Prigozhin’s rebellion is a symptom of the fragility of Putin’s regime
30 Jun 2023|

Some military coups purport to represent the vanguard of modernisation and change. Others, such as Chile’s in 1973 and Spain’s failed attempt in 1981, are fuelled by nostalgia for past dictatorships. The majority of coups are at least partly driven by powerful group grievances.

Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted quasi-coup, by contrast, seems to have been motivated solely by his personal quest for power and prestige. And while Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries quickly abandoned their march on Moscow, they exposed the institutional decay of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s praetorian regime.

Prigozhin thus demonstrated that he is less a threat to Putin’s rule than he is a symptom of its inherent fragility. Essentially, he’s a Putin loyalist who developed, as the Russian president put it, ‘exorbitant ambition and personal interest’. With his rising popularity threatening to undermine Putin’s monopoly on the country’s attention, Prigozhin simply became too powerful to be left unchecked.

Putin’s plan to bring Wagner under the direct command of the Ministry of Defence represented a serious loss of income for Prigozhin, who co-founded the private militia in 2014. Prigozhin’s catering firm also reportedly earned 80 billion roubles (US$920 million) a year supplying food to the military. In a not-so-veiled jab at Prigozhin’s business interests after the rebellion had ended, Putin said that he hoped ‘nobody stole anything, or at least did not steal much’.

Putin’s reign has been characterised by the privatisation of national sovereignty. Private armies such as Wagner, which received US$1 billion a year from the state’s budget, have been integral to the Putin system, and the war in Ukraine has spurred the formation of additional mercenary forces. Even the state-controlled gas conglomerate Gazprom has formed a private battalion, recruiting its own security guards to fight in Ukraine and help secure Putin’s rule in exchange for job perks.

These paramilitary units provide Putin with a way to meet the military’s personnel requirements without incurring the politically prohibitive cost of another mobilisation. The previous conscription drive, initiated in late 2022, caused hundreds of thousands of Russian men to flee the country.

Consequently, the battlefield in Ukraine has become a breeding ground for private military companies. Prigozhin was probably just as agitated by this growing competition as he was by his bitter rivalry with Russia’s military leadership, particularly Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. While Russia’s war effort is ostensibly led by the military, warlords such as Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have become increasingly prominent thanks to their direct access to Putin.

Despite the absence of any real threats to his rule, Putin has little to celebrate. Prigozhin’s rebellion, together with the humiliating fact that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s mediation was required to end it, marks the low point of his long rule. For more than two decades, Putin has privatised various parts of the government, creating a narrow class of fabulously wealthy and politically loyal beneficiaries. With his authority openly questioned, it is clear that this strategy has failed.

Moreover, Prigozhin’s rebellion, which Putin himself says pushed the country to the ‘brink of a civil war’, has likely shattered the Russian public’s idealised perception of their military as a heroic force united against a common enemy. With his fate now inextricably tied to his generals’ ability to stave off defeat in Ukraine, Putin’s image as an all-powerful tzar has also been dealt a potentially decisive blow.

The fact that Prigozhin’s mercenaries managed to seize major cities and military headquarters without resistance underscored what informed observers already knew: the Russian ‘empire’ is a dysfunctional, sprawling entity spread over vast territories inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups, some of which are self-governed. Its vastness, a source of national pride, is also a vulnerability.

Despite his best efforts, Putin seems incapable of defying an iron law of history: all empires must fall. His lofty and unrealistic dreams of imperial grandeur—and his lament at the ‘blow that struck Russia in 1917’—may have fooled the Russian people, but his regime relies on uneasy alliances between deeply corrupt civilian and military elites. While some of that corruption can be traced back to the Soviet Union, Putin has exacerbated the problem by cultivating his own network of clientelism and nepotism.

Paradoxically, the striking display of Russia’s military incompetence in Ukraine and its internal political instability will likely not affect the dynamics on the battlefield or the broader geopolitical equilibrium. Putin’s isolation persists, but he maintains his alliances with China and Iran and can still leverage India’s neutral stance on the war. And his oil partnership with Saudi Arabia remains intact.

Recent events have undoubtedly hurt the Russian army’s already-low morale. While Andrey Kartapolov, the head of the Russian parliament’s defence committee, described the dissolution of Wagner as a ‘gift’ to NATO and Ukraine, the Russian war effort is not necessarily doomed. Putin, after all, remains in control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. And, given their perception of the conflict in Ukraine as an existential battle, Putin and his inner circle are unlikely to accept defeat. By now, Putin has completely abandoned his previous persona as a shrewd diplomat striving to reconcile Russia’s ambitions with Western sensibilities, transforming into an almost suicidal advocate of anti-Western revanchism.

Regardless of the outcome, this is not a glorious war for Russia. Prigozhin’s actions have exposed the country’s political instability and underscored the potentially grave consequences of a Russian defeat. A power vacuum in Moscow would have far-reaching implications across Russia’s 11 time zones.

Sixteen months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the conditions on the ground resemble the frozen, deadlocked fronts of World War I. One hopes that a ceasefire can be negotiated after the Ukrainian counteroffensive has run its course. But as matters stand, the conflict seems destined to evolve into yet another protracted border dispute, with resolution requiring significant political shifts. If such shifts happen, they will most likely be as unexpected as Prigozhin’s weekend mutiny.