The Wagner rebellion has exposed some of the systemic weaknesses in the Kremlin’s crisis management strategy. Although the aftermath remains unclear, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s actions may have set a chain of events in motion.
The events of the past two days in Russia have prompted a thus-far inconclusive deluge of speculation about President Vladimir Putin’s political future, the likely impact that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s uprising may have for the trajectory of the Ukraine War, as well as the very future of Russia itself.
While some of these questions remain unanswered, the uprising has starkly revealed some of the machinations about how Russia works and how decisions are taken, as well as the efficacy (or not) of this system in a crisis. Although the longer-term implications of the rebellion are yet to play out, there are some early signals about Russia’s political stability that we can point to.
Assessing Putin’s Performance
First, because the list is comparatively shorter, it is worth dwelling on where Putin performed reasonably well amid this crisis.
Most obviously, he prevented the situation from getting unduly out of control. Prigozhin was swiftly promised an amnesty in negotiations that took a matter of hours, and in doing so Putin avoided deploying significant military resources to Rostov-on-Don to directly counter Wagner, an escalation that would have prompted widespread alarm. It also could have given military forces the opportunity to side with Wagner, should they have been pitted directly against one another.
Instead, Putin in his address to the nation on 24 June walked a careful line between stressing the seriousness of Prigozhin’s actions while avoiding expressly mentioning him by name, and praising the exploits of Wagner troops in the war thus far. Technically, Putin succeeded in quashing the immediate threat of rebellion, but at what cost?
What Putin Got Wrong
One could argue with hindsight that this situation had been brewing for months, and Putin’s key mistake had been failing to prevent the escalation between Prigozhin and Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu. But this assumes that Putin was entirely across the details, and, as we know, often he is not.
Technically, Putin succeeded in quashing the immediate threat of rebellion, but at what cost?
Although Prigozhin’s disparaging of Shoigu’s management of the war had become commonplace, his words over a short space of time were backed by practical steps. In early June, Wagner forces were accused of kidnapping and torturing several Russian officers, allegedly in response to the Russian armed forces firing on their positions. Within days of the allegations surfacing online, the Ministry of Defence announced plans obliging those considered ‘military volunteer units’ (referring to Wagner) to sign contracts with the Russian Army, which would essentially dissolve them and render Prigozhin’s influence negligible, under Shoigu’s overall command.
But beyond headlines, it appears Prigozhin first attempted to offer options to the authorities, including Wagner’s readiness to become part of Russia’s National Guard – which reports directly to Putin, rather than Shoigu. These options were refused. These attempts would have been known to the security services, but a prevailing systemic culture that avoids bringing bad or difficult news to the president could mean Putin was unaware of the machinations.
As evidenced by Putin’s actions in the run-up to the Ukraine War and beyond, the degree to which he is fully briefed by those around him means he sometimes takes decisions without complete information. Putin’s response to the Prigozhin–Shoigu feud – to let it play out – chimes with his overall approach to infighting in general, usually safe in the knowledge that this rarely encroaches on his own authority. Putin tends to permit other extant feuds in the system – such as between the intelligence services – which can lead to duplication of effort but can also drive creativity and competition, and ultimately have little effect on Putin’s overall power.
Here, Putin may have misjudged the situation, particularly over how personal this war appears to be to Prigozhin, who frequently talks in possessive and highly emotive terms about Wagner, the group he founded, and who declared that the Ukraine War was prompted by Shoigu’s personal ambitions. It is possible Putin had little sense of how far Prigozhin, under pressure from months of fighting, could be pushed.
What Do We Know?
But while there is much that we have yet to find out, there are four important pieces of information that have come out of the rebellion so far.
The first is that despite Prigozhin’s urgings, there were no mass defections either from the public or from the armed forces to join Wagner. A small number did participate, but while Wagner forces were able to swiftly gain temporary control over buildings in Rostov-on-Don, this was not due to support for them, but rather general inactivity from the Russian military. In a top-down and highly hierarchical system, in which grassroots protests within the security services are extremely rare, all of this indicates that for a significant uprising within the Russian military to occur, the source would have to come from its senior leadership. In this case, this did not happen, but the door is left open to that possibility in future.
