Friday night's coup in Russia was over by Saturday night, as Putin supposedly has cut a deal with Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercs, but at this point both Putin and Prigozhin, and the war on Ukraine, are both on borrowed time and everyone knows it.
A short recap of the past 24 hours in Russia reads like the backstory for a fanciful episode of Madam Secretary or The West Wing. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the brutal convicted criminal who leads the Wagner mercenary group, declared war on the Russian Ministry of Defense and marched into the city of Rostov-on-Don. He then headed north for Moscow, carrying his demand for the ousting of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The city went on alert.
Prigozhin and his men came within 125 miles of the capital—that is, closer to Moscow than Philadelphia is to Washington, D.C. He then said that a deal had been struck and that Wagner’s forces were turning around to avoid bloodshed. Apparently, however, the blood Prigozhin saved from being shed was his own. If the “deal” announced by the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accurately reflects an actual settlement, Prigozhin has in the space of a day gone from being a powerful warlord to a man living on borrowed time in a foreign country, waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inevitable retribution.
According to Peskov, Russia is dropping all charges against Prigozhin, who must now go into exile in Belarus. Wagner fighters who did not take part in the rebellion will be given amnesty, and then they will sign contracts that will bring them under the control of Shoigu’s Ministry of Defense. I suggested yesterday that Shoigu’s attempt to seize Wagner’s men and dissolve the force might be one of the reasons Prigozhin went on the march. This outcome is a defeat of the first order for Prigozhin, who has now lost everything except his life.
We can at this point only speculate about why Prigozhin undertook this putsch, and why it all failed so quickly. One possibility is that Prigozhin had allies in Moscow who promised to support him, and somehow that support fell through: Perhaps his friends in the Kremlin got cold feet, or were less numerous than Prigozhin realized, or never existed at all. Prigozhin, after all, is not exactly a military genius or a diplomat; he’s a violent, arrogant, emotional man who may well have embarked on this scheme huffing from a vat of his own overconfidence.
Nonetheless, this bizarre episode is not a win for Putin. The Russian dictator has been visibly wounded, and he will now bear the permanent scar of political vulnerability. Instead of looking like a decisive autocrat (or even just a mob boss in command of his crew), Putin left Moscow after issuing a short video in which he was visibly angry and off his usual self-assured game. Putin reportedly worries a great deal about being assassinated, and so perhaps he wanted to hunker down until he had more clarity about who might be in league with Prigozhin. But whatever the reason, he vowed to deal with Prigozhin decisively and then blew town, probably to his retreat at Valdai, in a move that looked weak and disorganized.
Bringing in President Aleksandr Lukashenko as a broker at first seemed an odd choice on Putin’s part, but it makes a bit more sense in light of the supposed deal. The Belarusian autocrat could personally vouch for Prigozhin’s safe passage; Lukashenko has no connections in Moscow that are more important than Putin; he does not live or work in the Kremlin and so he was a secure choice to carry out Putin’s terms; he owes Putin his continued rule and has no reason to betray him. Also, sending in Lukashenko was something of a power move: Putin is a former intelligence officer, and in that world, Prigozhin is merely a scummy convict. The two men were friendly before this, but they were not equals. It would have been a huge loss of face for the president of a great power to negotiate with his former chef in person.
Prigozhin gets to stay alive, at least for the moment, but his life as he knew it (and maybe in any sense) is over. Putin, however, is now politically weaker than ever. The once unchallengeable czar is no longer invincible. The master of the Kremlin had to make a deal with a convict—again, in Putin’s culture, among the lowest of the low—just to avert the shock and embarrassment of an armed march into the Russian capital while other Russians are fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.
Prigozhin drew blood and then walked away from a man who never, ever lets such a personal offense go unavenged. Putin, however, may have had no choice, which is yet another sign of his precarious situation. All of the options were terrifying: Ordering the Russian military to attack armed Russian men would have been a huge risk, especially because those men (and their hatred of the bureaucrats at the Defense Ministry) have at least some support among Russia’s officers and political elites. Killing Prigozhin outright was also a high-risk proposition; with their leader dead and the Russian military closing in, the Wagnerites might have decided to fight to the death.
This wound to Putin’s power goes deep, but how deep is difficult to gauge for now, especially because we do not know whether Shoigu or Gerasimov still have their jobs. And although the rebellion has taken Wagner off the field in Ukraine, Putin may still seek to cover this ignominious moment by escalating Russia’s brutality there. But two things appear certain. First, Putin has suffered a huge political blow, and he has survived by making deals both with Prigozhin and with his own colleagues in the Kremlin that are, by any definition, a humiliation. And second, Yevgeny Prigozhin has changed the Russian political environment surrounding Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s rebellion and its effects will last beyond today, but how long he will live in Belarus—or stay alive in Belarus—to see how the rest of it plays out is unclear.
At this point nobody knows how this will end, and anyone who says they do is lying. But the current situation in both Ukraine and Russia is untenable. We've already seen one massive crack in the dam. More are coming. And Ukraine now has even more of a reason to fight back.