The Coup That Wasn’t

Image of Putin poster.

Image by Valery Tenevoy.

A Narrow and Costly Escape

Tensions between the Russian defense ministry and the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, had been running high for months, mainly because of differences over war strategy and Prigozhin’s accusations of insufficient battlefield support.

Last week those tensions reached the boiling point. Prigozhin accused Moscow of deliberately targeting his soldiers and, perhaps most importantly, insisting that his soldiers sign contracts with the defense ministry that would cause Wagner to “cease to exist.” Rather than yield to Moscow, several thousand Wagner troops seized control of Rostov-on-Don, the southern military headquarters of the Russian army located on the Russia-Ukraine border.

Notably, it did so without resistance. Wagner soldiers then began marching toward Moscow on a major highway—to capture two top generals, Prigozhin says: defense minister Sergei K. Shoigu and Valery V. Gerasimov, chief of the general staff. They and other military leaders, expressing loyalty to Putin, accused Prigozhin of plotting a coup. Putin called it an “armed rebellion,” a “stab in the back.”

Nevertheless, Prigozhin’s end game was never clear, though to some Russians in the elite who were later interviewed, a coup was far too ambitious even for Prigozhin. But the episode certainly represented a direct challenge to Putin’s leadership that would have to end in one or the other’s defeat.

Should we have rooted for Prigozhin? We have to consider that he’s a staunch nationalist whose brutal mercenaries have killed thousands in Ukraine and carried out atrocities in Africa on behalf of autocratic leaders. While Prigozhin has criticized Putin’s war venture—saying, for example, “The war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine”—there’s no way to know how Prigozhin might have acted toward Ukraine if he had succeeded in decapitating the military leadership.

Just as suddenly as his revolt began, Prigozhin called it off, ordering his troops to turn around after a talk with Belarus’ dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Supposedly, Lukashenko told Prigozhin he has a home in Belarus if he called off his march and returned the Rostov base to the military.

That story is more than a little incredible, since Lukashenko takes orders from Putin. Evidently, the orders were to get Prigozhin out of the country in return for not prosecuting him or his men. Now we have to wonder if Prigozhin will survive, what he will do with his army based in Belarus if he does survive, and who will pay for it (since Putin has revealed that the Russian state paid $1 billion for Prigozhin’s services).

Putin’s Troubles

Putin’s leadership surely has been called into question by this revolt. After all, for some time he tolerated Prigozhin’s insubordination and refusal to integrate the Wagner forces with the regular army. The fact that Wagner was able to take over a major military base without resistance from the army or the police testifies either to Prigozhin’s popularity or doubts about Putin’s war.

And why, once Wagner troops began marching toward Moscow, did the military not launch a major strike on them? Why were Russian units in Ukraine apparently not called in to save the nation? As one observer writes, even with Wagner’s defeat, “the dent to [Putin’s] prestige and the damage to Russian military morale will be a major setback in Russia’s already disastrous war on Ukraine.”

The next question is what happens to Wagner now that Prigozhin has decamped to Belarus. Will it be reorganized under new leadership, allowed to return to Ukraine, dispatched to Africa, or kept cooling its heels in Belarus? The answers will surely have a bearing on Russia’s ability to respond effectively to Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

Then there are questions about Putin himself: Is his leadership permanently weakened? What will the coup attempt mean for Putin’s next acts in the war? One logical guess is that he will seek to demonstrate that he is firmly in command, such as by launching even more deadly air strikes or calling up more reserves. Perhaps he’ll seek to show outrageous defiance of his enemies by using a nuclear weapon. One thing we can count on is that Putin’s propaganda machine will be spinning stories about how Prigozhin was a tool of the West.

Putin has to be worried about his relationship with Xi Jinping. Beijing media offered limited reporting on the insurrection; Chinese officials merely repeated their support of Putin’s authority. But behind the scenes, Xi and his colleagues have to be concerned about Putin’s mishandling of an outspoken critic, the Russian military’s unity and effectiveness, the reliability of Russian intelligence, and the possibility that Putin will not survive much longer.

He’s a weak partner with a weak internal security system. Such a revolt could not have happened in China, the Chinese are probably saying privately. And the parallel to Mikhail Gorbachev’s takeover in Moscow in 1989, which Beijing viewed as a systemic threat to China, is surely not lost on the Chinese.

Implications for the War

Ukraine, meanwhile, has every reason for confidence in its resistance because of the Wagner episode. The Kremlin looks to be in disarray, possibly avoiding a civil war in the midst of a costly invasion. Morale in Russia’s military leadership and some army units may be adversely impacted by the Wagner revolt. Southern Ukraine, where Wagner seized the Rostov base, might be vulnerable to Ukrainian attack. The coming weeks may tell us a good deal about the resilience of Russia’s military in the face of these extraordinary events.

Can Putin recover from an epic setback, and if so, how? That question begs another: Will Putin now be more or less likely to seek a peace settlement with Ukraine? The British historian Lawrence Freedman puts the matter this way: “Any suggestion that he [Putin] wants to get out of the war will aggravate the image of weakness; sticking with the war regardless of losses will aggravate his actual weaknesses.”

Putin is stuck, a position that the US and NATO can choose either to exploit or, hopefully, to press for peace.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.