Can Putin recover from the Wagner mutiny?

Russia’s elites are distancing themselves from Putin, even if they won’t revolt just yet, say analysts.

[Nataliia Shulga/Al Jazeera]

As armoured vehicles of mutinous mercenaries from the Wagner Group rolled towards Moscow on June 24, Russia was on edge, and the world watched, stunned.

Led by Wagner chief and catering tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, the fighters, several thousand strong, had turned against the Russian high command and had effortlessly taken Rostov, a major city in the country’s southwest, before beginning a rapid advance towards the nation’s capital.

On national TV, President Vladimir Putin described the rebels as “traitors”; Prigozhin, meanwhile, denied he was launching a military coup and called his revolt a “march for justice”. There seemed to be nothing stopping the rebels, who managed to shoot down several military aircraft. Was Putin about to be toppled by a mutineer of his own making? Would gun battles erupt over Red Square?

By evening, the immediate threat to Putin dissipated, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered an agreement between the Kremlin and Prigozhin. The warlord ordered his men to stand down, and apparently agreed to move to Belarus in exile.

Yet on July 6, Lukashenko made another announcement: Prigozhin was back in St Petersburg, Russia. While the details of the deal between Putin and the Wagner chief are unclear, the fact that Prigozhin and his rebels appear – for now at least – to have escaped any punishment could come back to bite the Russian leadership. In fact, Putin even met Prigozhin after the mutiny, the Kremlin said on July 10.

So, how severely has the rebellion loosened Putin’s iron grip over Russia? Can he regain the brute authority with which he has held power for more than two decades? Or could Prigozhin’s revolt have set the stage for the former KGB agent’s removal? And what could a post-Putin Russia look like?

The short answer: Putin has likely been irredeemably weakened by the attempted mutiny and his tame response, say analysts. While he might not face an imminent armed revolt, early evidence suggests that the rebellion could bleed him of support from sections of the Russian elite that until now have stood by him. Yet those who could potentially replace the Russian president are unlikely to offer a fundamentally more liberal alternative to Putin.

Wagner chief and Putin
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company and Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP Photo)

‘Putin not as strong’

Historians have noted that previous revolts by military officers in Russia precipitated the collapse of the system. In 1917, General Lavr Kornilov marched on the then-capital St Petersburg in the last days of World War I. Later that year, the Bolsheviks seized power. Another attempted coup in 1991 was shortly followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of course, modern Russia is a very different place to what it was a century ago, or even 32 years ago. But, arguably, it is still fragile.

Until recently, Putin was able to maintain a delicate dance between ruling over the military, business moguls, intelligence officers and other interests on the one hand while also allowing them a certain degree of autonomy – like a king and his lords.

Prigozhin’s revolt has upset that balance.

“The rebellion has demonstrated that Putin’s hold on power is not as strong as it was commonly believed,” Russian economist and University of Chicago professor Konstantin Sonin said. “Other political actors were remarkably slow to respond to both Wagner’s movements and Putin’s address. If only Prigozhin were more decisive, it’s possible that elites would have swung against Putin.”

Speculation – and perhaps wishful thinking on the part of some in the West – that sections of the Russian elite would depose Putin have been circulating since last year’s invasion of Ukraine. The West’s tough sanctions have shut Russia out from large parts of the global economy. A leaked telephone call between two top Russian businessmen this year suggested that many are privately unhappy with how much Putin’s war is costing them.

And as Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine mount and with Putin indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, others will be wary of being considered accomplices.

Prigozhin’s mutiny shows players with enough clout can and will stand up for themselves, according to analysts. The fact that an armed rebellion was not crushed outright but reached a negotiated solution leaves the possibility open for others to try the same.

“The elites do not yet understand what Putin is doing to prevent such a situation in the future,” Crisis Group analyst Oleg Ignatov said. “From their point of view, his response to the crisis looks weak so far.”

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin attends a meeting on metals industries chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin via video conference in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, seen on the phone here on Monday, August 1, 2022, was silent during the mutiny [Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP]

Cracks in the Kremlin edifice

Immediately after the aborted putsch, many local leaders across Russia recorded messages reaffirming their support for Putin, while the president himself praised the army for averting a civil war – though it’s not clear what exactly it did.

But while the Kremlin insists Russia’s leadership is united behind Putin, the evidence reveals cracks in that narrative.

“I believe that the indolent response of the elite, when Putin needed their support the most, speaks volumes,” political scientist Aleksandar Djokic said. “Out of the 83 Russian regions, not more than 10 governors publicly spoke in support of Putin.”

Djokic pointed out that the governor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, and the prime minister of Russia, Mikhail Mishustin, were completely silent during the mutiny.

“We have seen oligarchs like Vladimir Potanin and Arkady Rotenberg, who is very close to Putin, immediately fly away from the country while the mutiny was taking place,” Djokic said. Potanin is Russia’s second-richest man, valued at $23bn, while Rotenberg, who has made his fortune in construction, is Putin’s former judo partner.

“We must understand that the rational, technocratic parts of Putin’s elites aren’t disillusioned by the lack of democracy and human rights violations in Russia or war crimes in Ukraine – they are afraid that they won’t have a secure future alongside Putin anymore,” Djokic added. “Prigozhin’s action could only have cemented this feeling.”

Against that backdrop, some, like historian Andrey Zubov in a recent interview to the website Vertska, have predicted that a change of power in Moscow is coming – and it could happen within months if not weeks.

But other analysts argue that potential challengers among the Russian elite have a more complex set of calculations to consider before risking their privilege taking on Putin just yet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin awards General Sergei Surovikin
General Sergei Surovikin, the air and space commander of Russian forces, seen here with Putin at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia December 31, 2022. Wagner effortlessly took control of the city on Jun 24. Surovikin has not been seen in public since then [Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin via REUTERS/File]

Is another coup attempt imminent?

The frustration with Putin and concerns over whether he can still protect their interests are real among wealthy and influential Russians.

Writing in the Spectator, security expert Mark Galeotti said that unlike Putin’s inner circle, much of which consists of former KGB officers bitter at the collapse of the Soviet empire, the younger generation is not so much married to Putinism because of any ideology but because it was the easiest way to get ahead. Now they’re losing out.

“Putin is trying to present the revolt as an isolated event, which is explained by Prigozhin’s own personality rather than by systemic problems,” Ignatov said.

Yet while few buy that storyline, “this does not mean that his power is under threat,” he added.

As political scientist Ilya Matveev has pointed out in Riddle Russia, many have yet to be personally sanctioned. And for those that have faced Western sanctions, there’s no clear path to wipe their names off the blacklist, disincentivising discord.

What will worry Putin as much as the attempted mutiny itself is the ease with which the Wagner fighters took control of the Rostov military headquarters, said analysts, because that could indicate that Prigozhin had sympathisers in the army. The New York Times, citing US intelligence officials, reported that at least part of the Russian security services knew of the mutiny plot. Sergei Surovikin, the air and space commander, has not been seen in public for days and has reportedly been detained.

“It appears that someone knew but did nothing [and] someone did not know, observed and did nothing either,” said Ignatov. “Prigozhin had wide connections in the elite. He could discuss his discontent and his plans with many people. I think part of the military and FSB leadership could not have been unaware.”

Still, there were also no defections to Wagner, at the time the most significant armed group outside of the Kremlin’s direct control. While other paramilitary forces exist – even Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has one – they don’t compare, according to Galeotti.

“Putin doesn’t face any imminent armed threat – the only force with anything like the kind of numbers and freedom of operation that would require are [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov’s, and such is the widespread fear of the Chechens, they would not get the kind of easy run to Moscow that Wagner enjoyed,” he told Al Jazeera. “The real threat to Putin is not that the military will turn against him – it is that they will not support him in a future crisis.”

Such a split among the elite has been a common factor behind so-called “colour revolutions” in other ex-Soviet countries, which is how protestors were able to stand up to the repressive state security.

But what about Putin’s appeal among the masses?

“The silence of the people in the cities which Wagner controlled or passed through on their march to Moscow tells that there is a tacit support for Wagner’s cause,” said Sonin. “Perhaps, dissatisfaction with Putin’s leadership as well.”

And while Putin has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century, the war in Ukraine and Russia’s struggles there could be the tipping point for many people who previously backed him.

“There is a demand in Russian society for a strong, charismatic and authoritarian leader who can fix the war and restore Russian citizens’ pride in their army and their country,” said Ignatov. “This is a demand that Putin is now unable to meet, and it will become more and more of a problem for him.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin stands at the Sevastopol (City in Crimea) inscription as he attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking the 82nd anniversary of the Nazi German invasion into Soviet Union in World War II on the Remembrance and Sorrow Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Sergey Guneev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands at the Sevastopol (city in Crimea) inscription as he attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking the 82nd anniversary of the Nazi German invasion into Soviet Union in World War II in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 22, 2023 [Sergey Guneev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

A post-Putin Russia?

Increasingly frequent Ukrainian cross-border incursions, including by far-right Russian militias fighting for Kyiv, have unsettled the sense of safety Russians have felt under Putin, who has built his authority on restoring law and order after the anarchic 1990s.

Since the war in Ukraine is viewed as existential by his supporters, what would happen if the Russian army is severely routed on the battlefield?

“If it becomes clear that Putin won’t be given a way out of the war by signing some sort of a new Minsk Agreement, if the Ukrainian army closes in on Crimea and is able to effectively put in under siege,” said Djokic, it could have serious consequences for Russia’s political stability. The Minsk Agreements were signed in 2014 with the aim of bringing the war in the Donbass between Ukraine and Russian-backed militias to an end.

“This would be a perfect tipping point for the elites to stop yet another wave of mobilisation and escalation of the war,” he added. It could fuel efforts to isolate Putin “and seek genuine peace talks”.

An economic collapse could also force such a response from the broader Russian elite, Djokic said.

What is less clear is whether an end to Putin’s reign, whenever that happens, will fundamentally transform Russia’s political direction.

Some, like Zubov, have predicted that once the elite turn against Putin, that would lead to the end of the war and perhaps the liberalisation of Russia.

Others are less convinced that those who could take power are secret doves just waiting for a moment to spread their wings. Prigozhin positioned himself as even more hawkish than Putin, complaining that the war wasn’t being waged fiercely enough. Could an even more aggressive, militaristic faction take power?

“The liberals are mostly out of Russia, they are disorganised and have very limited influence on events in the country,” said Ignatov. “Those who are in the country will win. We can imagine a new coalition of security forces and technocrats, or a coalition of security forces and radical supporters of war.”

Still, the next possible set of Russian leaders could be more pragmatic towards Ukraine and the standoff with the West.

“I do not think that a liberal faction could prevail on its own,” said Sonin. “However, it’s plausible that any new leader would need to build a wide coalition to rely on and so will have to make significant concessions towards liberal, non-isolationist, pro-market forces.”

Source: Al Jazeera