Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion has exposed the fundamental instability of Putinism.
Sitting in exile outside of Russia in 1917, Vladimir Lenin wrote, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Watching Yevgeny Prigozhin’s military rebellion in Russia, one might want to shorten that time frame from weeks to hours, but the general point stands that things in Russia can change rapidly. While we must be circumspect in drawing conclusions about how this uprising will affect Russian domestic politics, it has exposed weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Putin’s rule relies on individual loyalties rather than institutionalized, transparent chains of command and responsibility. This allows him to retain unrivaled control over a hierarchy of patron-client relationships and to change policies quickly before any real internal elite opposition can coalesce. But the result of such a system is that it operates at the mercy of shifting loyalties and is therefore inherently fragile. The Prigozhin rebellion, therefore, is a symptom of this latent instability within Putinism.
No fighter for freedom, Prigozhin is a career criminal who served twelve years in prison as the Soviet Union was collapsing, emerged to become a hot-dog salesman, restaurateur, caterer, and the eventual face of the Wagner mercenary group (and, incidentally, the Internet Research Agency, which figured prominently in the Mueller Report on the 2016 U.S. presidential election). Prigozhin and Putin have known each other since the early 1990s. Putin made Prigozhin his client and used Wagner to pursue plausibly deniable special operations outside the formal chain of military command in Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, and elsewhere. In return, Prigozhin’s businesses secured lucrative catering contracts, including with Russian schools and the military, making him a billionaire. Putin evidently assumed Prigozhin would remain a reliable agent and also found him useful in prodding and shaming the Russian military into fighting more aggressively in Ukraine.
Having often been blamed for Wagner’s brutality despite having no control over it, Russian forces grew resentful of the mercenaries. As the war in Ukraine dragged on and Wagner’s operations became overt, this became even more problematic. For months, Prigozhin has complained that even as his forces (many of them violent criminals recruited from Russian jails with the promise of freedom for fighting in Ukraine) battled for Bakhmut, they were being starved of ammunition by Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu. It was a purported Russian rocket strike on Wagner camps in Ukraine on June 23 that incited the rebellion. The ensuing “march of justice” of 25,000 Wagner fighters out of Ukraine and into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don en route to Moscow was, Prigozhin wrote on Telegram, meant to depose Shoigu and the head of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and to “end the disgrace of the country we are living in.”
The lack of resistance to Prigozhin’s rebellion from local military units in Rostov-on-Don (a staging ground for Russian forces in Ukraine) indicates that some in the Russian military might at least passively agree that the war has been disastrous and a change in leadership might be good. If Prigozhin’s actions stirred fears of a broader military rebellion, it would explain Putin’s odd emergency address to the country in the hours after Prigozhin’s mercenaries crossed into Russia, when he appeared to be bracing himself and the country for a violent clash. Could the regime now fear a military coup from the rank-and-file of the Russian army? Putin’s offer to drop treason charges against Prigozhin if he left the country permanently might thus be aimed at preventing him from leading a broader armed military uprising in the future.
Clearly there is much still to learn about all that has transpired, but one thing is certain: Putin’s ill-considered war in Ukraine has weakened his grip on Russia. Nor is this the end of his troubles.
Kathryn Stoner is senior fellow and the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute, professor of political science at Stanford University (by courtesy), and senior fellow (by courtesy) at the Hoover Institution. Her most recent book is Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (2021).
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