The Wagner leader’s actions have dramatically weakened Vladimir Putin’s personal authority and his grip on power.
The pillars of the system that supported Putin’s rule for over two decades simply buckled on 24–25 June, put to the test by around 10,000 armed Wagner mercenaries.
US authorities knew about preparations for the mutiny in advance, but Putin did not. Clearly, parts of the Russian intelligence services colluded with Prigozhin, as did sections of the military and the internal security forces.
Putin has been shown to have lost his previous ability to be the arbiter between powerful rival groups. This has undermined his public image in Russia as the all-powerful Tsar and called into question his value as a protector of elites’ status and wealth.
His television appeal to the country on Saturday morning showed him in a state the Russian public has never previously seen: frightened and betraying panic. He promptly disappeared from public view and has not been seen or heard of since.
He later suffered the humiliation of having to rely on the Belarusian self-proclaimed president, Alexander Lukashenka, a man he famously despises, to negotiate terms with Prigozhin.
By the end of the day, Putin had agreed to give Prigozhin and his rebels free passage to Belarus. This humiliation was agreed despite the shooting down of several aircraft by Wagner forces, killing over ten Russian servicemen. Hours earlier, Putin had vowed to bring the mutineers to justice, labelling them traitors and accusing them of pushing Russia towards anarchy and defeat.
The disloyalty in the ranks of military and security services and the disappearance from sight of Rosgvardiya, Putin’s praetorian guard, now pose a serious problem for the Russian president.
An authoritarian without authority
In an authoritarian system, loyalty to the leader relates directly to their perceived influence and authority. Power is maintained by ensuring the loyalty of institutions that control the state’s instruments of violence and repression.
With his war on Ukraine already proceeding badly for the Russian army, Putin now cannot rely on the execution of his orders.
They may be sabotaged or simply not carried out.
His options for addressing the situation offer little hope that he can consolidate his position.
A purge of the military and security services, in the middle of a war that lacks popular support, could worsen the situation on the battlefield in the short-term and exacerbate the army’s morale problem.
Bringing the war to a rapid end, by settling with Kyiv on the basis of modest territorial gains, including the preservation of the land bridge to Crimea, does not look possible – especially now Ukraine’s leadership senses Putin’s weakness. Even if it were achievable, it would signal both a failed strategy and personal weakness.
A time of considerable internal tension and uncertainty is hardly the moment to accelerate the search for a successor. Putin needs to identify a figure he can trust who will have the weight to guarantee his safety and immunity from prosecution.
He was reportedly deeply shocked by the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 at the hands of rebels.
Rumours abounded in Moscow in late 2022 that Putin was close to appointing Dmitry Patrushev as prime minister as part of his succession plan.
The transfer of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague in 2001 to face war crimes charges cannot have escaped Putin’s attention either – the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the Russian president’s arrest in March.
Patrushev, the son of long-term ally Nikolay Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council, is minister of agriculture and is on the sanctions lists of the US, UK and others. Assuming there was truth to the speculation, Putin appears to have had second thoughts.
Playing for time
The remaining option is to try to gain time by stamping out dissent in the elites and further raising the nuclear stakes over Ukraine to scare Western leaders.
Nuclear sabre-rattling does not enjoy widespread support among the elites, so the danger of both approaches is that they will persuade larger numbers in the military, security services and government bureaucracy to transfer their allegiance to others they believe can provide Russia with a future worthy of support. In this case, Putin would lose control of the succession process.
In the language of chess, Putin is in zugzwang. Any move he makes looks set to worsen his position.
Source: Chatham House