When Vladimir Putin ascended to power at the turn of the millennium, he liked to tell the story of the moment when he realised the Soviet Union was doomed. As a young KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, he had watched revolution sweep across eastern Europe. Then, one night in December 1989, the protesters were at his own gates. In Putin’s telling, he went out to confront the angry crowds himself before calling for help from the nearest Soviet military garrison. But the officer on duty told him he couldn’t do anything without orders from above. “And Moscow is silent.”
“I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed,” Putin recalled in First Person, a compendium of interviews that was published in 2000. “It was clear that the Union was ailing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure – a paralysis of power.”
The new president defined himself in the opposite terms – as power in motion. He was photographed flooring his opponents on the judo mat and flying in a fighter jet as he vowed to reverse the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. One newspaper dubbed him, “Iron Putin”. Yet the strongman image was always a facade. Putin governed through a kleptocratic system of personal patronage, playing rival factions off against one another while dismantling the institutions that might have created a stronger state.
The limits of that approach were already evident in Russia’s foundering war against Ukraine, but when the Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin embarked on an armed mutiny on 23-24 June, he exposed the fundamental pathologies within the system Putin built.
Prigozhin’s rebellion began on social media, where he denounced the war as a “racket” and scoffed at the idea that it had been necessary to “demilitarise or denazify Ukraine”, as Putin has repeatedly claimed. He had long been embroiled in a feud with the Russian defence ministry, but now he accused the military leadership of executing deadly strikes against his troops and vowed to march on Moscow to restore “justice for all of Russia”. Prigozhin denied it was a coup, even if it sounded like one.
The most striking features were the ease with which Prigozhin seized the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and the absence of Putin. It took the Russian president 13 hours to make a five-minute speech. In the televised address on 24 June, he condemned the uprising as a “knife in the back of our country and our people” and compared it to the mutiny among the armed forces in 1917 that preceded the Russian Civil War. Then he vanished again.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that he was still “working at the Kremlin” but offered no evidence to support his claims, while rumours swirled on Twitter that the Russian president’s plane had left the capital. Unlike in 1991, when Boris Yeltsin climbed onto a tank to confront a coup by Soviet hardliners, or during the mass protests in Belarus in 2020, when Aleksandr Lukashenko was pictured with a rifle and body armour at the presidential palace, Putin was invisible. It was hardly a projection of strength.
Later that evening, with the Wagner fighters 200km from Moscow and road crews frantically digging up the highways around the capital to slow their advance, Prigozhin announced his troops were turning around. Under the terms of a deal supposedly negotiated by Lukashenko, the Kremlin announced Prigozhin had agreed to leave for Belarus and that the charges against him for leading an armed rebellion would be dropped. Cheering crowds chanted “Wagner! Wagner!” as the mercenaries departed Rostov, with Prigozhin posing for selfies and shaking hands through the window of his SUV. No crowds had rallied outside the Kremlin in Putin’s defence.
[See also: Old Europe is dead]
“We have to figure out what happened today,” said Vladimir Solovyov, one of the country’s most prominent propagandists, looking uncharacteristically downbeat during his evening broadcast. Andrey Bezrukov, a former KGB officer and Moscow-based political scientist, pronounced the day’s events a “phenomenon of a weak government” during an appearance on Russian state television. “For 20 years the president has been working on this… to turn this nation into a strong country, a normal country, where these things will be impossible,” he lamented. “This couldn’t happen in a strong nation!”
Putin’s disappearing act and his dithering approach to the crisis were typical. For all his action-man publicity stunts, he procrastinates when confronted with difficult decisions and often misjudges his response. When the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in August 2000 killing all 118 sailors on board, he was on holiday and it took him nine days to visit the rescue site and meet the distraught relatives. When asked what had happened during a subsequent television interview, he said: “It sunk.” A former associate explained this response to Catherine Belton in Putin’s People, “He didn’t know how to deal with it, and therefore he tried to avoid dealing with it.”
