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Putin, the Weak Strongman. Part I

Boris Grozovski
Wagner troops on tank
Russia, Rostov-on-Don, June 24, 2023: Wagner tank on the streets of the city during the attempted military coup in Russia.

The Wagner Group’s failed mutiny last weekend was perhaps a false start. The private military company’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was not prepared to unseat Putin. Whatever the next moves by the main actors, Prigozhin has already left a legacy, and it is political.

According to Western intelligence sources, Prigozhin’s main objective was to defend his military business. Russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu ordered all private military companies to effectively incorporate into the ministry by July 1, which would mean the loss of protection and a large portion of income for Prigozhin, who owns a diversified Kremlin-connected business.

Prigozhin’s Open-Ended Failure
Prigozhin’s second objective was to get rid of the military leadership, which Prigozhin has been criticizing publicly for months. The conflict between Prigozhin and the regular military has been simmering since the 2018 battle for Khasham in Syria, in which many Wagner troops were killed. 

According to the Wall Street Journal’s sources, Prigozhin planned to take Shoigu and the chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov prisoners in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin failed to do so because Shoigu and Gerasimov had been warned by the secret police, the FSB, and had left the headquarters before the Wagner troops arrived in Rostov. Prigozhin continued to demand a meeting with Shoigu, both publicly and in negotiations with the FSB, which were conducted through the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin, with some of the insurgents, went on to Moscow.

In a short TV appearance Putin condemned the revolt, called Prigozhin a traitor, and disappeared from view. During the day, as the mutiny was unfolding, Putin fled Moscow and reportedly spent the next twenty-four hours at his Valdai estate. Several important officials, businesspersons, and Putin’s friends and associates also left Moscow. For a while, the country was essentially run by the FSB. Meanwhile, Prigozhin faced little or no opposition. The border service, the army, and Rosgvardia quietly allowed him to enter Rostov and Voronezh and only began to build defenses in the Moscow region. 

This happened both because Prigozhin has many sympathizers in the military and security services and because he is perceived as “Putin's friend.” Lukashenko said that Putin had barely 10,000 men to defend the Kremlin and Moscow, including cadets and police. The Wagnerites apparently commanded a comparable number, aided by heavy weaponry. The authorities wielded against the Wagner Group blockades of bridges, ditches hastily dug across highways, and some air force elements. Putin was unsure of success, as was the FSB, which began removing documents from Moscow. They did not know whether Shoigu’s disgruntled subordinates would carry out the order to crush the rebels. Roadblocks set up in Moscow (123) would certainly not have stopped them. 

Those preparations were strategically dubious. The battles with the Wagner Group would have had to be fought in the densely populated Moscow region and, if the Wagnerites had crossed the Oka, in the capital itself. A rebellious “junior prince” who wants to take the throne from the “grand duke” and marches on the capital—such battles were last seen in Russia in the late Middle Ages. 

Prigozhin apparently was not ready to establish a full-fledged military junta in Russia. He and his supporters probably hoped that Putin would take their side, fire the military leadership, and give them control of the troops so that they could wage the war more efficiently.

Prigozhin’s Political Legacy
After the mutiny, the Russian political regime has become less frightening to many observers. Putin came across as a confused, frightened man in a state of deep shock. He has been cozying up to the security services and Kadyrov ever since the revolt. The FSB either missed the mutiny, which was gradually unfolding in public, or was a co-sponsor of it. As Lukashenko used to say, "We let the situation slip through our fingers. We missed it. Then, when it began to develop, we saw and thought that it would go away. . . . But it didn’t.”

The rebels had many sympathizers in the army because the military does not like the way the war is going. Some of them want to destroy Ukraine, others do not want to fight at all, but many are not happy. So Putin was afraid that the army might join the “march for justice” announced by Prigozhin. 

The transformation of Prigozhin from the head of a private army whose business is built on Kremlin connections into a semi-autonomous politician was surprisingly rapid. On the eve of the mutiny, 21 percent were convinced that he could lead Russia. That is a lot for a man who had not been involved in politics before the fall of 2022. To win popularity in Russia during a war, you have to bash the elites, condemn them for corruption and luxurious lifestyles. You do not need to berate Ukraine, NATO, the United States, or Europe. The main thing is to present yourself as an honest and fair guy. Prigozhin even suggested that Navalny be given internet access in prison to continue his anti-corruption investigations. 

In addition to the anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric, Prigozhin’s interpretation of the war as a bungled, unnecessary war that has failed to achieve its goals has been a great public success. However, he is by no means a dove. If politically successful, Prigozhin could both advocate for the need for an all-out war against Ukraine and demand a total mobilization in Russia in the face of external enemies. At the same time, Prigozhin could easily call for a renationalization of private property and a planned economy. Many of Prigozhin’s fans would support such a program. Prigozhin’s ostensible desire for justice and his anti-elite attitude are combined with a militarization of the economy and an intensification of the war, as well as recognition of defeat and demilitarization. Here he has left himself room for maneuver.

In the USSR from 1987 to 1991, Boris Yeltsin enjoyed great popular support as an anti-elite populist politician and critic of Mikhail Gorbachev. But once in power in Russia, he acted in the interests of the elites, who were enabled by market reforms to convert their power into money and property. So if the FSB finds itself in need of a popular politician after Putin leaves the scene, Prigozhin or a person of a similar profile would make an excellent candidate. Like Yeltsin, he would be able to gain power through anti-elite rhetoric and then act in the interests of Putin’s elites.

For part II of the two-part series, please see here.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Boris Grozovski

Boris Grozovski

Kennan Correspondent on Russian Media and Society;
Journalist and public educator; author of Telegram channel EventsAndTexts
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more