June 26, 2023

Putin’s Prigozhin Problem

A weekend mutiny in Russia fizzled out, but it exposed some serious problems with Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.

There was a little dust-up over the weekend — perhaps you heard about it: a mini military mutiny in Russia.

The Wagner Group — a large, powerful, and popular Russian mercenary force of some 25,000 men — expressed its deep dissatisfaction with the war effort in Ukraine, left its battle posts there, crossed back over into Russia, briefly took over a military headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don, and from there began a march toward Moscow, ostensibly to demand the resignations of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the nation’s top general, Valery Gerasimov.

Then it stopped. And that was mostly that.

The rebellion was led by Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, an eccentric character and longtime friend and business associate of Vladimir Putin.

As the Associated Press reports: “Under terms of the agreement that ended the crisis, [Prigozhin] will go into exile in Belarus but will not face prosecution. But it was unclear what would ultimately happen to him and his forces. Few details of the deal were released either by the Kremlin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered it. Neither Prigozhin nor Putin has been heard from, and top Russian military leaders have also remained silent.”

On Saturday, Putin used a televised speech to the nation to denounce the mutiny as a “betrayal” and “treason,” adding: “All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment. The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”

Prigozhin’s response: “As for ‘betraying the motherland,’ the president is deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our motherland.”

That might be so, but if we had to guess, we’d say Putin won’t take kindly to a public charge that he’s “deeply mistaken” about a question of treason. As the AP reported, Prigozhin had earlier vowed that his 25,000-man fighting force wouldn’t surrender because, he said, “We do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

Frankly, we wonder whether Prigozhin will live on period given Putin’s reputation as a cold-blooded killer of his political foes. Just ask Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Russian opposition leader who was mysteriously poisoned in 2020. It’s unclear at this point just how popular Prigozhin is across Russia, or whether he has designs on political power.

Prigozhin, to be sure, isn’t a conventional warrior. He goes back some three decades with Putin, to their days in what was then Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. Prigozhin’s nickname, “Putin’s Chef,” stems from his ownership of several restaurants and some lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. His Wagner Group paramilitary force was founded in 2014, when it helped Russia fight in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. Since then, the group has earned a reputation as Putin’s private army.

Prigozhin also meddles in the political affairs of other countries — ours, for example. Indeed, he was bragging before the 2022 midterms about having used an internet troll farm to interfere in our recent presidential elections, and he’s been sanctioned for these activities by our Treasury Department.

So, how did Putin and his former friend get to this thorny place? In May, the Wagner Group was engaged against Ukrainian forces in the eastern territory of Bakhmut, and it met its match, taking heavy losses against the determined Ukrainian fighters. Prigozhin said his fighters would withdraw from Bakhmut due to a lack of Russian support, and he found a scapegoat in Defense Minister Shoigu.

This brings up another point: If you’re in the warfighting business, it’s probably not a good idea to pick a fight with the guy who supplies you with your bullets.

In any case, it appears Prigozhin has badly overplayed his hand, just as his forces did in Syria in 2018, when an airstrike ordered by Donald Trump killed 200-300 of them. In that case, Prigozhin thought he could harass the U.S. military with impunity; in this case, as our Mark Alexander notes, Prigozhin expected a massive defection of Russian military officers, which never materialized. As a result, a Putin purge of irresolute officers might be in the offing.

Is Prigozhin a rational actor or a self-important flake? What was his grand strategy in taking Rostov-on-Don, a city of 1 million which offered no resistance, and then marching on Moscow? Did he think his 20,000-man force was a match for Russia’s 800,000-member military? Does he trust Putin to just let him walk away from this? Our sense is that this deal which was brokered by Lukashenko will have a very short shelf life.

The only question now, it seems, is whether the old guy stays alive and out of prison.

As for the war in Ukraine, there are plenty of questions on that front, too. The Wagner Group has been among Russia’s best fighting forces, and now it’s been pulled from the battlefield. Who replaces it? In addition, there are the questions of Russian troop morale, which has been understandably poor throughout the bloody war, and also of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, which, as historian Timothy Snyder notes, isn’t what it used to be.

And this leads to the ultimate question in the wake of this short-lived but surprising mutiny: How much longer is a weakened Putin willing to fight?

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