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How a Wagner rebellion exposed Putin’s weakness — without serious bloodshed

Putin created a Frankenstein quasi-army he couldn’t fully control. The kindling was there, just waiting for a match. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has always tried, generally successfully, to present himself as the man who calls the shots at the Kremlin. He has painted himself as a decisive leader, a man in complete control of the Russian political system and a master at balancing the elites around him to ensure no faction gets too powerful. 

None of this would have happened if Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine in the first place.

Then came a former hot dog vender named Yevgeny Prigozhin, who threatened Russia with arguably the worst domestic security crisis in 30 years — and pushed the ever-calm Putin into a corner. Suddenly, Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin was now faced with a list of bad options. For now, the danger seems to be over. Prigozhin appears to be turning his forces around and marching them back to their posts. We don’t yet know what, if any, concessions Prigozhin received for standing down. There are rumors that staffing changes at the top of the Russian Defense Ministry may have been made in exchange for Wagner pulling back, but this is unconfirmed. We also don’t know how this series of events will affect an already chaotic Russian military situation at the front.

But we do know none of this would have happened if Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine in the first place. Because of his propensity toward maintaining Russian influence without tapping into the Russian army, Putin created a Frankenstein quasi-army he couldn’t fully control. In the process, Putin elevated a cruel and possibly unstable man who has turned out to be unmanageable. The kindling was there, just waiting for a wayward match. 

In Ukraine, Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary fighters are known for their brutality and commitment. They are the fiercest shock troops Moscow has around, merciless toward deserters and unapologetic about the destruction they cause in the pursuit of battlefield victories. However, Prigozhin has been engaged in a long-running feud with the Russian military’s high command since the war in Ukraine began last year. His seeming irritation with Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian armed forces, and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ratcheted up dramatically as the casualties mounted. Shortly before ordering his men not to revolt, the former caterer accused Gerasimov and Shoigu of deceiving Putin and lying to the Russian public about why they invaded Ukraine.

In the past, Putin has largely stayed out of the rivalry between Wagner and Russian military leadership. This was both a matter of necessity and control. It was a necessity because the Wagner mercenary group provided Russia with tens of thousands of fighters, allowing Moscow to defer a second unpopular troop mobilization. Prigozhin’s wild antics also served to keep the Russian generals honest. To the extent that Prigozhin left the presidency alone, the Kremlin could largely tolerate him.

But Putin’s calculations changed once Prigozhin pushed the envelope. Tolerating nasty rhetoric aimed at his generals is one thing; tolerating a potential armed rebellion is quite another. If there is one thing Putin can’t stand, it’s betrayal. And a Wagner invasion of Russian territory, however brief, was a betrayal — not only of Russia but of Putin personally. Prigozhin, after all, would likely still be a foulmouthed restaurateur if it wasn’t for Putin. Everything the Wagner chief has today, from his wealth to his fame, would never have been possible if he hadn't struck up a rapport with Putin in the 1990s.

First, Wagner fighters took control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, capturing government and security buildings there. Then they headed north toward Moscow and got into firefights with Russian security forces in the Voronezh region. The U.K. Defense Ministry reported that some Russian troops were “passive, acquiescing to Wagner,” which suggests at least some local Russian units were either uninterested in fighting fellow Russians or were perhaps even sympathetic to Prigozhin’s view.

Putin clearly took the threat seriously. Russian police targeted the Wagner's headquarters in St. Petersburg, security forces in Moscow were put on high alert and the National Anti-Terrorism Committee charged him with calling for an armed rebellion. We shall see what happens to those charges now.

As the world watched from afar, Prigozhin and his men could hypothetically have ridden into Moscow like conquering heroes. Wagner could have also tried to consolidate its control over territory it now occupies in the hope Putin agreed to negotiate. Predictions of a civil war in Russia were always embellished; to date, the Russian government seemed relatively stable throughout the short-lived rebellion, and no senior-level official defected to Prigozhin’s side. 

If Prigozhin does indeed fully stand down and return to the front lines, the immediate threat will have passed without much incident. But Putin’s regime has already been damaged. His veneer of invincibility is diminished, if not completely gone. And Putin will have to work to recapture the public narrative knowing he has no one but himself to blame.