There are times when it’s OK for analysts to say we don’t know. The aftermath of the attempted mutiny/coup by Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin is one of those times. Lots of questions come to mind – without many accompanying answers. But sometimes asking the right questions can help clarify things. Here goes:
What was Prigozhin hoping to accomplish? Initially, he seemed hellbent on removing Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Chief-of-the-General Staff Valery Gerasimov from their positions. Prigozhin has been highly critical of both men since last fall, accusing them of overseeing an incompetent and corrupt military campaign (and Prigozhin isn’t wrong about that).
But then, suddenly, with Prigozhin’s forces on the march just 200 kilometers from Moscow, he backed off. (It doesn’t seem that Prigozhin actually was with his troops at the time.) Belarus’ dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka stepped in – at whose request? – and brokered a deal ending the showdown.
Prigozhin then disappeared and hasn’t been heard from since, at least as of this writing. His telegram channel has gone quiet. Is he in Belarus, as part of the deal that was struck? If he is, how many men did he take with him? What does he plan to do there? Prigozhin doesn’t seem like the retiring type.
How were his men, who went from Rostov-on-Don through Voronezh on their way to Moscow, able to make their way so easily? How did they face such little resistance – only some aircraft that reportedly were shot down, killing more than a dozen Russian troops? In Rostov, in particular, Prigozhin was greeted positively by many of those on the streets, but we don’t know why. Has he tapped into a vein in the Russian population that is weary of the corrupt military Prigozhin has condemned?
What do Prigozhin’s men think of having the rug pulled out from under them with the suddenly-struck deal after they were persuaded to risk their lives to remove Shoygu? Are they content with the deal and Prigozhin’s decision-making? Do they return to the fighting in Ukraine or does Wagner dissolve as an entity?
What lesson should other Russians draw from this when they see Prigozhin get away, for now at least, with launching a campaign attacking the Russian military? Other Russians have been arrested and imprisoned for simply questioning the reasons for the invasion, or using the word “war.”
How could Putin have let things reach this point? When the feuding started between Prigozhin and Shoygu last fall, many (including me) wrote it off as Putin wanting to keep his guys off balance. But with a war going badly in Ukraine, you would think Putin would have stopped the infighting. Or did he try quietly, and they just ignored him? Whatever the explanation, the infighting kept the attention of top officials focused more on each other and less on the Ukrainian forces (luckily for the Ukrainians).
Who is the biggest loser in all this? That one is easy to answer: Putin. On Saturday morning, Putin accused Prigozhin (without naming him) of betrayal and warned of repeating the scenario of the Russian revolution in 1917. Putin stated clearly that he had issued orders to stop the mutiny, but Prigozhin’s column continued to make progress until Prigozhin called it all off. Hours later, Putin’s likeminded counterpart in Minsk, who has been dependent on Putin for support for many years, stepped in to save the day. Putin looks feckless, indecisive, and weak. It is not clear whether Putin fled Moscow. His plane apparently took off, but it’s unknown whether he was on it.
Who wins from this? Ukrainians. Keeping the Russian side bogged down with internal feuding will distract Moscow from defending against Ukraine’s counteroffensive. It also is likely to further erode morale, already very low, on the Russian side. Those on the Russian frontlines must be wondering why they are being sacrificed for a bunch of guys who can’t agree on strategy and objectives. Ukrainians will be inspired at how incompetent Russian forces are. They will be relieved to see Wagner mercenaries depart the scene (if in fact that is what happens).
What should the United States and allies do? Sit back and monitor the situation closely. This is an internal matter, with obvious implications for Ukraine, other countries in the region, and us. It is a reminder of how irresponsible Western calls for a ceasefire and armistice are. The Ukrainians are determined to defeat the Russian forces, and their odds of victory have just gone up, as long as we continue to support them with all the military assistance they need, including Army tactical missile systems (ATACMs) and F-16s fighter jets.
Regime change in Russia is desirable, as President Biden said more than a year ago. We know what a nightmare and threat Putin is. But we don’t know what might come after him. Prigozhin or someone like him would not be any better. There are no good guys, other than the Ukrainians, in this latest saga. This means that regime change shouldn’t be official U.S. policy, even if we might want to see it come to fruition.
Finally, what do we call what just happened? A coup attempt, a mutiny, or an insurrection? All of the above. Prigozhin rallied his forces to threaten to remove one of the key positions Putin has direct authority to appoint – the defense minister. In doing so, his forces seized military assets and attacked military aircraft. That is certainly a mutiny and an insurrection. But it also is an attempted coup d’état. Had Prigozhin succeeded, he would have neutered Putin’s power, even if he didn’t intend to physically remove him. This act would have amounted to a regime change.
All this is a reminder that the sooner we help Ukraine win the war, the sooner the dying and suffering on the Ukrainian side will end. It may also mean a final accounting on the Russian side for deciding to launch and carry out such a disastrous war.
David J. Kramer is Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European & Eurasian Affairs responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the George W. Bush administration.