The degree to which Putin is fully briefed by those around him means he sometimes takes decisions without complete information
The second is that Wagner in its current form is likely to be disbanded, and absorbed as per Shoigu’s initial announcement, into the Ministry of Defence. Andrei Kartapolov, chairman of the State Duma Defence Committee, has already pointed out that Russia requires a law to regulate private military companies such as Wagner, which have until now been considered officially illegal and operating outside of Russian jurisdiction. This was a useful legal loophole that allowed Wagner to operate with relative impunity. Previous attempts to legislate against Wagner in Russia have been unsuccessful, but this uprising might have changed that calculus. Those who sided with Prigozhin will be fired, and serious attempts will be made within Russia to quash any sentiment expressing sympathy with Wagner or its views about the management of the war, all of which points to an increasing atmosphere of domestic repression.
Third, the official negotiations with Prigozhin are unlikely to be as they appeared. While Putin’s conspicuous absence from the proceedings was criticised, in the background his Presidential Administration was attempting to negotiate with Prigozhin himself – albeit belatedly – with regional governors called on to refrain from attacking Prigozhin personally in public statements. Following the breakdown of negotiations, Putin’s subsequent speech in which he outlined the ‘betrayal’ of Wagner forces likely closed off the avenue of direct negotiations with the Presidential Administration. It is also thought that Prigozhin attempted a personal audience with Putin which was denied, possibly contributing to his dramatic deflation, after realising he would be unable to attain a future place in the system. All of this points to Putin as remaining the ultimate arbitrator and decision-maker in Prigozhin’s fate, not – as Prigozhin would frame it – that he halted the rebellion on humanitarian grounds.
Fourth, the role of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in the negotiations has been much inflated. While he has proven important (and likely not the first choice of mediator), the puffery is helpful for PR purposes. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has been at pains to stress that negotiations were Lukashenko’s initiative, as he has known Prigozhin for years. But while Lukashenko’s press service claims that he called Putin to inform him about the successful negotiations and that Putin expressed gratitude, the Kremlin did not comment.
For Lukashenko this offers a badly needed publicity boost – relations with Moscow are often tense despite their unity on paper – and Lukashenko is adept at sensationalising a story in his own favour. This might also give Lukashenko an opportunity to reinvolve himself in negotiations over the Ukraine War, which he has attempted to do without success.
Eye on the Future
Although these events may have set in train some internal disquiet among the political elite, this might not become apparent for some time. Personnel changes within the Ministry of Defence may yet occur, but Putin will have to exercise caution so as not to appear to acquiesce with any of Prigozhin’s original demands. This means that for now, Shoigu’s position is likely assured, particularly given his fundamental qualities of loyalty and longevity of service that Putin so values, and which are difficult to come by. Putin has never in the past yielded to ultimatums that demand a snap decision, and any changes are unlikely to be swift. An open rebellion of this kind as the 2024 presidential campaign season is about to begin is not ideal for Putin, and he will be proceeding with caution.
Other unsung figures in the negotiations may yet be rewarded, with potential promotions to come. Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, Boris Gryzlov, and Nikolai Patrushev (Security Council), as well as Anton Vaino (Presidential Administration), all likely played key roles in seeing the negotiation through. Rumours abound that the governor of the Tula region – through which Prigozhin would have had to pass should he have reached Moscow – was instrumental. Alexei Dyumin is a close ally of Putin’s, a former bodyguard from the Federal Protective Service (FSO), and a trusted source from which many regional governors and people in senior positions have been drawn. Although Dyumin’s offices have denied his involvement as beyond his purview, reflections on his potential involvement may see him offered a more senior post in the Ministry of Defence.
But the hole that Prigozhin has left – a stream of criticism of Russia’s management of the war – may prove useful domestically. Should Ukraine’s counter-offensive prove less effective than hoped, and the tide begin to turn in Russia’s favour, there may be less place for figures such as Prigozhin. While the rebellion failed in its initial aims of bringing down Russia’s senior leadership, it is highly likely to precipitate a shake-up of sorts, although not in the way Prigozhin intended.