The events of June 23-24 demonstrated the weakness of the Putin regime and illustrated what its collapse may look like. This acute crisis arose seemingly out of the blue, and its causes were organic flaws in the political system constructed by Putin, aggravated by conditions of war and confrontation with the outside world.Crisis
On June 23, Prigozhin accused the Russian Defense Ministry of attacking a PMC Wagner camp and causing numerous casualties. He then announced
that his militia of 25,000 soldiers were going on a “march for justice” against the Russian military leadership to “figure out why lawlessness reigns in the country.”
For now, it’s not entirely clear whether the Russian military fired upon the Wagner men, but it’s not at all unlikely, considering the tense relationship between Wagner and the military heads. It’s important to note that if there was an armed attack against Wagner, it couldn’t have happened without Putin’s authorization — he most likely would have made the decision during the June 22 Security Council meeting, during which Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin about the situation at the front.
Events began to develop rapidly — Wagner’s militia took control of Rostov-on-Don, including the Headquarters of the Southern Military District and the military airport, and marched on Moscow. A counter-terrorism regime was declared in Moscow, as well as the Moscow and Voronezh regions, and troops were sent to Moscow. At midnight, Putin hurriedly congratulated
the Russians on Youth Day (a measure clearly intended to give the sense that nothing out of the ordinary was happening), and in the morning delivered a five-minute speech
in which he actually admitted that an armed rebellion was taking place in the country, urged Wagner’s militiamen not to participate, and announced that those responsible for the rebellion would be punished for treason. Putin fled later that day,
presumably to his residence in the Novgorod region.
If the war Putin unleashed on Ukraine seems like a 20th-century war, then the Wagner campaign to take Rostov-on-Don and Moscow looks like a medieval standoff led by mercenaries dissatisfied with their wages. This is the most serious political crisis of Putin’s entire time in office, and it happened by Putin’s own hand. It is not the result of any one particular mistake, but rather of design flaws in the system Putin constructed.Prigozhin as a product of Putin’s political model
Prigozhin is not just some monster that broke free from its master. Standing behind him are many influential figures from Putin’s inner circle (
see Nikolai Petrov’s article
in Russia.Post), without whom the June 24 “mutiny” would not have been possible. Prigozhin personifies the system that Putin built, and that system is the real monster here.
From within the ranks of the Putin administration, where loyalty is a point-blank requirement, a situation has been spawned that Putin himself, a perennial historian, compared to the 1917 Revolution — that is, the threat of governmental collapse. How did this happen?
It appears that several important factors had to coincide at the right time in order for this crisis to arise. On one hand, after Putin’s “blitzkrieg” last year failed and Ukrainian troops liberated part of the Russian-occupied territories, the Russian government urgently needed to fill the gaps on the front formed by the huge losses in the first months of the war.
Prigozhin’s Wagner group, which the Kremlin allowed to grow dramatically in size and resources, both military and financia l — in part through use of prisoners in military operations — proved very useful. Prigozhin himself, previously known as “Putin’s chef” and the mastermind behind such dark deeds as the “troll factory” and the use of mercenaries in Syria and Africa, rapidly gained publicity, and in June of 2022, he received three Gold Star hero medals at once — one from Russia, and one each from the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics. It can’t be denied that Prigozhin has been a skillful leader of the Wagner group, which has become the most combat-ready segment of the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. Unlike the Defense Ministry’s ordinary armed forces, Prigozhin’s Wagner group managed to achieve an impressive image victory in 2023 with the capture of Bakhmut.
On the other hand, Putin used Prigozhin as an element of “controlled conflict,” a practice employed by many authoritarian leaders: by the Kremlin’s calculations, Prigozhin, who did not answer to military command, was supposed to serve as a kind of counterbalance and reproach to the military. As it turned out, “controlled conflict” doesn’t work well under wartime conditions.
Finally, Prigozhin, a skilled populist with his own network media empire, was able to skillfully exploit the discontent building up in the military and society amidst long months of war, in conjunction with the war of discontent in the army and society at large. Moreover, this occurred within the political desert created by Putin over the long years of being in power, during which he purged the political field not only of competitors, but also its brightest figures.
In this context, Prigozhin had no competitors. A fresh and charismatic “man of the people” unconstrained by self-censorship, he won out when compared to both the “wooden” military and Putin himself. In a Levada Center survey conducted at the end of May, 4% of respondents named Prigozhin as a political figure they trusted — he took fifth place after Putin, Mishustin, Lavrov and Shoigu.
For the time being, the abuse Prigozhin slung at Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov is working to Putin’s benefit, since he shifts the blame for an increasingly unpopular war from himself to the perpetrators. With the transition from offensive to defensive tactics, and given that the current Ukrainian counteroffensive has been slow and not very successful, the need for Wagner has, if not completely disappeared, then greatly decreased. Prigozhin, apparently, felt this a few weeks ago and began to actively convert his military successes into political capital. His task was made easier by the fact that three most important resources were concentrated in his hands at once: power, media, and finances.Escalation as the only alternative
At present, the Ukrainian armed forces counteroffensive has not yet effected serious change, and the Russian forces, unable to turn the tide of the war, have switched to defensive tactics. In these conditions, Putin and his entourage will have to decide whether to continue the war of attrition in the expectation that the West and Ukraine will agree to admit their losses, force peace negotiations, or initiate an escalation. Prigozhin, of course, advocated for escalation, while removing the option of maintaining the status quo, which is always Putin’s preference.