Russian President Vladimir Putin survived an armed insurrection by a mercenary warlord he empowered, dodging the biggest threat to his power in 23 years but with his authority badly damaged and his ability to unite his feuding warfighters in doubt.
The call for armed rebellion by Wagner Group militia leader Yevgeny Prigozhin lasted less than 24 hours before he announced in a video that the armored column thundering toward Moscow had been ordered to turn back to field camps for the Ukraine war.
Prigozhin’s drive toward the Russian capital — in his words a “march for justice” with unspecified intentions — reached to within 120 miles of Moscow before the surprise announcement late Saturday that a retreat had been brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
Putin had vowed in the first hours of what he called “armed mutiny” to severely punish those behind it. In a televised address, Putin denounced Prigozhin’s call to arms as a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal” without once uttering the name Prigozhin, a former convict and long-time ally of Putin whose decades-long collaboration enriched both men.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov announced that Putin had agreed to drop the criminal investigation of Prigozhin ordered overnight and not to seek charges against Wagner fighters who joined their boss’s rebellion. Peskov said Putin made those concessions in favor of “the higher goal” of avoiding Russian-against-Russian bloodshed and “internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”
There was little expectation that the clash exposing instability and strife in the Russian security apparatus has been resolved. The terms of the agreement to avert what could be a brewing civil war in Russia require Prigozhin to move to Belarus and have his mercenaries return to the war in Ukraine, presumably under the command of Russian Defense Ministry forces.
Prigozhin for months had been railing against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of incompetence in prosecuting the Ukraine war. He also claimed in recent days that Russian regular forces had attacked Wagner fighters on the Ukraine battlefields.
Shoigu retaliated with an order for all Russians fighting in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1, a move aimed at severing Prigozhin from his hardened soldiers that likely triggered the Wagner chief’s decision to take the fight to Moscow.
The TASS news agency, in its account of the agreement to halt the insurrection, said Prigozhin had been “sent” to live in Belarus while his soldiers of fortune would return to their bases to continue fighting Russia’s war in Ukraine. Unless the rebellious mercenary chief is jailed, incapacitated or killed, his compliance with the cessation terms seemed unlikely. Nor are many of the Wagner fighters likely to sign on under the maligned Russian defense chief if they have other options. Many of Wagner’s estimated 25,000 mercenaries are prisoners released to fight for Russia in Ukraine who were promised release from their sentences if they survived six months.
Details of the negotiations allegedly handled by Lukashenko are vague and the extent of damage to Putin’s control of the Russian government and Ukraine war strategy not yet clear.
Prigozhin claimed to have led his paid soldiers out of Ukraine battlefields to seize Russia’s Southern Division army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don “without a single gunshot,” and that no one was killed during the more than 500 miles the armored column moved toward Moscow. It appears that no local troops or national guardsmen based in southern Russia were deployed or inspired to try to stop Prigozhin’s armored column as it plowed northwest from Rostov-on-Don toward Moscow.
Foreign policy analysts who flooded social media and cable news programs all day Saturday deemed the purported mediation of the Belarussian dictator a face-saving move by Putin to avoid giving Prigozhin equal status in crafting a deal to end the first “armed mutiny” against the Kremlin in three decades.
Political, military and intelligence analysts weighing in on the consequences of the one-day revolution were largely in agreement that both Putin and Prigozhin were damaged by the volatile face-off.
“I don’t think this is over by any way, shape or form,” Steven L Hall, a retired senior CIA intelligence official with 30 years’ experience, mostly in the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe.
Hall, in an interview with CNN, said Prigozhin had to have had the clandestine support of some of the siloviki — Russian for the “power ministers” in charge of security, military intelligence and police forces. There are also known to be generals and other senior officers in the Defense Ministry who share the Wagner chief’s contempt for the way the war in Ukraine has been conducted under Shoigu and Gerasimov, the latter in supreme command of the invasion force though not known to have stepped foot in the besieged neighboring country since the war started 16 months ago.
“Taking over a military garrison is not something you do unless you have some tacit support inside the Kremlin,” Hall said.
“Anything can happen in Russia suddenly and quickly. I have experience with this,” former Soviet and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev wrote on Twitter, his reference to experience alluding to the August 1991 coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. “Don’t buy Putin or Prigozhin. They might try to eat or/and embrace each other, being cynical opportunists and gangsters. The US should stay cool. And double military aid” to Ukraine.
Ian Bremmer, political scientist and president of the Eurasia Center that conducts political risk research and consulting in the former East bloc, posted on Twitter that “two big things have changed in the last 24 hours: 1) Putin in a much more vulnerable position. 2) Russia’s near-term ability to fight in Ukraine substantially degraded.”
Most commentators forecast at least some advantage for Ukraine’s forces now embarked on a counteroffensive to retake territory seized by Russia. Now that Russia is increasingly vulnerable to attacks from Ukraine by anti-Putin forces and rogue militias, there is broad expectation that the domestic defenses will have to be shored up by redeploying Russian troops in Ukraine to the homeland.
“Putin has been diminished for all time by this,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said, predicting possible advantages for Ukrainian forces trying to break through Russian defenses dug in along the frontlines of their seized territories.
Some staunch Putin allies hailed the agreement as for the benefit of both sides. Prigozhin’s fight isn’t with Putin, argued Sergei Markov, a Russian political scientist and former member of the Russian State Duma with Putin’s United Russia party. Putin can ill afford to be fighting three wars, he told CNN, citing the Ukraine war, Putin’s ideological war with the West and a civil war in Russia if the agreement with Prigozhin to stand down doesn’t hold.
“Only psychological private ambitions,” Markov said, would motivate either Putin or Prigozhin to destroy the other leader and ignite a civil war comparable to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that toppled the czar and ushered in the Soviet Union and 74 years of repressive Communist rule.
“A third war would be too much even for the great leader Vladimir Putin,” Markov conceded.