Russia’s war against Ukraine has destroyed the mystique of Russian President Vladimir Putin as an untouchable autocrat. Before February 24, 2022, Putin may have looked unscrupulous and aggressive, but through his military moves in Syria, Crimea, and beyond, he could seem like a capable strategist. Then, in one stroke, he showed his ineptitude by invading a country that posed no threat to Russia and by failing again and again in his military enterprise—the latest example of which is the short-lived armed rebellion the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin carried out this weekend, which has just undermined Putin’s autocrat mystique.
Putin abetted the rise of Prigozhin and ignored the warning signs about Wagner, Prigozhin’s out-of-control private military company. As the Russian military struggled in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s star rose, reaching a high point when Wagner took the city of Bakhmut for Russia in May. Prigozhin exploited the last remaining uncensored political space in Russia—the social media app Telegram—to address the Russian public. For months, he had been openly plotting a coup: carrying out public spats with the leadership of Russia’s military forces, offering populist critiques of the war effort, and casting doubt on Putin’s official justifications for the war that Putin himself has articulated. And yet Moscow was nevertheless taken by surprise when Prigozhin asked his soldiers to rise up and join a rebellion against the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Putin’s hubris and indecisiveness have been the story of the war. They are now the story of domestic Russian politics. Whatever Prigozhin’s motives and intentions may be, his rebellion has exposed an acute vulnerability of Putin’s regime: its contempt for the common man. Putin was too clever to let the war affect Moscow and St. Petersburg or to let it adversely affect the elite populations of these cities. Yet his very cleverness imposed a war of choice on the country’s nonelite populations. They have been dragged into a horrific colonial struggle, and when Moscow has not been reckless with their lives, it has often been callous. Many soldiers still have no idea what they are fighting and dying for. Prigozhin came to speak for these men. He has no political movement behind him and no discernible ideology. But by directly contradicting government propaganda, he highlighted the miserable situation at the front and the visible aloofness of an out-of-touch Putin, who enjoys hearing from the Ministry of Defense about Russian military glory.
If Putin’s contempt and the anger of Russian soldiers converge and come to symbolize the country Putin rules, the Kremlin is in real trouble even without a coup in the works. Prigozhin’s mutiny may be the first major challenge to the Putin regime, but it will not be the last. His rebellion is likely to be followed by heightened repression in Russia. A nervous leader who inelegantly survived a domestic coup is more dangerous than a wartime autocrat who believes himself to be secure at home.
For the West, there is little to do apart from letting this political drama—which has some of the trappings of a farce—play out in Russia. The West has no interest in preserving the Putinist status quo, but neither should it seek a sudden toppling of the Putin regime. For the West, upheaval in Russia may matter mostly for what it signifies in Ukraine, where the potential for instability in Russia may open fresh military options. Apart from exploiting these options in tandem with Kyiv, the West can do little more than start bracing itself for instability within and beyond Russia’s borders.
A HOUSE OF CARDS?
The irony of the Prigozhin insurgency is that it originated in Putin’s efforts to “coup proof” his regime. The foundation for Putin’s power has been a pro-Putin—or at least quiescent—Russian population. On top of this solid foundation, there have always been rival factions among the elites and security services, which Putin played off against each other.
To keep this structure together, Putin has had to forestall popular discontent and keep the political elite in line. He preferred to work with men he had known from his KGB days in the 1980s and his days in the St. Petersburg government in the 1990s, which served as the launching point for his political career. These men were loyal because they could enjoy wealth and power only with Putin at the helm. A greater risk to Putin were those who had gained access to the security services and the military yet were not longtime Putin cronies. They had to be supervised and controlled through machinations so constant that they became routine. Other countries have a stock market that goes up and down. The Kremlin has an internal stock market, in which the political fortunes of the mighty rise and fall.
At first, the war continued this routine. Military leaders were shuffled in and out of positions in part because the war was not going well and in part because Putin had to make sure that no Napoleon could emerge from among the generals and challenge him. Putin pitted Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense against one another, seeing which could achieve better results in Ukraine and seeking to check the power of the army and the minister of defense. Prigozhin counterbalanced the military high command, and he did what he was asked to do—taking the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, for example, which to date remains Russia’s biggest battlefield success in the last year. Prigozhin’s efficiency put pressure on the highly inefficient Russian military.
Putin could stand above it all as he had for years, the chess master expertly moving pieces. Or so it seemed, until someone came along and threw over the chessboard.
