President Putin has emerged strengthened from whatever it was exactly that may or may not have happened in Russia this weekend; strengthened, that is, compared to his situation of ten days ago – which is not saying a great deal. For months now, the open public dispute between Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, and the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry had escalated to the point where Putin’s inability or unwillingness to end it was undermining his authority.
Three weeks ago, Prigozhin began to extend his criticism from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to the regime and the elites in general; and, although he was careful not to attack Putin himself, the implications of his remarks were clear enough. Prigozhin’s attacks were so damaging to the regime both because of the prestige that Wagner amassed in Russia as a result of its fighting record in Ukraine, and because his criticisms have been essentially true.
Not only did Shoigu and Gerasimov plan and conduct the invasion of Ukraine with monstrous incompetence, recklessness and indifference to civilian deaths and suffering, but since they have both held their present positions since 2012, they bear direct personal responsibility for the logistical chaos, lack of coordination, and generally lamentable condition of the Russian armed forces. Equally true have been Prigozhin’s attacks on elite corruption, the evasion of taxes and military service by the rich, and finally – and most strikingly of all – the lies about Ukraine told by the regime (and above all by Putin himself) to justify the invasion.
Prigozhin’s abortive rebellion this weekend seems likely to have been what is called in German a Flucht nach vorn – an “escape forwards,” driven not by considered hope of success but fear of the alternatives and the existing situation. Prigozhin had good reason to fear that unless he acted first, Shoigu and Gerasimov would use the vastly superior power of the Russian armed forces to destroy him; or perhaps just to have him assassinated, something that is always easier on a battlefield. Above all, the precipitating factor may have been Putin’s announcement on June 14 that Wagner was to be brought under the full control of the Defense Ministry. This indicated that Putin was finally coming off the fence and siding with Shoigu and Gerasimov against Prigozhin.
Read the full piece in Responsible Statecraft.