President Putin spoke today to the Russian nation, seeking to project a message of confidence and stability following Wagner’s weekend revolt and march toward Moscow. Wagner’s actions had generated panic in the Kremlin, national “anti-terrorism” measures, and a defensive cordon around the capital until a Belarus-brokered deal resulted in a Wagner pull-back. Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin released his own audio message today to explain that Wagner’s actions were in response to the Ministry of Defense’s decision to integrate the mercenary force into the broader Russian military.
While many questions remain about the origins, objectives, and consequences of the armed rebellion, Prigozhin’s actions are already having an impact on Russian politics and the structures President Putin has carefully cultivated. For over two decades, Putin has pitted powerful regime insiders against each other, dealing ruthlessly with anyone that represented a viable alternative to his leadership. Prigozhin – a convicted criminal and longtime associate of Putin who used guile to establish and grow a private military company, despite limited support in traditional Russian elite circles – has now upended that structure by mounting a credible challenge, as well as seeming to get away with his rebellion thus far unscathed, other than becoming the unnamed subject of Putin’s angry words.
Putin no longer appears invincible, inevitable, or irreplaceable. Having called Prigozhin’s actions betrayal and treason and then backed down to provide Wagner security guarantees, Putin has lost authority and is suddenly vulnerable to domestic rivals; his first crisis broadcast on June 24 was an admission of such. Few voices in government stepped forward to defend him, other than those who piled on to call Prigozhin’s actions a threat. On the contrary, most politicians and oligarchs were stunned into silence, and there were reports of sedans fleeing Moscow as Wagner forces approached the capital. Putin today attempted to save face by thanking his military for standing fast and to underscore that “any blackmail attempts to create internal unrest are doomed to failure.” But responses to Wagner’s march showcased dynamics that have been increasingly obvious since February 2022, namely that Putin’s support inside Russia is broad but shallow, and few regime insiders are willing to die for their Tsar.
The armed rebellion also represents a major setback for the so-called siloviki (“people of force”) that head the most important ministries and security agencies in Russia. The siloviki failed to anticipate Prigozhin’s move and stop him in his dash. This is the second catastrophic setback for Russia’s security services in little over a year, following their failure to predict the determined Ukrainian resistance to Moscow’s full-scale invasion. Putin does not have good choices when it comes to dealing with his advisors. If he decides to reform and / or sack senior leadership (such as at the Ministry of Defense and main security services agencies), Putin faces the prospect of disgruntled insiders that sense his grip on power is slipping. He would also come across as acceding to one of Prigozhin’s demands in the face of intimation. If Putin chooses not to conduct reforms or reshuffle leaders, his regime runs the risk of exacerbating mistakes from poor wartime intelligence and sub-optimal battlefield execution.
There are only a few acceptable choices to Putin, Prigozhin, and the siloviki among those who could take over for Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. One of these is Tula governor and former deputy minister of defense Aleksey Dyumin, who has been touted – together with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin – as a contender to succeed Putin in the future. While Shoygu’s removal was undoubtedly a top demand from Prigozhin, immediately granting Dyumin the highly visible job of minister of defense would be a risky move for a weakened Putin. As he has often done in the past, Putin may decide to postpone taking any decision at all, wait for the waters to calm, and keep a lame-duck Shoygu at the helm.
Unless radically dismantled, Wagner will continue to be a thorn in the side – too critical with its large numbers and hardened fighters to pull out of the front-line rotation, too institutionalized to partially break up or reshape, too rich to bribe, too loyal to Prigozhin to bring into Moscow’s fold, and too popular with citizens to smother (videos in Rostov-on-Don showing ordinary Russian citizens cheering for Wagner soldiers as they pulled out of the city were remarkable). Wagner forces have been operating quasi-independently, believe they are above / outside the military command structure, and consist of thousands of ex-convicts, veterans, and former special operators that joined the group (and not regular units) for their own deliberate reasons. All told, through Wagner, Prigozhin will likely continue to hold a trump card over Putin, who is ultimately responsible for Prigozhin’s rise and for endorsing and sponsoring Wagner’s critical importance for the Ukraine war as well as Russia’s security initiatives in Syria and Africa.
How these dynamics affect the war over the coming period depends on the following: 1) If Wagner remains off the battlefield, this could represent a loss of capability at a critical juncture. Fellow warlord Ramzan Kadyrov has said he will send his troops as reinforcements, but the Chechens are not able to bring anything equivalent to what Wagner has represented in Bakhmut. Unlike Prigozhin and Wagner, Kadyrov is also reluctant to take any meaningful risks in Ukraine as he seeks to avoid further losses of his de facto private army. Simply put, a fight without Wagner would represent a diminishment of Russia’s potential front-line capabilities over time, even if not over the next several months; 2) But if Wagner is allowed to operate quasi-independently, there will continue to be structural divisions among Russian forces in Ukraine, which was a major source of conflict between Shoygu and Prigozhin. Some of this could be managed by a shake-up at the Ministry of Defense, but the negative effect of Wagner’s rebellion on morale and the sense of rectitude among regular Russian troops will remain, with the opposite effect for Kyiv’s forces. The Ukrainian government, reported to have been tipped off in advance about Prigozhin’s intent, clearly hoped for greater disintegration of Russian command and control. On the margins of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London last week, as Wagner’s rebellion was in the process of kicking off, well-placed Ukrainians considered this the beginning of the end for Russia’s war effort.
While we have not yet seen any real effects on the ground in Ukraine, Kyiv will seek to take advantage of the current ambiguity both strategically and tactically through lobbying NATO countries for more resources prior to the Vilnius summit, as well as focusing attacks on weaker Russian units and conducting information campaigns. Ukraine’s offensive thus far has been more probing, with strategic reserves being held back for a big push. President Zelensky will face a tough choice as to whether to bring in his new Western-trained forces, which are not fully battle hardened, while there is confusion and uncertainty among Russian forces, or wait until F-16s and more long-range weapons arrive to better control the airspace and hobble Moscow’s logistics near the front lines.
At least three additional geopolitical ramifications are worth monitoring.
- First, leaders in countries where Wagner operates as an extension of Russian foreign policy (e.g., Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, and Syria) will likely question the depth of Russia’s commitment to maintain Wagner forces in support of their mutual objectives. They may also question whether to cut out the Russian government in talks with Wagner, or conversely ask about the reliability of Wagner as a partner. Disruption along these lines could impact Wagner’s localized command and control far afield, generate logistics bottlenecks, or trigger breakdowns in payments (in cash or precious metals and minerals) to the mercenaries.
- Second, Russia comes out of this incident weakened vis-à-vis its partners, especially China, which undoubtedly will be studying more closely the dynamics of unintended consequences in war. Most commentary related to the impact of Wagner’s rebellion on China has thus far focused on Moscow becoming a more pliant junior partner; comparatively less has been mentioned about domestic vulnerabilities that could cause the Communist Party to overcompensate and take a heavier hand, stressing its own system even more.
- Third, closer to Russia’s borders, countries sympathetic to Moscow either by choice or necessity – such as Armenia and the Central Asian countries – will be carefully rethinking and even hedging options for foreign and security policy. It was rumored that regional leaders wouldn’t take a call from Putin (or Foreign Minister Lavrov) amidst the crisis. In particular, Kazakhstan’s Tokayev will have additional space to distance his country from security relationships with Moscow. Belarus’ Lukashenko momentarily appeared as an independent actor, though his role in the negotiations was almost certainly scripted.
As the impact of Wagner’s armed rebellion continues to unfold, Putin’s status and the broader Russian system could be severely diminished, with near and longer-term consequences both inside and outside Russia certain to take shape. In the words of a Veracity senior advisor who formerly served at the highest levels of government, “if the war continues to go badly, (Putin) is date stamped. (Outsiders) had already compared the situation to 1917. Strange that Putin made the same allusion.”
Jay Truesdale is CEO of Veracity Worldwide, where Gabriel Santamaria de Zulueta is a director focused on Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.