipped down to Dagestan in the North Caucasus, where he was shown amid smiling crowds, and thus glides smoothly from his frightened “1917” civil war speech into a summer tour kicking off his election campaign for 2024.
Believe it if you wish, but the Putin facade is hollow these days.
And yet. In the West, the prevailing perception of Putin remains that he is a brilliant strategist firmly holding the reins of power. And in the opinion of many, Putin is actually displaying restraint in his war of aggression against Ukraine. But once he really gets going, once the hand tied behind his bank is released, things will get really bad. So, for God’s sake, just don’t escalate.
Putin scares us. Because if Putin is “backed into a corner”, he will drop a nuclear bomb or simply detonate the huge Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. And even if he doesn’t, we live in fear that someone even worse will seize power, and thus gain control of Russia’s large nuclear arsenal. The balance in our Russia policy is always weighed down by fear.
Yet, the brief Wagner revolt shows us that Putin respects strength and yields to it. That has actually been clear for a while, for those paying attention. The supposedly brilliant strategist is a shrewd tactician and opportunist, but on key strategic issues, he is blind. He has armed legions of felons taken directly from the brutal penal system without it seems considering the possibility of revolt.
Under the historically illiterate illusion that Ukrainians are Russians, he has waged a war of aggression that he cannot win because Ukrainians are not Russians, and because they are defending their homeland and identity with their entire society, and are dragging their Western partners along with them. Putin has brought about historic unity in the West, strengthened the European Union and NATO, and ensured its rearmament, the very opposite of the divisions he sought to widen.
The Wagner boss Prigozhin has now exposed Putin’s purported reasons for war as cynical lies and demonstrated to all the world live on TV that Putin’s power rests on feet of clay. The mercenary boss has forced Putin to admit weakness to the point of losing face, and yet Putin dealt with him almost as an equal, certainly as a threat.
A forceful corollary flows from this. It is now time to finally support Ukraine with the full and considerable force of the united West and without the dreary self-deterring litany of excuses, either that Putin “escalates” or is toppled.
Many Western leaders say that Putin’s overthrow is not in our interest. To begin with, we should acknowledge how little Western behavior influences events in Russia — the Wagner revolt shows us just how little understanding and influence we have.
The one thing we can influence is Ukraine’s successful fight for national survival. It’s also possible that Putin’s clear defeat may open opportunities for positive change and the abandonment of imperial ambitions. Any non-Putin Russian leader would immediately have the chance to end the war and withdraw Russian troops. That may not seem likely, but then nor did an uprising of a convict militia armed by the Russian state.
Those who are afraid cannot think clearly. Those who are not afraid — of Putin or of any non-Putin — can now see one thing with absolute clarity: we need a Russia policy, not a Putin policy.
Nico Lange was Chief of the Executive Staff of the Federal Ministry of Defense until January 2022. Prior to that, Lange served in Ukraine and Russia. email@example.com
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.