When Chechen militants took more than 900 people hostage at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in October 2002, the security services pumped an unknown gas into the building before storming it and killing the attackers. But 130 hostages died in the process, most from the effects of the gas. The doctors treating them were not even told that gas had been used, let alone what type of gas it was, until eight hours after the raid. Putin refused to acknowledge that anything had gone wrong.
Two years later, during the Beslan school siege in 2004, the European Court of Human Rights found that Russian officials, including Putin, had ignored intelligence ahead of the crisis and mishandled the response. More than 330 people, including at least 180 children, died when the security forces opened fire on the school. In response to the tragedy, Michael McFaul, who would go on to become the US ambassador to Russia, urged Putin to re-evaluate his strategy for fighting terrorism and his plan for building a strong and effective state. After all, he noted, that was what Putin had “promised the Russian people when he became president in 2000”. But Putin merely discarded more of the checks on his own power.
Prigozhin is Putin’s creation. After being released from prison in 1990 following a conviction for robbery, he sold hot dogs in St Petersburg before working his way into the restaurant business, where he came to the new leader’s attention. From there, Prigozhin won lucrative catering contracts and made himself useful doing Putin’s dirty work. He ran troll farms tasked with interfering in the 2016 US presidential election and established the Wagner private military company, deploying troops to Ukraine, Syria and multiple African states according to the Kremlin’s military needs, and his own pursuit of profit.
[See also: How Ramzan Kadyrov became Putin’s white knight]
But in the process, Putin ceded the state’s monopoly on violence, ignoring Mao Zedong’s warning that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. And Prigozhin was not the only dubious character with his own private army. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, has long maintained his Kadyrovtsy militia. Gazprom, the Russian state gas giant, reportedly formed three private military companies earlier this year. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, has his own outfit called Patriot.
The problem is not just that Putin allows these groups to exist, but that he seems reluctant to mediate between his sparring lieutenants. The dispute between Prigozhin and Shoigu had been intensifying for months. But the Russian president seemed content to let them fight it out. Perhaps he believed Prigozhin was serving a purpose by keeping up the pressure on the military, or perhaps he was trying to avoid having to make another decision, but it was only with the armoured columns bearing down on Moscow that he finally grasped the danger he had unleashed. The problem with dividing and ruling as a system of governance, it turns out, is that at some point you have to intervene and actually rule.
“Faced with a seemingly insoluble dilemma – admit that Prigozhin had him hemmed in, or risk turning him into a martyr – Putin froze,” said Sam Greene at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, warning that Putin’s hesitation during the stand-off did not bode well for future crises. “Lukashenko will not be there to step in and mediate between disputing elites every time Putin goes Awol. Unless the Russian leader can reassert himself, elite conflict will grow increasingly chaotic and violent.”
But taking back control requires careful calibration. “There are two main dangers to Putin at this point,” explained Joseph Torigian, the author of Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao. “The first is that people in the elite conclude that he’s so bad that he’s a danger to the system, but the second is that they view him as a danger to them personally.”
The difficulty for Putin now, Torigian told me, will be reasserting his power without causing others to believe, as Prigozhin seems to have done, that they need to take drastic action to save themselves. “Authoritarian leaders are extremely proactive about going after even the most incipient potential challengers, but they also often recognise that if such actions go too far a view will emerge that there are cracks in the regime, or even worse, trigger a pre-emptive response.”
On 26 June, 48 hours after Prigozhin had cancelled his uprising, Putin was pictured on television meeting his top security officials, before addressing the nation in a speech state media outlets said would “determine the fate of Russia”. But the five-minute speech contained nothing new. Looking tired and angry, he condemned the rebellion, but insisted that Russian society had “united and rallied everyone”, which was not what had happened. If the speech was intended as a vision of Russia’s future, then it augured more of the same: an ageing despot mired in his imperial delusions, presiding over a system whose decline has begun.
[See also: What Ukraine knew about the Wagner mutiny]
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia