In the byzantine politics of Putin’s court, Prigozhin may have had fans in Russia’s security services who didn’t mind seeing uniformed military leaders humiliated. But she crossed the line with her ultimatum that Putin fire Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov. Russia’s security chiefs were unwilling to back the brash outsider, an obscure St. Petersburg businessman who has long been a thorn in their side with his rants about the army’s incompetence, criminal record and absence of ties to the old KGB. He played and lost. The regime held out and remained loyal to Putin. If anything, he’s more confident now. With Prigozhin shipped to Belarus and Wagner broke up OR absorbed by the Ministry of Defencewho is stronger than Putin in the zero-sum game of Russian politics?
Has the rebellion revealed that there is much rot within the regime? Perhaps. But didn’t anyone know that there was at least some level of corrosive corruption within the Putin regime? Isn’t the whole system built on cronyism and bribes which in a normal country would be considered “rotten” but in Russia they are an integral part of the functioning of the state?
Will Putin have a hard time explaining to the Russian people what happened and why he did what he did? It’s highly unlikely. Putin hasn’t even tried to sound the least bit plausible: his address to the nation last week was nothing short of absurd as he blamed the rebellion on Ukraine. And it seems to work. An audience opinion poll conducted by the only independent Russian pollsterLevada.ru, shortly after the failed rebellion revealed a sharp decline in the attitude of Russians towards Prigozhin, from 58% to 34%, numbers that are expected to decrease further. Putin’s approval rating remained unchanged at 82 percent. The country has been buying up Putin’s Ukrainian narrative for nearly a year and a half in a war that should have ended in days. Why change now?
Is the Russian state at risk of fracture? There is scant evidence to support this claim. Russian provincial governors serve as Putin pleases. He hired them, fired them and sent them to prison for corruption or other misdeeds, real or otherwise. They are afraid of Putin. He has transformed them into pawns that he can easily move on the political chessboard according to his calculations, usually perceivable only by him and a few confidants of his inner circle. The only exception to this rule was the longtime ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, known for two outstanding qualities – unsurpassed brutality and loyalty to Putin. With his local regime made possible by generous grants from the federal budget, Kadyrov is not a separatist, and he he offered to put his personal militia at Putin’s disposal to crush the rebellion.
Prigozhin’s mutiny has sparked speculation about its effect on Putin’s ability to continue his war against Ukraine, sparking hopes that the crisis would weaken Russia’s military and create an opening for Ukraine to make headway in its counteroffensive. Unfortunately, these hopes appear to have been misplaced. If Wagner is indeed absorbed into the Ministry of Defense, there is likely to be little or no adverse effect on the sheer strength of the Russian military. If Putin fires Shoigu and Gerasimov for incompetence, a more capable leadership could be appointed in their place. Russia’s numerical superiority coupled with capable overall command would make Ukraine’s counter-offensive even more difficult. That wouldn’t do.
Prigozhin’s rebellion has been the biggest stress test for Putin’s regime since its inception. The Kremlin passed, not with flying colors, but well enough. Those who long for the end of Putin’s regime might wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t passed the test. They would rather see the man who takes pride in the brutality of his troops in control of Russia’s nuclear codes? Is he better than Putin?