The meaning of Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war IN THE SPRING of 2022, at the moment when it became clear that Russias invasion had begun to falter, the generals planning Ukraines campaign grasped that their resistance on the battlefield could turn Russian commanders against each other. Infighting and disunity, they calculated, would be a crucial step in bringing home to Russia and its people that the war was unwinnableand that the country was paying an intolerable price to satisfy the vanity of their president, Vladimir Putin. It was one route to victory. Little can they have imagined that their wishes would be so spectacularly fulfilled. On the evening of June 23rd Yevgeny Prigozhin mutinied, along with his irregular troops in the Wagner mercenary group. Over the next 24 hours, they captured Rostov-on-Don, Russias ninth-largest city, and embarked on a lightning-fast 1,000km charge towards Moscow, before striking a deal and turning around with about 200km to go. Having criticised the botched invasion, Mr Prigozhin was calling for the defence minister and the chief of the general staff to be sacked. It is still unclear whether either man has gone, or is about to. But Mr Prigozhin, who has apparently gone into exile in Belarus (for the time being, at least), has inflicted severe damage on Mr Putin and his war. Wagners troops are supposedly going back to the bases they left on June 23rd. By contrast, Russia and its weakened president find themselves stuck in dangerous new territory. Tactically, the war will be harder to fight. Strategically, it will be harder to win. And Mr Putins leadership has been gravely undermined. In terms of tactics, the Wagner mutiny has divided and distracted the Russian army. In the trenches its men will know that, while they are being ordered to give up their lives for a war that Mr Prigozhin has branded as corrupt, their commanders are squabbling among themselves over power and influence. In the barracks officers will be splitting their attention between the war and their own futures. They know that, if there is a power struggle, they need to end up on the right side. For Ukraine, by contrast, the mutiny is an opportunity. Its counter-offensive, now three weeks old, has fallen behind schedule. Although most Ukrainian forces still remain in reserve, progress has been hard. There could be no better moment to break through Russian lines. It is surely no accident that the Ukrainians appear to be trying to retake Bakhmut, purchased with the blood of thousands of Wagner troops and which ordinary Russians perceive as their sides only gain over the past year. If Ukraine wins back the town, it will underline Mr Prigozhins message to ordinary Russians that Mr Putin and his generals are failing. Secondly, the mutiny has undermined Russias strategy. Ever since his initial assault failed, Mr Putins theory of victory has been that the West would come to believe that backing Ukraine is a waste of money and effort. However, Mr Prigozhin has shown that time may not be on Mr Putins side after all. Russia cannot just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Now that Wagner has shown how thin Russias defences are, Mr Putin needs to reinvigorate his command and replenish his troops. And yet, if he embarks on a fresh mobilisation, he risks stirring up popular discontent. When Mr Putin stands in front of a camera and insists that his special military operation is proceeding according to plan, he wants to send the message that he will never, ever back down. After Mr Prigozhins escapade, he risks coming across as deluded. That leads to the third and most significant dimension of this 24-hour drama: its effect on Mr Putins leadership. Russias president has been humiliated. Wagner and Mr Prigozhin, an ex-convict who ended up as a Kremlin fixer, are his creations. In the Russian system, Mr Putin governs by managing the potentially lethal competition between rival factions. He oversees an armed truce. His inability to prevent Wagners mutiny means that he failed at his most important task. Mr Putin has also discovered the limits of his peoples loyalty. Wagner took Rostov, a command centre for the war in Ukraine, without firing a shot. Some of its citizens appeared to greet Wagner men with food and water and cheered Mr Prigozhin as a hero. For the most part, the regular army stood back and watched while a gang of mercenaries dashed towards Moscow. That presents Mr Putin with a dilemma. To show strength, he must now purge the army and the Kremlin of all those who showed disloyalty. But that will disrupt the war and risks stirring up trouble from those who perceive that they could be targets. And yet, if he holds off, Mr Putin will signal that he is not confident his orders will be followedand that will embolden plotters, too. Mr Putin has been shown up as weak, too. In a furious address to the Russian people on Saturday morning, he denounced Mr Prigozhins betrayal and vowed a harsh punishment. However, the charges against Mr Prigozhin have now been dropped as part of a deal apparently negotiated with a helping hand from Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. In Mr Putins world, powerful leaders do not let people off and they do not ask for help from the junior dictator next door. In his address Mr Putin evoked memories of 1917, when Russian troops abandoned the front and turned against their own government. Nobody can say whether the Wagner mutiny has started something that will bring down Mr Putin. He could struggle on. But this weekend, with his comparison to the October revolution, Mr Putin betrayed his own fears. If he is ever to re-establish his authority, he may resort to desperate violence and repression. For the sake of Russia and the world, the hope must be that any such possibility has already slipped beyond his reach.