WATCH THE THRONE, WATCH YOUR BACK
The events of the past three days portend a dark future for Russia. In a few short hours, Prigozhin’s armed rebellion generated enormous chaos. The war has stretched Russian state capacity thin, and the revolt has stretched it still further, presenting Moscow with a new domestic challenge. For years, the Kremlin has devised ways to head off a liberal, urban revolution. But it turned out the greater threat was an illiberal revolution: a highly militarized populist uprising driven not by cosmopolitan reformers but by Russian nationalists. The top-down nationalism cultivated in the war could cut against the Putin regime, and Prigozhin may not be the last of his kind.
Prigozhin has proven that the fortress of Putinism can be assaulted. During this very brief rebellion, elites’ expressions of loyalty to Putin were near uniform, but they were remarkably flat. Other, cannier actors might learn from Prigozhin, melding his populism with a political program that has some purchase beyond mutinous mercenaries and that might attract a cadre within the Russian elite. The elites in question would not be among the intelligentsia or the business world. They would be connected to the security services. Their motivations might be the spoils of power, a perception of Putin’s weakness, or a fear of a coming purge. If Putin seems destined to be toppled, then there is an incentive to be the one who topples him—or at least to be close to that person. There is a comparable disincentive to wait, especially if Putin is bent on exacting revenge. Were a Night of the Long Knives to play out among Russian elites, it could consolidate powerful figures behind a plan to oust Putin.
Prigozhin’s rapid advance on Moscow could inspire other potential warlords or a string of disruptive political entrepreneurs seeking local advantage, none strong enough to unseat the tsar in Moscow but each eager to chip away at the power and prestige of the state. The consequences could paralyze the government and weaken Russia’s military position in Ukraine. Over time, Prigozhin went from criticism of the war’s execution to criticism of the war’s purpose. What has now been said in the open—that a botched war may be an existential threat to Russia’s pride but not to Russia itself—cannot be unsaid.
PREPARE FOR THE WORST
Putin and his cronies might try to pin Prigozhin’s rebellion on outsiders. But even for a regime that has mastered the art of blaming the West, this would be a stretch. Washington has next to no leverage in domestic Russian politics, and it is not 1991, when President George H. W. Bush traveled to Ukraine and in his famed “chicken Kyiv” speech recommended that the revolution go slow. Instability within Russia is not something that the United States can turn on or turn off. It can, however, be used to good effect on the battlefields of Ukraine. What will follow this rebellion is an interlude of distraction, recrimination, and uncertainty, as Putin deals not only with the logistics of getting things back to normal but also with the humiliation he has just been dealt and the revenge he is likely to pursue. None of this will pass quickly.
Although Ukraine launched a long-awaited counteroffensive in recent weeks, it has not had a major military advance since November 2022. In many places, Russian soldiers are dug in, and the counteroffensive has so far been slow going. Poised to attack Russian positions, Ukraine has high morale, an array of committed backers, and a clear strategic course. Without political instability, Russia’s military position in Ukraine is intrinsically precarious. With political instability, it might collapse.
Putin’s near-death experience amounts to a paradox for the United States and its allies. His regime represents an immense security problem for Europe, and his exit from the international stage, whenever it comes, will not be mourned. Yet a post-Putin Russia, which could come much sooner than had commonly been expected just a week ago, would call for great caution and careful planning.
Instability in Russia is unlikely to stay within Russia.
While hoping for the best, which would be an end to the war in Ukraine and a less authoritarian Russia, it makes sense to plan for the worst: a Russian leader more radical than Putin and more overtly right-wing and reactionary, someone perhaps with more military experience than Putin ever had, someone who has been shaped by the brutality of war. In February 2022, Putin opted for a criminal war. It would be poetic justice for him to be the political victim of this war, but his successor cannot help but be the child of this war, and wars produce troubled children.
The United States and its allies will have to manage and mitigate the consequences of instability in Russia. In all scenarios, the West will need to seek transparency about the control of Russian nuclear weapons and the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, signaling that it has no intention and no desire to threaten the existence of the Russian state. At the same time, the West must send a strong message of deterrence, focusing on the protection of NATO and its partners. Instability in Russia is unlikely to stay in Russia. It could spread across the region, from Armenia to Belarus.
Prigozhin’s mutiny has already inspired a spate of historical analogies. Perhaps this is Russia in 1905, the small revolution before the big one. Or perhaps it is Russia in February 1917, under political duress because of a war, as Putin himself alluded to. Maybe it is the Soviet Union in 1991, making Putin into a version of Gorbachev, someone destined to lose an empire.
A better analogy places Prigozhin in the role of Stenka Razin, a rebel against tsarist power who mustered an army of peasants and attempted to march on Moscow from southern Russia in 1670–71. Razin was eventually apprehended and quartered on Red Square. But he became a fixture of Russian political folklore. He had revealed weakness in the tsarist government of his time, and in the centuries to come, others took inspiration from his story. For Russia’s autocrats, it holds a clear lesson: even an unsuccessful rebellion plants the seed for future attempts.