GMF Expert Analysis: Mutiny in Russia
Russia’s Rebellion and Its Aftermath
Over the past four days in Russia, everything happened and nothing happened. Putin had made and paid for Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries over nearly a decade leading up to their march towards Moscow on Saturday: Wagner served as a corrupt and separate instrument of violence and malign influence for the state to use at will. And although the rebellion shattered the illusion of Putin’s control, it changed very little.
What does this mean for the Ukrainian counter-offensive? Putin now understands that time is not on his side. As he noted on Sunday, Moscow will intensify its military actions in Ukraine. But more Russian military failures in Ukraine will bring more pressure from inside the Russian military to take a different approach: They know they are failing. Russian forces may attempt a bolder and more decisive military action to secure some end to the conflict on better terms for Russia, but they will need more forces and equipment for a fall offensive, and a mobilization could be politically explosive. Nearly one million men have already fled Russia on top of more than 100,000 dead or wounded in battle as of December, fueling domestic uncertainty as well as labor shortages and deepening its demographic crisis.
- Heather A. Conley, President, German Marshall Fund of the United States
Murky Developments in Moscow—Some NATO Concerns
Recent developments in Russia will surely be on the minds of leaders at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius. What are the likely concerns? First, the aborted insurrection by Wagner forces underscores long-standing questions about the stability of Putin’s regime and the implications for Russian war aims in Ukraine. If the outcome of the conflict is indeed existential for the regime, this could lead to new escalation and greater unpredictability in Russian behavior. Second, NATO planners will be concerned about the effects of instability, chaos, or possible coup attempts on Russian command and control, especially over nuclear forces. “Leakage” from Russia’s large stock of tactical nuclear weapons will be one concern; the potential for rogue or accidental use would be another. Allies will also be attuned to the possible consequences for Russian activity in Syria, the Sahel, and other places where Moscow’s mercenary forces have played a role. Finally, recent events will compel NATO leaders to consider a much wider range of scenarios for the future of Russia and relations with Moscow.
- Ian Lesser, Vice President, GMF South and Executive Director, Brussels Office
A Détente in Russia
The sudden détente between Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Putin regime demonstrates the Russian military’s overwhelming reliance on Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine. It is hard to imagine any other Russian oligarch—no matter how well connected to Vladimir Putin—getting away with such a brazen challenge to the Russian brass as Prigozhin did. Yet, Prigozhin is off to Belarus and his mercenaries are back to the front in Ukraine, this time signing contracts with the Russian military. Many will have you believe the foundation of the Putin regime is cracking, but ultimately, the expeditious solution to the Wagner rebellion keeps a lid on the internal boiling pot within the Russian security establishment and ostensibly assists Putin with his war aims in Ukraine. Putin clearly has no interest in any military about-face. A prolonged and violent fight between the Russian military and the mercenaries that routinely outperform them on the battlefield would have only emboldened the Ukrainian military to make advances in its counteroffensive. Putin may have preferred a different more fateful outcome for his former ally Prigozhin, but his army needs Prigozhin’s men too much.
- David Salvo, Managing Director, Alliance for Securing Democracy
What the Revolt Means for NATO
Prigozhin’s surprise mutiny, followed by Lukashenko’s wholly unexpected return to international relevance, shows us the truly unpredictable nature of power dynamics within Kremlin inner circles. Predicting the end of any leader’s reign is foolhardy. And for the purposes of transatlantic security, perhaps not entirely necessary.
What is important for NATO countries is maintaining the expectation of, and preparedness against, protracted instability and belligerence east of NATO’s borders. In two weeks, NATO’s next summit will take place in Vilnius, just over twenty miles from Lithuania’s border with Belarus. The past few tumultuous days suggest that no matter what happens in Russia—or on the front lines in Ukraine—NATO needs to protect its borders, its airspace, and its seas against aggression from the East.
Chronic underspending in defense across NATO member states and foot-dragging on placing troops in the Baltic States (cough cough: Germany could have made yesterday’s decision to station troops in Lithuania a year ago) means that reinforcement along the eastern flank, especially in the Baltics, has not been fast enough. A few Patriot air defense systems, more pre-positioned equipment, and long-term commitments for allied presence, especially US troops and equipment, would serve as a solid security guarantee for NATO’s eastern flank no matter what is happening in the Kremlin, on Ukraine’s front line, or in Minsk.
