Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed putsch demonstrated the fragility of Vladimir Putin’s seizure of power. Or as Russian opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky puts it: « Now the country and the world know that it is possible to rebel against Putin. »
Meeting no resistance, the paramilitary leader’s band of heavily armed robbers, cutthroats and conscripts entered Russia from occupied territory in Ukraine, took control of Rostov, a key logistics center and military headquarters, then proceeded along the M4 highway towards Moscow, meeting only opposition around Voronezh, a six-hour drive from the Russian capital, but still managing to reach 240 kilometers from the capital’s suburbs.
On Saturday night, Putin might have thought he could sleep a little better after an agreement was reached whereby the Wagner Group mercenaries would be disarmed or regrouped into the Russian army, while Prigozhin would be shipped to Minsk. But – to what must be Putin’s intense chagrin – even that deal appears to be turning, with a defiant Prigozhin insisting on Monday evening that Belarus offers to allow him to keep his band of Wagner renegades together as a fighting force. In a show of frailty, Putin said Wagnerians were free to leave, but it is still unclear from Prigozhin’s first post-coup audio message whether he has actually withdrawn to Belarus, or ever intends to.
Surprisingly, the entire weekend escapade required only about 8,000 fighters, although many are still involved in a covert operation. Prigozhin is an opportunist, but his insurrection has shown signs of preparation, and it remains probable, though surprising, that some parts of the surveillance state have failed to grasp what was afoot and anticipate it.
However, more troubling for Putin, the obvious conclusion is that many of his spies and top officials knew about it, but kept him out of the loop. US intelligence agencies say they knew in advance that something was up, so it’s implausible that at least Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, which has close ties to Wagner, didn’t notice anything untoward. The absence of preemptive action suggests that some key players have decided to watch and see if the president’s days were numbered.
However, without broader active support from the military and actors such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Prigozhin’s rebellion was doomed to failure, no doubt in part explaining his abrupt decision to abandon the insurgency and accept a brokered settlement. by Russian satrap Alexander Lukashenko. How much fun the Belarusian autocrat, who depends on Moscow for political and economic support, must have had in turning the tables on Putin and saving the day!
Hide from sight
It may have been a failed coup, but the clear loser is Putin.
Keeping a low profile, the Russian leader not only allowed the Ukrainians a propaganda overture to claim that he had sneaked out of Moscow, but his demeanor is in stark contrast to the confidence shown by a Boris Yeltsin mounted on a tank during the 1991 coup to oust Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Both ally and critic of Gorbachev, Yeltsin was hyperactive and led a campaign of anti-authoritarian protesters to challenge the coup, galvanizing others to express their determination to resist uncompromising Soviet and KGB efforts to turn back the clock of history .
Of course, that 1991 coup gives a hint of what might happen now in Russia as a result of this failed coup.
Gorbachev was mortally wounded: this led both to the immediate collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and four months later to the dissolution of the USSR. Prigozhin’s antics, his turning on the man who created him, has left the distinct impression that disloyalty lingers just beneath the surface. Over the weekend, the system crashed, some prominent luminaries of the regime were especially silent or bided their time, no doubt trying to calculate the likely winner of the confrontation. People in Rostov seemed to be singing in support of the rebels.
Putin’s key allies and propagandists are already raising a hullabaloo and shouting and wondering how the rebel fighters got so close to Moscow. « If the tank columns are advancing, why aren’t they stopped? » TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov asked how his show would be on Saturday night.
« Russia averted a catastrophe », Zargrad announced, an orthodox nationalist media. « In the end, it was possible to stop the bloodshed, even though Russia was one step away from civil war. » he added. « Politically, the existing balance of forces has already been broken, » reads an editorial. “The notorious ‘Kremlin towers’ are toppling. Some people may have to leave,” he suggested menacingly.
So, there’s more to come, including a likely witch hunt and more pushing and infighting as the factions ponder how to make sure they at least don’t become casualties when the balloon finally goes up. « We haven’t seen the last act, » US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in an interview with CBS on Sunday.
