The mercenaries’ march to Moscow may have ended, but the short-lived armed rebellion has exposed deep weaknesses inside the Kremlin and undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule like never before.
The crisis was unprecedented in Russia’s recent history and may forever tarnish the image of the country’s strongman president, analysts told NBC News. With this authoritarian veneer besmirched by the consequences of his own war in Ukraine and two decades of a divide and rule approach, it’s unclear what’s next for Putin.
“This is a devastating blow to Putin’s image as a strongman,” said Bill Browder, the American-born human rights lawyer and leading Putin critic. “If a warlord with just 25,000 men is able to take over several cities in Russia and make it to Moscow unopposed, it shows that Putin’s authority as a dictator is completely fake.”
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia under then-President Barack Obama, agreed that even this fleeting display of insubordination would gravely hurt the Russian president.
“I don’t think he’s mortally weakened,” said McFaul, also a former Obama adviser who specialized in Russia. “I think he can survive this. But he is much weaker today than he was just 24 hours ago.”
‘Who can Putin trust?’
This is new ground for Putin’s Russia, until now only troubled by the occasional unarmed protest swiftly crushed by police. By contrast, in a few short hours, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mutineers were able to overrun a key Russian city, shoot down several military aircraft and leave the Kremlin scrambling to defend the capital.
The few Russian troops not deployed in Ukraine were seemingly unable or unwilling to thwart Prigozhin’s advance, with his fighters even cheered by some locals.
The revolt’s abrupt resolution may only add to the questions now hanging over the Kremlin, not least because of Putin’s apparent willingness to pardon Prigozhin — sending him to Belarus and dropping charges against his fighters — just hours after accusing him of stabbing Russia in the back.
The situation that unfolded in Russia over the past 24 hours was the most dramatic political development to take place in decades. It was the kind of sudden crisis that at one stage looked like it was evoking the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the 1993 constitutional crisis that saw troops loyal to then-President Boris Yeltsin fire tank shells at the offices of Parliament.
Prigozhin called it a “rebellion” against Russia’s Defense Ministry, led by his rival Sergei Shoigu. The mercenary chief was careful not to criticize Putin, but his advance was a clear threat to the Russian president, who denounced it as such and vowed to “neutralize” the uprising.
While this was playing out, a senior American military official told NBC News it was “a very dangerous time” and “it all depends on how the military acts — the next 72 hours are critical.” The best way to understand what happened is to see it as an attempted Mafia takeover, the official said, with a loyal soldier who has risen through the ranks seeking more power for himself.
The mercenaries got within 125 miles of Moscow before making the shock announcement that they were turning back.
But this maverick act of revolt from one of Putin’s former close allies has presented Russians with an alternative narrative for the war in Ukraine and a glimpse at the weakness of the state.
Prigozhin preceded his advance on Moscow with public defiance of Kremlin propaganda, denouncing the invasion as an unjustified attempt by elites to plunder Ukraine’s material assets — resulting in the needless deaths of untold thousands of Russians.
The Russian people, its military and elites will not forget Prigozhin’s searing criticisms, much less the vulnerabilities his uprising exposed. “What’s done cannot be undone,” as the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, said in a briefing.
It also raises uncomfortable questions for the authoritarian leader: Put simply, “Who can Putin trust?” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe.
With such a schism exposed at the heart of the world’s most well-stocked nuclear power, the West will also be trying to work out how to respond to this new era of Russian instability.
The United States and its allies “must recalculate its assessment of Putin’s actual power and strength within Russia and his willingness and ability to use nuclear weapons,” Hodges said. “Clearly he cannot count on the loyalty of all of his officers,” he added, given the apparent lack of foresight and pushback from Russia’s intelligence and security services respectively.
And even with the immediate threat from Prigozhin neutered, the very fact it was allowed to get so far “is bound to sow confusion and uncertainty among Russian soldiers and commanders more widely,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the London think tank Chatham House.
Before Prigozhin launched his revolt, he was believed to have few reliable allies in the halls of the Kremlin. Members of the Russian government and elite made appeals throughout the day, urging Wagner forces to lay down their arms and turn in Prigozhin to the authorities.
But when Prigozhin and his men left Rostov-on-Don, the southern Russian city they swiftly captured, the sight of cheering crowds and celebratory gunfire would not have gone unnoticed.
There’s “probably a purge coming for those oligarchs and military who were not sufficiently loyal over the last couple of days,” Hodges said.
Browder, the human rights lawyer, agreed, saying he believes that the only way Putin can restore some semblance of authority is by unleashing some “devastatingly furious and tough” response domestically.
“Putin is usually very good at this,” he said.