The former hotdog salesman rose about as high as he could. He became a caterer to the Russian elite and a confidante of the president. He led his country’s premier paramilitary force. He was one of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs.
And then he overreached.
Yevgeny Prigozhin now says that he had no intention of overthrowing Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s a surprise.
Here’s a man who made no secret of his disgust for the Russian military leadership and, by extension, the Russian government. Last weekend, he gathered several thousand of his Wagner Group mercenaries, plus a minor army’s worth of heavy-duty equipment, and took effective control of two major Russian cities: Rostov and Voronezh. On his march to Moscow, his forces shot down six helicopters and a plane, but otherwise encountered few obstacles.
Surely, Prigozhin didn’t expect to seize control of the Kremlin with such a relatively small force. According to his telling, he just wanted to force a shake-up in the Russian military, starting with the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
More likely, he expected that enough members of the political and military elite would side with him against Putin that he could orchestrate a bloodless coup. He had reason to believe that people were on his side. Ordinary residents of Rostov cheered his presence. Russian soldiers at various points on the way to Moscow let the Wagner units pass unhindered. The reports that Sergei Surovikin, a senior Russian general, might have helped plan the coup are probably not accurate, given that Surovikin early on condemned Prigozhin’s moves and ordered air strikes against the approaching column of Wagner troops.
Indeed, as the example of Surovikin demonstrates, the big boys did not abandon Putin, even though Putin himself apparently abandoned Moscow at the first signs of a fight. Without support from the inside and still a good way from Moscow, Prigozhin realized that he and his troops would soon be dangerously exposed. Taking the Kremlin would not be like taking Rostov.
Meanwhile, Putin was negotiating with fellow despot Aleksandr Lukashenko, the leader of neighboring Belarus, to craft a deal. If Prigozhin called off his coup, the Russian government would withdraw criminal charges against him, allow him to decamp to Belarus, and absorb all willing members of the Wagner Group into the Russian army. Prigozhin seized on this opportunity to recast his putsch as a patriotic effort to save Russia from its incompetent military. This, after all, was a theme he’d been pushing for months.
History does not look kindly on the hesitant usurper. For his part, Putin has punished lesser cases of treason with extrajudicial murder, so Prigozhin is probably wondering right now whether this deal is going to endure.
But it is Putin who must now be worrying about the future. Uneasy indeed lies the head that wears a crown, especially when there are other potential Macbeths afoot.
Why a Coup and Why Now?
Prigozhin was backed into a corner. Earlier in June, Shoigu announced that all paramilitary formations like the Wagner Group would have to sign direct contracts with the Russian military beginning July 1. That would have put Prigozhin under the thumb of the man he detested most. Even when Putin pushed the new regulation, the head of the Wagner Group continued to push back.
That’s when, according to Prigozhin, the Russian military ordered a missile strike against the Wagner Group. “We were ready to make concessions to the defense ministry, to surrender our weapons, to find a solution on how we would continue to defend the country. But these scumbags did not calm down,” Prigozhin said in a video. “We have 25,000 (soldiers), and we’re going to figure out why there’s chaos in the country. Everyone, who is willing, join us.”
The alleged missile strike was only the latest provocation. Earlier in the year, Prigozhin had to deal with the replacement of Surovikin, a close ally, as the top commander in charge of operations in Ukraine. Then he faced a cut-off in his chief supply of recruits when he no longer could tap into the Russian prison system. His lucrative military catering contracts—worth a cool billion dollars over the last year alone— were also at risk because of new supplier regulations. And Prigozhin believed that his Wagner Group had been undersupplied in its effort to seize the ravaged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
To call Prigozhin unpredictable and impulsive would be an understatement. This is a guy who, according to the Discord leaks, was willing to give Ukraine the locations of Russian military positions if Ukrainian commanders pulled out of Bakhmut, where the Wagner Group was fighting and dying for the tiniest scraps of territory. It’s extraordinary that he maintained better relations with Ukrainian intelligence during the war than with the Russian military.
But Prigozhin is also a canny operator. He couldn’t have risen so high in the informal hierarchy around Putin if he didn’t know how to negotiate the turbulent tides of power. Given how he was being boxed in, he must have felt that he had to go big or go home. And Prigozhin is no homebody.
After the Shoigu announcement, Prigozhin began to stockpile weapons. His first plan was reportedly to kidnap top Russian military officials on their visit to southern Russia. When that plan was leaked, Prigozhin developed the alternative of seizing Rostov and marching on Moscow.
Even though the Kremlin knew of the initial kidnapping plan, it failed to anticipate Prigozhin’s next moves. According to CNN:
Multiple sources told CNN that US and Western officials believe that Putin was simply caught off guard by Prigozhin’s actions and did not have time to array his forces against the Wagner mercenaries before they managed to seize control of the military headquarters in Rostov. Putin also likely did not want to divert significant resources away from Ukraine, officials said.
In other words, the same miscalculations that plagued the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year have continued. Putin the autocrat is making decisions based on limited information and wishful thinking, and no one is courageous enough to contradict him. Only someone as crazy as Prigozhin was willing to speak his mind, and now he’s presumably on his way to Belarus. After this latest coup attempt, Putin will only be more paranoid and imperious.
What’s Next for Putin?
Putin is scrambling to reassert his power and rescue his image. In a speech this week after the mutiny fizzled, he emphasized the defense of the Fatherland, blamed the West, didn’t mention Prigozhin, and offered Wagner troops a choice of returning home, joining the Russian army, or relocating to Belarus.
What future does Putin face? Here are three possible scenarios:
The Status Quo Holds
Putin is 70 years old. He seems in good shape. He could hang onto power for another decade. He commands the loyalty of the siloviki, the “hard men” of the intelligence services that have formed the core of his support for decades. He has destroyed all left-wing or centrist challenges to his authority. Critics are in jail or in exile.
In this scenario, the economy falters but doesn’t collapse. The war in Ukraine grinds to a virtual halt, and Putin consolidates his territorial gains, even if the incorporation of the Donbas, Crimea, and the lands in between fails to win international recognition. He eventually passes on the scepter to a loyal lieutenant, like former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. His other trusted advisors, like intelligence chiefs Nikolai Patrushev and Alexander Bortnikov, are also in their early 70s. The best strategy in this situation: wait until this “Putin generation” passes away.
Ukraine Wins, Putin Loses
Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive has run up against Russian fortifications, particularly landmines. But perhaps, after finding a couple weaknesses in the Russian defenses, the Ukrainian army manages to break through. Meanwhile, anti-Putin forces escalate their attacks within Russia itself. Russian occupation forces, caught in the middle, turn tail.
That’s when history repeats and Russian soldiers stream back into the country, as they did in 1917, and demand accountability and change. Putin tries to put a positive spin on the obvious defeat of Russian forces—“We need all hands on deck to defend the Fatherland against the immoral West.” But like the boy who cried “Wolf!” Putin has cried “West!” too many times to be effective. His formerly loyal advisors decide that he is a liability. Putin goes down in what amounts to a palace coup.
Cue the Milosevic tape: Medvedev or someone like him abruptly pivots to put all the blame on Putin. The new Russian government delivers the former president to the International Criminal Court in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The West pretends that the new nationalists in charge were not also responsible for war crimes.
Military Stalemate, Putin Overthrown
Only in this last case does the Wagner mutiny have any lasting impact. Here, the war in Ukraine turns into a stalemate, and Russia’s political and economic elite continues to question Putin’s ability to lead the nation.
But the loudest critics come from the far right, groups like the Club of Angry Patriots. One of the most prominent figures associated with the Club is former security operative and current military blogger Igor Girkin, who predicted some weeks ago that the Wagner Group would try to overthrow Putin. These far-right voices demand that Putin wage all-out war against Ukraine. If he doesn’t, they want him to step aside. “He’s never seen a tank except in a parade, what’s wrong with his head?” Girkin said of Putin. “He’s really acting not even like an old man, but like a child.”
Russia’s far right is not exactly unified. But it could fill the role of the Bolsheviks in a successful 2023 coup that mobilizes insider support with enough street violence to send Putin packing (perhaps to Belarus where he can collaborate once again with Prigozhin on a new catering business).
Girkin plays Prigozhin in this sequel to The Wagner Mutiny. But his performance is more convincing. Russia goes from crypto-fascist to overtly fascist. Girkin with nuclear weapons? Perish the thought; perish the world.
An Own Goal?
Putin has been in charge of Russia for more than two decades. He has made himself into the country’s indispensable leader by eliminating all potential challengers. But just as Prigozhin overreached with his thwarted mutiny, Putin overreached with his thwarted invasion of Ukraine. That ghastly mistake, an attack that has somehow landed the ball in Putin’s own net, has set into motion developments that Putin cannot entirely control. He could manage to hang on, but at a huge cost. Indeed, the current Russian leader seems determined to win his long-shot bet that he can revive the Russian empire—or, failing that, bring the entire country down with him.
Regime collapse? No one, least of all the U.S. government, wants a Russian civil war that puts all those nuclear weapons up for grabs.
Regime change? Not with options like Yevgeny Prigozhin and Igor Girkin waiting in the wings.
Regime continuity? The best scenario would be a relatively stable Russia that is so preoccupied with its own domestic problems that it no longer has the bandwidth to project power abroad. Ideally, such a government wouldn’t be saddled with Putin. But there are, unfortunately, worse options.
FPIF, June 29, 2023