The failed Wagner coup shows Russia’s elites are ready for violent regime change

Konstantin Sonin explains why Prigozhin’s mutiny ended with a whimper — but could still lead to Putin going out with a bang

The failed Wagner coup shows Russia’s elites are ready for violent regime change

Photo: Artem Pryakhin / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

An outsider’s initial reaction to the events of 23-24 June would have been something along the lines of: what was that all about? Was it a military coup attempt? Was it a mutiny? Was it all staged?

Something was happening, and quite seriously too: during their advance on Moscow, the Wagner troops killed a total of ten people as they shot down five helicopters and a plane. That’s more than Russia’s air force has lost on any one day of the war. As Wagner forces approached, the Russian army blew up bridges and bombed roads, as well as an oil depot in the city of Voronezh, to try and stop them. Putin, meanwhile, addressed the nation, calling the rebels “traitors” and promising them terrible punishment. How much more serious could things get?

And yet the whole thing ended with a whimper, a quick settlement. Yevgeny Prigozhin — the man who led the mutiny and the official head of the Wagner Group private military company — is to be exiled to Belarus, while his troops, whom Putin had promised “imminent punishment” just a few hours earlier, will not face prosecution.

Is it possible that these events were staged, that there was some deal between Prigozhin and Putin in the first place? It’s not likely.

The two-day mutiny dealt a serious blow not only to Putin’s reputation, but also to that of the army and the special services, particularly the Federal Guard Service and the Federal Security Service.

Army units stationed in the Rostov region put up no resistance and no shots were fired as Wagner seized not only Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than a million people, but also the headquarters of the Southern Military District — the key command centre for troops fighting in Russia’s war with Ukraine.

The Federal Security Service, which has a sizeable presence both in the Rostov region and at the Southern Military District headquarters, disappeared without a trace for the duration of Prigozhin’s mutiny. Evidently, it’s far easier to arrest poets, artists, and professors protesting against the war than it is to react to real threats to state security. Moreover, the Federal Security Service appears to have missed Prigozhin’s conspiracy completely. Perhaps it even took part in it: how else can one explain the fact that thousands of soldiers and dozens of military vehicles were able to advance apparently unnoticed?

The events also dealt a particular blow to Putin’s personal reputation: neither in Rostov-on-Don, nor in Voronezh, nor in Moscow did anyone come out to protest against this challenge to his rule. For several hours after his morning address to the nation, there was not a word of support from other Russian politicians, while key figures such as Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov all hid from the cameras and microphones. Their silence sent a clear message: the Russian political elite is ready for a change of leadership, and a violent one at that.

That said, looking longer-term, how can Putin be replaced? Over his 24 years in power, he has built a system in which power in Russia can only change hands by violent means — say, a palace coup or an armed mutiny. Yet when they occupied buildings in Rostov-on-Don and announced their mutiny, Prigozhin and the Wagner commanders had no intention of overthrowing Putin.

By all accounts, they were demanding the resignation of Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister, and Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Russia’s General Staff and the man commanding the country’s troops in Ukraine.

Shoigu and Gerasimov are key figures in the Russia-Ukraine war; they are the ones who developed and executed its plans. They are also the ones that Prigozhin and many officers, soldiers, and outside observers blame for catastrophic losses, incompetence, and widespread theft within the Russian army. But the demands of Prigozhin and those who explicitly or implicitly support him are, of course, not limited to these two personalities. Many in and around the Russian army are unhappy with the way the war is being conducted in general. They demand another, larger-scale wave of mobilisation, and not just mobilisation of new conscripts: they want the whole country to be fully mobilised to ensure Russia’s victory in the war.

It would be difficult for Putin to remove Shoigu and Gerasimov. He has spent many years selecting his most loyal subordinates for key positions.

No failures and no amount of incompetence ever lead to their resignation or demotion.

Yet Putin could remove them — and he may well do so in the near future — under the very arrangement with Prigozhin that made it possible to stop the mutiny. He could also draft several hundred thousand more people into the army, though that would be an unpopular and politically dangerous step.

What Putin cannot do is “mobilise the nation”, and stop his ministers and inner circle from making fortunes on military contracts. The siloviki — members of his inner circle from Russia’s security forces, who feed off business and government contracts and terrorise civil society — are the very essence of Putin’s regime. To demand that Putin change the way the country is run and the way the war is waged is to demand his resignation. If Prigozhin needed anything more from Putin than the resignation of Shoigu and Gerasimov, he wasn’t going to get it.

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason,” wrote the English courtier Sir John Harington. Prigozhin’s June 2023 “treason” has weakened both the Wagner Group and the Russian army, as well as Putin’s presidency.

Mutinies resulting in casualties for all parties are not uncommon throughout history. The 1917 mutiny of Lavr Kornilov, Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Russian army, fatally undermined the credibility of Russia’s Provisional Government, as well as leading to Kornilov’s removal from his post and a loss of control over the army itself. In 1991, the Communist Party hardliners who removed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from power in an attempted coup were imprisoned three days after the start of their mutiny, while Gorbachev’s return to office proved short-lived, and the collapse of the Soviet Union inevitable.

The Wagner Group mutiny of 2023 is both a symptom of the collapse of Putin's regime and a significant step towards its end.

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