In an interview in 2018, Vladimir Putin was asked if he’s a forgiving person. He said yes, “but not everything’. The reporter asked him what was impossible for him to forgive. “Betrayal,” was the quick reply. For the former KGB operative who has been at the helm of Russia for more than two decades, June 24th (Saturday) was marked by not just the biggest threat to his hold on power but also a public display of betrayal by a former trusted ally. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Private Military Company, launched a “march for justice” towards Moscow after his mercenaries took over the Southern Military District and some other administrative buildings in Rostov-on-Don.
Mr. Prigozhin, a former Kremlin contractor who set up Wagner with the consent and support of Mr. Putin, demanded the dismissal of Russia’s military leadership, particularly Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is also the commander of the “special military operation”, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is called by Moscow. Mr. Prigozhin blames the “corrupt” and “incompetent” Ministry of Defence leadership for Russia’s poor performance in the Ukraine war. But by taking over a military command and launching a march towards Moscow with tanks and other weapons, at a time whenRussia is trying to repel the Ukrainian counteroffensive along the over 1,000-km-long frontline, Mr. Prigozhin was effectively challenging his former boss, the man in the Kremlin.
‘A stab in the back’
As the crisis was unfolding before the whole world, Mr. Putin came on TV, calling the Wagner group’s move a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back”. He also said he had ordered the Russian troops to crush the mutiny. But Wagner faced no major resistance from the regular Russian troops when its mercenaries were marching along the M-4 state highway. That was because what Mr. Putin did after threatening action was to turn to Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus President and a long-time ally, to negotiate with the man who betrayed. By Saturday night, Belarus announced that Wagner would turn around from its march and leave the buildings they occupied in the south, averting a major crisis. Immediately after that, Mr. Prigozhin released a video on the Wagner Telegram channel, saying “it’s over”.
Mr. Prigozhin had particular demands: Wagner should be protected; he should get immunity (authorities had slapped him with criminal charges after the mutiny began) and Minister Shoigu and Gen. Gerasimov should be sacked. Full details of the deal Mr. Lukashenko struck with the Wagner are still not available. But later in the night, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the criminal case against Mr. Prigozhin would be dropped and that “he will leave for Belarus”. The Wagner fighters who did not join the mutiny would sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence and those who joined the mutiny would not be prosecuted. There were rumours in Russian Telegram channels that the top military brass would be fired, but Mr. Peskov said “personnel changes in the MoD were not discussed”.
On the face of it, Mr. Prigozhin accepted concessions after launching a rebellion for his own safety. This also provides an opportunity for Russia to splinter and integrate the Wagner into the regular Russian command structure. And it is to be seen whether the fate of M/s Shoigu and Gerasimov is hanging in balance especially as criticism of the way the war is conducted is mounting at home. But at the same time, the whole drama exposed Mr. Putin’s loosening grip over a system which he himself helped build and managed tightly over the past 20 years.
Mr. Putin likes to show his fellow Russians the world that he’s clearly in command as a televised national security council meeting before the war began showed — Mr. Putin was seen taking suggestions, giving orders and raising questions to his top brass showing everyone that he is the boss. Yet, Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny challenged the idea of stability and control. True, Mr. Putin avoided a civil war through negotiations. But a private military group marching on a state highway towards the capital with weapons at a time when the country is fighting its largest war with an external enemy since the end of the Second World War is not something that’s expected in a cohesive, stable, orderly state.
This crisis has been brewing for quite some time, leaving many surprised why Mr. Putin waited for a full-blown crisis to address it. Throughout the battle for Bakhmut, Mr. Prigozhin has been attacking Russia’s defence establishment, accusing them of blocking ammunition and other essentials for the Wagner. Mr. Putin did little to end the feud between the Generals and the warlord. In January, as Wagner was capturing Soledar in Donetsk, Russia’s first major victory in months in the war, Mr. Putin appointed Gen. Gerasimov as the commander of the “special military operation”, a move that was seen by many as an effort by the Kremlin to reassert the primacy of the defence establishment over the Wagner. But the latter’s capture of Bakhmut, after one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the 21st century, left Mr. Prigozhin stronger. And an MoD attempt to integrate Wagner into the regular Russian army earlier this month seemed to be the trigger for the current mutiny.
For now, Mr. Putin has averted immediate threats to the stability of his regime by letting the “betrayer” go into exile, something, in his own words, he doesn’t like to do. This also shows the enormous challenges he faces at home at a time when the war is grinding on in Ukraine. Someone who cites historical examples galore in his speeches, Mr. Putin knows that bad wars had cost Russian rulers dearly. Nicholas II never recovered from Russia‘s humiliating defeat to Japan in 1904-05. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, after 10 years of inconclusive fighting, was followed by a wave of crises in Eastern Europe where the Soviet Union saw its sphere of influence collapsing like a house of cards. Gorbachev even survived a coup in August 1991 but became a mute spectator when the Soviet Union itself disintegrated in four months. Mr. Putin has weathered many storms in the past but is now facing the biggest crisis of his career. He has to win the war. He has to put his house in order. And he has to do both simultaneously.