- Kristine Berzina, Managing Director, GMF North
What Turkish and Kazakh Presidents' Reactions Tell Us:
Erdoğan was among the first leaders to call Putin during the Wagner mutiny. What was absent from the Turkish Presidency’s readout of the conversation was as interesting as what was in it. According to the readout, Erdoğan underscored “the importance of acting with common sense”, that “no one should take it upon themselves to take action in the face of the situation in Russia”, and that “Turkey stands ready to do its part in order for the incidents to be resolved in a calm and peaceful manner.” What was missing was a condemnation of Wagner’s actions or a statement that a coup attempt against a legitimate government is unacceptable. When Turkey was in a similar situation in 2016, Putin had called Erdoğan and described the attempted coup as unacceptable.
Erdoğan’s measured approach suggests that he was not sure Putin would prevail, and that the commonly referenced "Erdoğan-Putin" relationship is more accurately an "Erdoğan-Moscow" relationship. Should there be a leadership change in Moscow, Erdoğan would likely seek to maintain the relationship with the new Kremlin leader. Erdoğan’s response, similar to Kazakh President Tokayev’s statement that “the ongoing events are an internal affair of Russia”, is an example of how isolated and vulnerable Putin has become. The façade of resilience Putin's regime projects in the face of the war against Ukraine may not accurately reflect its true strength and stability.
- Özgür Ünlühisarcıkl, Director, GMF Ankara
Lukashenka's Unexpected Role
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the contested leader of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka has become a peacemaker able to stop a mutiny by an armed and battle-hardened paramilitary group 200 km short of Moscow. Though completely dependent on the Kremlin politically and economically, he is now able to present himself as an independent actor on a regional scale.
Lukashenka dragged Belarus into complicity when he allowed Russia to use its territory for logistical and military purposes from day one of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The deal he reportedly brokered on Saturday might see Prigozhin and thousands of Wagnerites settling in Belarus with as-yet unclear purposes. At the same time, polls consistently show that the majority of Belarusians favor neutrality and the expulsion of all foreign troops from their country.
Lukashenka is sure that if Russia collapses, “We [Belarusians] will all end up under the rubble and perish.” It is no surprise, then, that Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine are facing criminal charges for joining an armed conflict abroad, while known Belarusian members of the Wagner group have not been prosecuted.
Meanwhile, Vilnius—which lies just 35 km away from the border with Belarus—is gearing up to host NATO summit in mid-July. Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia are enhancing border security at all crossings with Russia and Belarus, further isolating Belarusian citizens from the EU. This episode has thus brought symbolic gains for Lukashenka personally, but further down the road, the deal he made can only bring pain for Belarusians.
- Maryna Rakhlei, Senior Program Officer, Fund for Belarus Democracy
Rebellion Widens Crack Between Eastern and Western Europe
It’s hard not to see how the Russian rebellion revived a crack between eastern and western Europe. Waiting to see how this event would unfold, Ukrainians, Poles and other eastern flank voices cheered for the imminent demise of Putin’s regime over popcorn. After all, for those in geographic proximity to Russia, the war in Ukraine and the unrest in Russia is the result of a long process with roots in the unfinished dissolution Soviet Union. The sooner someone cuts the head off the monster, the sooner it will stop killing Ukrainians and threatening others in the region. Putin is just the latest in a long line of Soviet imperialists. But he is the pinnacle of present-day aggression and terror in this part of the world. Instability and chaos in the Kremlin weaken his ability to wage war against his neighbors.
Voices from Western Europe quickly reigned in on the parade. Acknowledging that Putin’s system is deeply wounded, and that Putin must someday go, they rushed to warn that instability in the Kremlin will lead to war criminals taking control of Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal. “Russia cannot fall apart” some said, because alternatives can be worse. For Eastern Europeans these statements echoed pre-invasion policies when many European policymakers shared the perception that Vladimir Putin may be a ruthless autocrat, but at least he provided stability in Russia. For those for whom Putin is just the latest in a long line of imperialists, Putin guarantees neither stability, nor predictability. And, as they say, “we need to be serious about undermining his regime”.
Although Western and Eastern European governments treated the events of Saturday June 23 as an internal Russian affair and no harm was done, the gap gives us a glimpse of how difficult it will be to align on policy towards a post-Putin Russia. And here most everyone agrees, that Putin’s Russia is on a downward decline and we need to prepare.
- Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, Program Manager, GMF Warsaw