Russia’s Rebellion and Its Aftermath
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.
Prigozhin hoped to exploit the Russian military’s early failures in the full-scale war against Ukraine to launch himself into Putin’s inner circle. His ambition, however, brought him into direct conflict with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov. For months, they denied Prigozhin resources and additional recruitment from Russian prisons. Wagnerites were required to pledge loyalty to the Russian military, and, finally, they were allegedly fired upon by Russian forces. For his own survival, Prigozhin needed Putin to side with him and against the regular military.
The “March of Justice”, as Prigozhin describes it, was one final effort to get Putin to give him/Wagner resources and to fire an incompetent military hierarchy. His attention-grabbing march was entirely too successful, however, embarrassing Putin and threatening his leadership.
The result of this rebellion will be Putin’s efforts to restore the status quo and maintain his role as primary political balancer. We can expect dramatic shows of military allegiance for Putin and greater domestic repression for quite some time. But the rebellion revealed several things:
- The Russian military is unable to sufficiently defend Russian territory and there are growing doubts about its ability to fully control its nuclear arsenal
- Russian military forces will struggle with conflicting loyalties and internal violence for some time
- Russian elites were largely silent, either fleeing Moscow or waiting to see how this event would shake out
- Russian elites and the broader public will rally around Putin, fearing 1990s-instability and economic chaos more than they desire regime change
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.
Prigozhin has demonstrated to the world that it takes a force of only 8,000 to take over major military installations, and the population will stay out of your way or perhaps even welcome you. All that is needed for the logical next step is internal political support for a new leader. For now, this is nowhere in sight.