This just does not happen in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Especially in public.
The Russian president is facing the most serious threat to his hold on power in all the 23 years he’s run the nuclear state. And it is staggering to behold the veneer of total control he has maintained all that time – the ultimate selling point of his autocracy – crumble overnight.
It was both inevitable and impossible. Inevitable, as the mismanagement of the war had meant only a system as homogenously closed and immune to criticism as the Kremlin could survive such a heinous misadventure. And impossible as Putin’s critics simply vanish, or fall out of windows, or are poisoned savagely. Yet now the fifth-largest army in the world is halfway through a weekend in which fratricide – the turning of their guns upon their fellow soldiers – was briefly the only thing that could save the Moscow elite from collapse.
At the time of writing, 24 hours of extraordinary shark-jumping culminated with Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin agreeing to reverse his advance to within 120 miles (200 kilometers) of Moscow’s city limits and send his columns back to “field camps, according to the plan.” It is a last-minute reversal intended, he said, to avoid “bloodshed.” Shortly before this audio statement, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko apparently contacted Prigozhin, with the permission of Putin, to negotiate this remarkable climbdown, according to a statement from Belarusian officials and Russian state media reports.
Much of this sudden resolution is as curious and inexplicable as the crisis it solved. Prigozhin appears – thus far – to have had none of his demands heeded. The top brass of Russia’s defense ministry is still in place. He has done incalculable damage to Putin’s control over the Russian state, and shown how easy it is to take control of the key military city of Rostov-on-Don and then move fast towards the capital. And it took the intervention of Lukashenko, an ally whom Putin treats more as a subordinate than an equal, to engineer an end to this ghastly of weekends for the Kremlin.
More details of how this came to be will emerge. And the lasting damage done to Putin by this armed insurrection will be compounded by some key decisions the Kremlin head must now make. Will he pardon Prigozhin, and his fighters, or retract his statement about “inevitable punishment” for “blackmail and terrorist methods?” Does he make changes in the defense elite to placate Wagner’s head? What does all of this say to the Russian military, elite and people about who is really in charge of the country?
The rage and tension that has been building for months has not suddenly been assuaged. It has instead been accentuated.
So accustomed are we to viewing Putin as a master tactician, that the opening salvos of Prigozhin’s disobedience were at times assessed as a feint – a bid by Putin to keep his generals on edge with a loyal henchman as their outspoken critic. But what we have seen – with Putin forced to admit that Rostov-on-Don, his main military hub, is out of his control – puts paid to any idea that this was managed by the Kremlin.
It is likely however Wagner’s units planned some of this for a while. The justification for this rebellion appeared urgent and spontaneous – an apparent air strike on a Wagner camp in the forest, which the Russian Ministry of Defense has denied – appeared hours after a remarkable dissection of the rationale behind the war by Prigozhin.
He partially spoke the truth about the war’s disastrous beginnings: Russia was not under threat from NATO attack, and Russians were not being persecuted. The one deceit he maintained was to suggest Russia’s top brass was behind the invasion plan, and not Putin himself. Wagner’s forces have pulled themselves together very fast and moved quickly into Rostov. That’s hard to do spontaneously in one afternoon.
Perhaps Prigozhin dreamt he could push Putin into a change at the top of a ministry of defense the Wagner chief has publicly berated for months. But Putin’s address on Saturday morning has eradicated that prospect. This is now an existential choice for Russia’s elite – between the president’s faltering regime, and the dark, mercenary Frankenstein it created to do its dirty work, which has turned on its masters.
It is a moment of clarity for Russia’s military too. A few years ago, Prigozhin’s mild critiques would have led to elite special forces in balaclavas walking him away. But now he roams freely, with his sights openly on marching to Moscow. Where were the FSB’s special forces during this nightmare Saturday for the Kremlin? Decimated by the war, or not eager to take on their armed and experienced comrades in Wagner?
This is not the first time this spring we have seen Moscow look weak. The drone attack on the Kremlin in May must have caused the elite around Putin to question how on earth the capital’s defenses were so weak. Days later, elite country houses were targeted by yet more Ukrainian drones. Among the Russian rich, Friday’s events will remove any question about whether they should doubt Putin’s grip on power.
Ukraine will likely be celebrating the disastrous timing of this insurrection inside Russia’s ranks. It will likely alter the course of the war in Kyiv’s favor. But rebellions rarely end in Russia – or anywhere – with the results they set out to achieve. The 1917 removal of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia turned into the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin and then the Soviet Empire.
Listen to Wagner chief vow revenge over deadly attack of his camp
As this rare Jacobean drama of Russian basic human frailty plays out, it is not inevitable that improvements will follow. Prigozhin may not prevail, and the foundations of the Kremlin’s control may not ultimately collapse. But a weakened Putin may do irrational things to prove his strength.
He may prove unable to accept the logic of defeat in the coming months on the frontlines in Ukraine. He may be unaware of the depth of discontent among his own armed forces, and lack proper control over their actions. Russia’s position as a responsible nuclear power rests on stability at the top.
A lot more can go wrong than it can go right. But it is impossible to imagine Putin’s regime will ever go back to its previous heights of control from this moment. And it is inevitable that further turmoil and change is ahead.