Even if he realizes this, Putin, as the chief architect, can do little, except to change his approach when making personnel decisions in the future.
Many authoritarian regimes control their security institutions by creating controlled conflicts between them, and this could be seen in relation to the Ministry of Defense and PMC Wagner. It has long been practiced in Russia. However, in the case of the conflict between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin let the situation get out of hand, failing to put a stop to it at an earlier stage.
Putin turned out to be unwilling to support either side, and then withdrew himself, leaving the Defense Ministry free to act. (Putin behaved similarly in 2015 after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, when the FSB and the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov clashed
.) From the Kremlin’s point of view, with the Russian army shifting to the defensive and the Ukrainian army unable – at least, so far – to mount a major counter-offensive, there was no longer an urgent need for Wagner and it could be taken out of the game. This is exactly what was going on when Minister Shoigu issued an order
subordinating PMCs to the Ministry of Defense.
Having realized that his stock had fallen sharply, Prigozhin went for broke, trying to maintain and strengthen his position in the system. There is no doubt that he relied on the support of both high-ranking military men who are dissatisfied with the way Shoigu and Gerasimov are waging the war, as well as some of the FSB leadership that wanted to shift responsibility for the disastrous course of the war onto the military leadership. Without such support, Prigozhin would not have made his demarche, and if he had tried, he would not have been able to come within 200-300 km from Moscow without opposition.Lessons from the past and conclusions for the future
Wagner is actually Putin’s personal army, which he put above the law, and Prigozhin is not so much the owner of the asset as its manager. The PMC itself, its state funding – which we know about from Putin
now – the recruitment of prisoners from jails and finally Putin’s non-public agreements with Prigozhin that freed the latter from criminal liability for the rebellion are all egregious violations of the law.
With Wagner being taken away from Prigozhin and divided up – partly to the military, partly to other managers – Putin is left with a quasi-PMC in the form of Rosgvardiya and its Chechen units in particular. This is not quite his personal army, but not quite a state army either. Thus, the transfer of heavy weapons to Rosgvardiya should be seen not so much as strengthening its head Viktor Zolotov, but as a regrouping of the forces loyal to the autocrat.
Putin’s own position has been undermined, and efforts to build it back up make him more dangerous than before. Moreover, time does not seem to be on his side.
Having started the war and now having faced down a rebellion, Putin and his regime are in a downward spiral: