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Why He May Soon Be Remembered as “Putin the Weak”

The Russian autocrat wanted to go down in history on par with Russia’s greatest leaders. He is increasingly looking like one of its weakest.

By Michael McFaul

June 2023

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay for these pages, entitled “Why Vladimir Putin’s Luck Ran Out,” explaining why Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine weakened his grip on power more than any other event in his two-decade rule of Russia. The shocking June 23–25 rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin has only confirmed that hypothesis. No matter the final details of the deal between Prigozhin and Putin or the claims of Kremlin propagandists and their supporters in the West, Putin has emerged from this crisis much weaker than he was just days ago. And he will not have many opportunities to strengthen his rule anytime soon.

The fact that the Wagner Group — a private paramilitary company led by Prigozhin — existed at all was already a sign of Putin’s weakness. Strong leaders do not create and pay mercenaries to do their fighting. They rely on conventional armies. Of course, for years the Kremlin denied any links to Wagner and, in fact, did so as the group raged through Syria starting in 2015 and committed massacres in the Central African Republic in 2021 and 2022 and in Mali in 2022. For much of the time since the group’s founding in 2014, Prigozhin outright denied its existence too. This secrecy is also a sign of Putin’s weakness. Weak, criminal leaders need to hide their associations with their military forces. Strong, legitimate leaders do not. It was only in September 2022 that Wagner’s association with the Russian state was publicly acknowledged.

Wagner forces being summoned to fight in Ukraine that month was another sign of Putin’s weakness. Remember the footage of Prigozhin touring Russian prisons to recruit conscripts. The war was dragging on much longer than expected, Russian forces had lost control over big chunks of once-occupied territory, and Putin was running out of soldiers. Putin thus felt compelled — out of weakness, not strength — to ask Prigozhin and newly hired criminals to fight in Ukraine, specifically in the horrific Battle of Bakhmut.

Perhaps Putin tolerated Prigozhin’s open ridicule of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov because Wagner had lost thousands of fighters in Bakhmut. But Prigozhin’s crude, public attacks on Putin’s inner circle — Shoigu and Gerasimov specifically — were another sign of his weakness. And over time, these tirades escalated. In the video-recorded insults Prigozhin posted on Telegram, he sounded increasingly unhinged toward these senior Russian officials, yet faced no retribution from the Kremlin “strongman.” Photos of Shoigu and Putin fishing on boats bare-chested were once circulated by the Russian media to underscore their closeness, yet Putin did nothing to defend his friend publicly.

Worried about the future of his private army and his own survival, Prigozhin then upped the ante. Authorities in Moscow had instructed Wagner mercenaries to join Russia’s conventional army by the end of the month. A few days ago, Prigozhin even claimed that Russian armed forces opened direct fire on his Wagner soldiers, killing several of his men. So Prigozhin decided that their only option was to launch a “march for justice” first to Rostov and then to Moscow as a dramatic way to convince Putin to remove and prosecute Shoigu and Gerasimov, who according to the Wagner leader, had deliberately deceived Putin, Russian soldiers, and the Russian people. As he elaborated in a 30-minute video on Telegram Russia’s Defense Ministry had deliberately fooled everyone into believing that Russia was facing an imminent threat from Ukraine and NATO in February 2022.

On the contrary, Prigozhin said in the video, the situation in the Donbas before the full-scale invasion was no different from what it had been since 2014, adding that there was no “crazy aggression” from Ukraine and that Ukraine had no plans to attack Russia jointly with NATO. According to Prigozhin, the war was started so that 1) “a bunch of lowlifes could reveal and promote themselves, demonstrating what a strong army they are,” 2) Shoigu could receive the rank of marshal and a second Hero of Russia star (allegedly, such a decree was prepared before the full-scale war), and 3) the oligarchs could make the exiled former Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk president of Ukraine and rake in the spoils of military victory. Prigozhin also added that the Ukrainians were crushing the Russian army, which was being “washed in blood,” and called the Defense Ministry’s reporting on the destruction of Western tanks and Ukrainian soldiers “complete and total nonsense.” Prigozhin never called for the end of the invasion, in his words, a “sacred war,” and cautiously avoided disparaging Putin. But Prigozhin’s scathing criticism of senior Russian military officials was shocking.

And yet Putin, in another sign of weakness or indecision, appears to have done little to preempt this mutiny. The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence had known since mid-June that Wagner was planning an insurrection and had briefed the U.S. Congress accordingly. If the CIA knew about these plans weeks ago, surely Russian intelligence must also have known. But until June 25, Putin did nothing to interrupt Prigozhin’s plan.

Then Prigozhin marched to Rostov-on-Don, a southern city of 1.1 million people, gaining control over all major military targets with no resistance. Wagner supposedly managed to do the same in Voronezh, a six-hour drive from Moscow (although this claim is disputed as of this writing). This time, there was some fighting between Wagner and the Russian army, resulting in the downing of three Russian helicopters and one plane and the killing of some fifteen army pilots, as well as a massive fire at the Voronezh fuel depot. That Wagner could move with such ease through Russia demonstrated that Putin no longer held a monopoly on administering violence — another sign of weakness.

Faced with a well-trained, experienced armed force marching toward Moscow, Putin finally reacted. In an emergency address to the entire nation, he called Prigozhin and his mercenaries “traitors,” albeit without once mentioning his name. (Putin never refers to opposition leader Alexei Navalny by name either.) Putin urged soldiers who found themselves on the dark side not to “make a fatal mistake,” calling for unity and emphasizing that internal conflict only leads to anarchy, fratricide, and eventually capitulation. Putin thereby acknowledged the seriousness of Prigozhin’s mutiny. But in this speech, Putin once again sounded strong, decisive, and ready to use force against his enemies, as he has done many times before. He called Prigozhin’s move a betrayal, a path of blackmail and terrorism, worthy of “inevitable punishment.”

And then, surprisingly, Putin backed down. Instead of responding with force against the insurrectionists, he cut a deal with Prigozhin, purportedly negotiated by Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka, of all people — not exactly a power move. Putin supposedly dismissed all criminal charges against Prigozhin, allowed him to leave for Belarus, gave his word that neither Prigozhin nor the Wagner soldiers would be prosecuted, and offered Wagner soldiers who did not participate in the mutiny new contracts with the Defense Ministry. Right after, Wagner-related products that had been removed from Wildberries, Russia’s Amazon, returned to the site, and articles about FSB searches of Wagner headquarters across Russia were taken off state-media websites.

As Prigozhin and his mercenaries departed Rostov, local residents cheered them. Prigozhin himself, as he departed Rostov in a black SUV, assessed the results of the mutiny as “normal,” claiming to have “energized them all.” When the police reappeared to reestablish authority, the same residents jeered them. Those are images that cannot be comforting to Putin. For years, Putin has successfully squashed all political challengers, including, most notably, Navalny, whom he first tried to have assassinated and then had arrested. Last weekend, a new challenger to Putin emerged, only this one had an armed force standing with him. And unlike the spontaneous mass demonstrations that erupted defending Boris Yeltsin against a coup attempt in August 1991, there were no signs of popular mobilization in defense of Putin. Even some of Putin’s most militant propagandists went silent during the military standoff.

Even after the Putin-Prigozhin deal was announced, Putin’s Wagner problem still lingered. Almost none of these hardened fighters were taking the Kremlin offer to join Russia’s conventional army. On June 26, Prigozhin reported that only a small number of his mercenaries “agreed to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense since everyone understood that this would lead to a loss of combat capability.” So in response, Putin felt compelled to make another national television appearance in which he tried to divide the Wagner soldiers from their commanders. While doubling down on labeling Wagner commanders traitors, Putin celebrated the Wagner soldiers as patriots and heroes. In another sign of weakness, Putin pleaded with these soldiers to join his side and abandon their leaders. Putin was trying to appease the very same fighters who just days earlier had staged a mutiny against his military. Putin’s public messaging eerily echoed what Prigozhin attempted to do with Russian conventional forces in his messaging days earlier — split the generals from the privates by tagging the commanders as criminals.

Putin is still in control of Russia. His regime is not collapsing. Strikingly, few regular soldiers defected to join Prigozhin’s mutiny, and not one governor sided with the putschists. And without major bloodshed, Putin managed to address at least partially the festering problem of Prigozhin’s rise. Despite rumors, it does not appear that Putin agreed to oust Gerasimov or Shoigu in his deal with the Wagner leader. That the deal was reached so quickly raises questions about the voraciousness of Prigozhin’s mutiny plans. Although the standoff between Putin and Prigozhin has been suspended, it is not over. Given Putin’s track record of seeking revenge against alleged traitors, including those living in exile abroad (the assassination of Sergey Litvinenko in London and the attempted assassinations of Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., and Aleksandr Poteyev in Miami), Putin is probably not done with Prigozhin yet. If Prigozhin dies mysteriously, that will send a powerful message to other would-be coup plotters.

On the whole, however, this mutiny has weakened Putin’s image as an all-powerful leader. Among elites — military commanders, government leaders, governors, businesspeople — Putin will emerge from this crisis diminished. And while it is almost impossible to measure public opinion inside Russia, it is hard to imagine Russian society feeling more secure or confident in their leader now. Already, social-media platforms are sprinkled with angry messages about the cowardice and incompetence of Russian security forces. The anecdotal evidence from the streets of Rostov showed not support for Putin but for his opponent. People do want change. Most important, perhaps, will be how this crisis affects the morale of Russian forces occupying parts of Ukraine. On Telegram channels still easily accessed by all Russians, Prigozhin spoke to these soldiers directly, telling them that their commanders had tricked them into fighting and dying in a senseless war. If that belief catches hold, Putin, Gerasimov, and Shoigu will be in real trouble.

More generally, the longer the war drags on, the weaker Putin’s regime will become. When bad guys are fighting each other instead of attacking the good guys, it is good news for the good guys. Anything that weakens Putin is good for Ukraine. It is as simple as that. Those who do not want to see a Russian state collapse should be pushing Putin to stop the war now. Those, like Xi Jinping, who want Putin to remain in power, should also be pushing Putin to end the war as soon as possible.

Putin wanted to be recorded in the Russian history books as a leader on par with Peter the Great or Catherine the Great. That aspiration took a big hit from Prigozhin’s rebellion. For now, Putin the Weak looks like a much more likely epitaph than Putin the Great.

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is professor of political science at Stanford University, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images




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