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Главная \ English \ Six lessons of Prigozhin’s revolt

Six lessons of Prigozhin’s revolt

Dr Nigel Gould-Davies

The crisis – spurred by Russia’s failures in its war against Ukraine and by Putin’s extraordinary misreading of domestic realities – has sown profound uncertainty and anxiety within the Russian system.

The revolt by Wagner Group forces led by Evgeny Prigozhin on 23–24 June was a tectonic moment in Russian politics. New details continue to emerge and the aftershocks will shape Russia’s – and perhaps Belarus’s – political landscape. But six lessons are already clear.

Firstly, this was a full-scale crisis for Vladimir Putin’s presidency. While Prigozhin did not openly call for Putin’s overthrow, the logic of his escalating rhetoric and demands, his fierce critique of the official justification for the invasion of Ukraine and of the system that had launched it, and the mobilisation of fighters and heavy weapons to march on Moscow presented a direct threat to the regime. The Kremlin’s panicked preparations to defend Moscow betrayed its fear that Prigozhin’s anger and ambition, and the wider sympathy he had cultivated in other security structures, could spin out of control. Tellingly, Viktor Zolotov, head of Rosgvardia – created by Putin as his personal guard – expected Wagner to force entry into Moscow.

Secondly, these events reveal Putin’s extraordinary misreading of domestic realities. The crisis was entirely of his making. Prigozhin was Putin’s creature and his rise has been entirely dependent on Putin’s patronage. As Putin now admits, Wagner was lavishly funded by the state. His failure to realise the threat this posed, despite months of growing tension between Wagner and the military leadership, showed his isolation and fuelled the misjudgements that followed. This raises the question of what else about Russia, and its war in Ukraine, he does not understand.

Thirdly, the crisis undermines the core rationale of Putin’s rule: to bring stability and security to Russia after the chaotic 1990s. His central message from the start of his presidency has been the need to create a ‘power vertical’ of unified, ‘hyper-centralised’ authority. Yet he has presided over a fracturing of security structures that led to open, deadly violence – with at least thirteen aircrew killed in the revolt – even as Russia faces a major counter-offensive by Ukraine.
Fourthly, the crisis exposed the brittleness of the Russian state. Wagner forces marched nearly 1,000 kilometres towards Moscow almost entirely unhindered. Perhaps even more significant, few elites offered rapid public support. Some expressed alarm, others watched quietly to see how events would unfold, still others fled Russia (its parliament now seeks to punish them). Putin himself publicly warned of state collapse and mass disorder by invoking the analogy of 1917 – revolution in the face of military defeat – and the historically resonant smuta, the early seventeenth-century Time of Troubles that saw extreme violence and instability.

Fifthly, Putin’s need for mediation by a foreign leader – one whom he despises and has long sought to subordinate – to avert large-scale armed clashes further reveals Russia’s weakness. It is not yet clear whether Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka was acting autonomously, rather than merely usefully, but he played an active and perhaps indispensable role in defusing the crisis. Having known Prigozhin for 20 years and, being in a position to offer safe exile, he was uniquely placed to play this role. Lukashenka has made clear it was in his interest to help avert a collapse of central authority in Russia. But the Kremlin still needed him. In doing so, he repaid the help that Putin gave him in 2020 in facing down the peaceful uprising in Belarus.

Finally, Russia’s failures in its war against Ukraine have been imposing growing strains at home for months. The question was always how these would translate into an overt political challenge, and what form this would take. As always in highly authoritarian regimes, this was far more likely to come from within rather than below. The striking point is that it has come not from the majority of elites who (despite their performative compliance) have been quietly unhappy about the war from the start, but from the vocal minority – mostly the siloviki, whom Putin has given license to criticise the war effort as insufficiently resolute and effective.

While Putin now faces no immediate threat – Wagner was uniquely well-resourced and established among the so-called ‘private military companies’ – the recent revolt has sown profound uncertainty and anxiety. For all its brutality, Putin has calibrated his war effort to avoid strains at home and condemnation by major non-Western states. A full-scale silovik war would likely dispense with any such limitations and launch something much closer to a full-scale mobilisation. For most elites, this is a terrifying prospect.
This is why the Kremlin’s investigation into wider complicity with Prigozhin’s revolt matters. Putin’s unsparing hatred of those he deems ‘traitors’ is well known. It follows that anyone who was prepared to back Prigozhin knew the stakes and was ready to risk their future regardless. This will indicate the depth of alienation among those with access to the means of violence.

Putin is now weaker and more isolated, the elites around him more divided and alarmed, and the system he has built more unstable. He expected a quick victory in Ukraine, not a long and costly conflict. While he has had to adapt and improvise, he remains confident he can outlast Ukraine and the West in a contest of resolve. This is now less clear than ever. The dogs of war he unleashed may yet return to devour him.


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