This view is shared by exiled Russian opposition leaders such as Khodorkovsky. The attempted « military coup was one of the most serious political events in Russia in the last 20 years, » he says. But « the democratic opposition failed to take advantage of the situation because it was preparing for different scenarios, » he complained on Twitter. « The democratic movement has a lesson to learn: regime change will not come from the polls, » he added.
While welcoming the mutiny for marking the end of Putin’s reign, Khodorkovsky and other democratic opposition luminaries have rallied around the Russian Action Committee – which he co-founded with former world chess champion Garry Kasparov – and they are urging Western governments to recognize « opposition institutions » as legitimate representatives of Russian society and their opportunities” as “this will help the opposition compete with militarized national patriots”.
On the sidelines
But it is not clear how the democratic opposition can influence the course of events on the ground and be anything but observers: a perennial challenge for opposition groups in exile, even as they prepare to topple and collapse the authoritarian regime. When the revolution broke out in March 1917, Vladimir Lenin was shocked to learn of the fall of the Romanovs. « Amazing! » he shouted at Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife. « What a surprise! We have to go home,” he said. And the German High Command made it happen, designing the eight-day train journey to get him back to a Russia in turmoil.
Then, as now, the opposition was fragmented, split into competing, mutually suspicious factions favoring different political agendas and ideologies, rifts not alleviated by conflicting personalities. For months there they have been split along a variety of lines, including tactics and the use of violence. There have been divisions between the « old » political exiles and those of a more recent era. The Russian Action Committee has disagreed with Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker turned dissident now living in Kiev, among others, and efforts to coordinate with Russia’s best-known opposition leader, the jailed Alexei Navalny , have proven to be relentlessly elusive.
When the final collapse comes, it will likely be chaotic and violent. The most powerful in the country silovikior « strongman » security officials, they are unlikely to let go of their power, privilege and wealth easily and without a fight and perhaps the best case scenario is that behind the scenes they come to terms with each other and reach an agreement, possibly with the prime minister Mikhail Mishustin as apparent figurehead.
And even if they do, how long before security factions start bickering with each other and with the pro-war messianic ultranationalists? And if things start to fall apart rapidly, will restless regions and offended minorities seize the moment to push for independence or autonomy, triggering new unforeseen trajectories for Russia?
Elements of the FSB security service have been talking to exiled opposition groups for months now, according to a well-placed dissident, who asked not to be named. This in turn has raised some hopes that the siloviki and Russian opposition groups can agree to a more orderly end to Putinism – with both groups united in fear that ultranationalists will take over and wage war in Ukraine even more viciously and recklessly.
But it’s all too unpredictable to call. “Intentionally or not, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin and their mercenaries have become ‘icebreakers’ for political change in Russia. What began as an inter-agency confrontation kicked off what will be a long-running fight over « Putin’s legacy, » « Putinism without Putin, » and/or « postwar/post-war Russia. » Putin » ». noted Pavel Luzinvisiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Some fear that Putin will now double down on war and domestic repression. “The next steps are for Putin to tighten the dice,” Ponomarev predicts. He predicted on Facebook: « Now the regime will consolidate its support at home and abroad on the basis of the ‘lesser evil’ principle. »
Ponomarev argues that other opposition leaders are too cautious and that the only way to change is through force and support groups such as the Freedom of Russia Legion, a Ukrainian paramilitary group which some other Russian opposition leaders fear is being controlled by Ukraine’s intelligence apparatus. The group has carried out attacks in Russia’s western Belgorod region in recent weeks.
“Thanks to Wagners, they proved that anything is possible in Russia and that the regime is incredibly weak. Hello to all naysayers who haven’t figured it out yet,” says Ponomarev. But other opposition leaders are sceptical.
What should the West do while deciding the future of Russia? His disastrous military intervention during the Russian Civil War in the wake of the Bolshevik takeover offers a cautionary tale, as does the recent history of Western interventions in the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq.
Much like the Russian opposition, Western powers are likely to be reduced to observers of another probable massive upheaval in Russia with huge global consequences.