For 36 hours, Vladimir Putin confronted an armed challenge to his rule. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the thuggish former convict and leader of the Wagner mercenary group, seized the southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and embarked on a “march of justice” to overthrow the military leadership in Moscow. His fighters came within 200km of the Russian capital before turning around.
Precisely what Prigozhin planned to do when they got there was never clear. He claimed to have 25,000 men under arms, but the real figure was likely less than half of that. The most optimistic estimates put the number of troops bearing down on Moscow at a few thousand, without heavy artillery or air support. In a best-case scenario, Prigozhin could have hoped to emulate Napoleon, who marched his army into the Kremlin in 1812 before being forced into an ignominious retreat that resulted in his exile. (Prigozhin appears to have succeeded in achieving the last part.)
The Wagner leader insists he never intended to mount a coup and there is reason to believe him. He evinced no wider political goals, and his short-lived rebellion looks more like a desperate act of self-preservation than a serious effort to seize power. The Russian ministry of defence had set a deadline of 1 July to absorb his fighters into their chain of command, which would have deprived Prigozhin of his private army and left him decidedly vulnerable. But, regardless of his motivation, the effect of Prigozhin’s actions was to expose the weakness at the heart of Putin’s regime.
Prigozhin’s uprising is a symptom of a deeper malaise that has taken hold in Russia during Putin’s 23-year reign. The man who came to power promising to reverse the humiliation of the Soviet collapse and rebuild a strong Russian state instead created a rotten system of personal patronage. Putin enriched himself and his associates – including Prigozhin – at the expense of the country. He cultivated a strongman image, which beguiled many in the West. But in reality, procrastination is the defining feature of his rule, epitomised by his profound reluctance to intervene in quarrels between his divided subordinates.
Putin played rival factions off against each other to secure his position, but weakened Russia in the process. As the last 16 months have shown, his divide-and-rule approach to leadership is disastrous when fighting a war. Most alarmingly, he has undermined the state’s monopoly on violence by permitting the proliferation of private military companies to serve his short-term needs. That proliferation is likely to intensify; members of the Russian elite may now conclude that if they don’t already have their own private army, it is time to get one.
As Prigozhin’s uprising unravelled, Whitehall issued urgent warnings that the United Kingdom must prepare for the sudden collapse of Russia. The pictures of armoured columns bearing down on Moscow rendered Putin’s downfall no longer unthinkable. In his address to the nation on 24 June, the Russian president referenced the strife associated with the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, and the 1917 mutiny that presaged the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. This was deliberate. He wants to send the message that there is no alternative to his rule – that if he falls, the country will be plunged into civil war.
But the real danger ahead is not the imminent collapse of the Russian state. There are no meaningful independence movements among the Russian regions outside of the North Caucasus. Instead, the focus for Western policymakers must be the prospect that Putin will be replaced, sooner or later, by someone even more hostile to the West, and more competent at prosecuting a war.
While Putin has shown no compunction about jailing – and worse – his liberal opponents, he has allowed himself to be outflanked to the right. As Prigozhin demonstrated, the most serious challenge to Putin’s rule is unlikely to emerge from those seeking to return Russia to the path of democracy. Instead it will come from those who believe his war against Ukraine has been insufficiently ruthless. The Russian president may yet have many more years in power, but the system he presides over is already in decline. It is time to start seriously contemplating who, and what, will come after him. And what follows could be even worse.
[See also: The paralysis of power]
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia