After Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive march on Moscow, Brookings Foreign Policy experts unpack the implications for Russia and the rest of the world.
Much of the media analysis after this weekend’s 23-hour Wagner rebellion is about the weakness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. True, personalized autocracies bypass rules and institutions and, as such, are inherently weaker than democracies.
But autocrats are also more dangerous precisely for the same reason — especially when they feel that their survival is at stake.
It is wrong to assume that the Russian military is toothless or that the Prigozhin saga is “the beginning of the end” for Putin. Putin was humiliated and, as Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin argues, the Russian military is corrupt and inefficient — but there is no indication that the regime is unraveling. We do not have a clear sense of what really happened. Was Prigozhin trying to stage a coup, as early reports suggested, or is this simply infighting among warlords in an opaque system?
Most likely the latter.
The Wagner chief never really publicly criticized Putin throughout this episode and has always said his feud was with the military leadership, namely Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin may have been set up by the regime to go on a drunken rage or may have just assumed, after months of ranting publicly, that Putin, too, agrees with his criticism of the army. In the end, Russian elites did not come to his support.
The impact of the mini-rebellion on the Ukraine war might also work in both ways. While many assume that, with the Russian military embroiled in infighting, the Ukrainians can now find openings to reclaim more territory, a humiliated Putin would likely get more belligerent in order not to be perceived as weak. (Several weeks after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara waged a massive incursion into Syria, in part for the same reason.) He might increase domestic repression and take his assault inside Ukraine up one more notch.
We don’t know what the future holds for Russia. Putin might one day be ousted. But for now, consolidation and escalation seem more likely than a regime collapse.
Many questions about the system failure that the Russian war machine experienced on June 24 remain unanswered. The most important one — about the impact on the course of the 16-month-long war — will be answered by the success of Ukrainian offensive operations, which are yet to gain full momentum. We can, nevertheless, begin to evaluate some other impacts, and one of them is the scale of confusion in Russia’s policy in Africa.
This region of the Global South has gained priority in Moscow’s campaign of camouflaging its aggression as a struggle against the U.S.-dominated world order, which was supposed to culminate in the second Russia-Africa Summit scheduled for late July in St. Petersburg. Africa has also experienced crude conflict manipulations by the Wagner group, starting from the Central Africa Republic and stretching from Mali to Sudan. Characteristically, there is a distinct geographic gap between these interventions and Russian diplomatic activities, centered on Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa, none of which has encountered Wagner mercenaries.
The leaders of these states now have to reconsider the value of their connections with Putin, who has proven to be out of control over Russian domestic affairs and out of touch with the hard reality of the war. Those rulers that were interested in employing Russian mercenaries must account for the probable disbandment of the Wagner Group, which might be replaced with other toxic but less effectual enterprises.
Many questions linger after Wagner Group mercenaries marched toward Moscow this weekend, led by its chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin. When it comes to what it means for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing asymmetric assault on democratic governments and institutions, one stands out. That is, what is the fate of the Wagner Group, which for years has been an indispensable element of Putin’s toolkit — not just in Ukraine, but farther afield?
Wagner mercenaries have been operating in over a dozen countries in Africa — including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Mozambique — to prop up strongmen, put down local uprisings, and shape domestic politics through multiple, opaque avenues of influence, including digital propaganda campaigns. The goal of these activities is to expand the Kremlin’s sway on a continent where support for its policies remains relatively high.
Moscow has also used Wagner mercenaries in Latin America to bolster Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro as a means of undermining U.S. interests, and looking to expand its footprint in the region, including to Haiti and Mexico. This activity too aims to strengthen ties to illiberal partners who share Putin’s antipathy to Western-dominated governance institutions and his interest in diluting the influence of the United States and Europe in the international system.
It’s unlikely at this point that the group will be disbanded entirely, not least given the instrumental role it has played in helping the Kremlin achieve these foreign policy goals. In his address on Monday, Prigozhin gave no indication that Wagner was being dissolved. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also on Monday, told Kremlin media that Russia would continue to support the government of the Central African Republic. Observers will be watching for signals of what will happen to Prigozhin’s army next — and what impact those developments will have on the trajectory of the places it has been operating.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fast-moving convoy through the strategic city of Rostov-on-Don appeared to be locally supported by the population and found no military opposition except some intervention through helicopters a little further on the road to Moscow. This move showed in all its tragedy the weakness and the disorganization of the Russian security forces who did not show up for the appointment with the rebel Wagner Group, despite knowing at least 24 hours before that something really dangerous was moving.
Vladimir Putin’s subsequent reaction, after a hard proclamation of threats against traitors, really surprised observers: a short-term agreement (still unclear) with Prigozhin through the mediation of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko seems to have been the only solution considered by the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense, so harshly criticized by Prigozhin himself. Probably, it finds justification in the last months of the war and in the difficulties of managing the occupation of Ukrainian soil by the Russian Armed Forces, which strongly needed to be supported by the Wagner Group. In fact, the displacement of its contingent, which has been crucial to the holding of the Bakhmut front, could have serious repercussions on the course of the war.
As for the political front, it is certain that Putin, now undermined in his credibility as a strong man, is dealing with a situation of deep internal instability that for sure will only get worse in the coming weeks.
The most likely scenario still is that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s desperate gamble was to counter the imminent transfer of Wagner’s cadres in Ukraine from his control to the Russian Ministry of Defense. For months, his crossing of one redline after another in dealing with the Kremlin’s power constellation had been driven by his frustrations, not success — as well as yes, hubris — in being unable to translate Wagner’s Ukraine battlefield engagement into larger influence.
His exile is unlikely to be comfortable. In his march on Moscow, Prigozhin humiliated President Vladimir Putin and exposed the hollowness of his power. Despite the promised amnesty, Wagner’s Ukraine cadres will still likely end up rolled onto the Ministry of Defense’s rosters, dismantled, or quietly dealt with.
But Wagner’s Africa and the Middle East deployments are likely to feel only limited repercussions. Purges within them may take place to strengthen loyalties to the Kremlin and they may be renamed. But they are still very strategically and financially useful for Moscow.
Throughout Wagner’s deployment in Ukraine and Prigozhin’s histrionics, there has been a firm division between Wagner-Ukraine and Wagner-Africa-Middle East cadres. What repositioning of Wagner forces and resources across the theaters of operations has taken place has not systematically or dramatically weakened Wagner’s ability to sustain its operations in the Middle East or Africa. The limitations and deficiencies of their operations predate the war in Ukraine.
Wagner’s most important selling point in Africa has not become its (limited) effectiveness against jihadists and rebels, but its promise to protect the existing authorities from coups and elections. But how have Wagner’s actions in Russia affected that message in Africa and the Middle East?
Wagner showed itself to be a loose cannon willing to turn on its masters, but also scary enough for Putin and the Russian military not to strongly oppose Wagner’s convoys and ostensibly give Prigozhin an easy way out without criminal charges. If you are a foreign government or warlord, do you still buy Wagner’s services or do you recalculate?
The United States government kept a low profile this weekend and demonstrated once again how good foreign policy is often invisible. The Biden administration limited its public statements to notices of briefings and canceled travel, and consciously avoided weighing in on what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “an internal matter for the Russians to figure out.” But the administration wasn’t idle: it consulted with major European allies, and was in contact with the Russian government about the safety of U.S. personnel in Russia. This behind-the-scenes diplomacy is not automatic and takes well-coordinated effort, but usually goes unseen — unless it’s on Netflix.
The Biden administration’s decision to stay very quiet was an affirmative choice. But it was an easier call because the United States had no rooting interest between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and President Vladimir Putin, unlike former President Bill Clinton’s eagerness to support Boris Yeltsin during the October 1993 Russian government standoff. Prigozhin is a brutal mercenary who has undermined U.S. interests in Syria, Ukraine, and beyond. Letting his confrontation with Putin play out without comment ensured that the United States did not give the Russian president fodder for blaming the crisis on American meddling.
That doesn’t mean the United States had no interests here. It can hope the internal strife benefits the Ukrainian war effort. And while officials downplayed the risk over the weekend, they are appropriately focused on the security and control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, just as the George H.W. Bush administration was during the August 1991 coup in the Soviet Union.
Chinese foreign policy under Chinese President Xi Jinping is unsentimental, as China’s muted response to the Wagner Group’s threatened mutiny reinforces. There were no visible signs of China rushing to Russia’s defense and no signals of support from Xi to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Instead, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) reported factually on the “Wagner Group incident” on page three. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted in an official statement, “This is Russia’s internal affair. As Russia’s friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity.”
Regardless of whether Putin regains tight control of Russia’s levers of power, Russia clearly is not the strong power that Xi placed a big bet on when Putin visited Beijing in February 2022. No amount of censorship and propaganda will conceal Xi’s strategic misjudgment. To guard against criticism, Beijing likely will assert tighter control over society through surveillance and repression. The Chinese Communist Party will intensify its indoctrination efforts around “Xi Jinping thought.” And Beijing will intensify its efforts to limit the emergence of any alternate power centers inside China.
By the same token, a weakened Russia, diminished China-Russia entente, and chastened China all benefit Taiwan’s security interests.
Taiwan’s leaders have depicted Ukraine’s success as critical for Taiwan’s security, arguing that if Ukraine could resist Russia’s invasion, autocrats everywhere would learn hard lessons about the unpredictable consequences of unleashing violence in pursuit of political gains.
The Wagner Group’s puncturing of Putin’s veil of domestic invincibility validates Taiwan’s judgment and offers China’s leaders a fresh reminder of the risky possibilities of protracted conflict. Ukraine will not determine China’s decisions on use of the force in the Taiwan Strait, but the outcome almost certainly will induce sobriety about the costs and risks of conflict. And in discussions about the use of force in the Taiwan Strait, sobriety always is preferable to the alternative.
Is Vladimir Putin at risk? Has he been weakened by the attempted coup of Wagner Group leader and former Putin crony, Yevgeny Prigozhin? Commentary on the dramatic events of the past week suggests that while Putin may have dodged Wagner’s bullet, perhaps literally, the failed insurrection reveals fundamental weaknesses in his regime and left him weakened and vulnerable. Maybe. But maybe not. Coup attempts in autocracies are not uncommon and autocrats who survive coups may retain their hold on power for years if not decades. According to the Cline Center Coup d’État Project, there have been almost 1,000 coups or attempted coups since the end of World War II. The vast majority of these have occurred in autocracies and in many cases where coup attempts fail, the rulers targeted for overthrow succeeded in reasserting their authority, stabilizing their regimes, and preserving their hold on power.
The Middle East provides ample evidence of such cases. In 1984, Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and commander of an elite military unit who had been appointed only months earlier as one of three vice presidents, moved his forces into Damascus in an attempt to seize power while his brother was incapacitated by illness. Confronted by units loyal to Hafez, Rifaat backed down and was forced into exile. At the time, then-Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass described Rifaat as “persona non grata forever” in Syria. Hafez remained in power for the next 16 years, paving the way for his son, Bashar, to succeed him upon his death.
Hafez’s experience is far from unusual. Yet whether Putin is able to stabilize his rule depends on how he manages the coup’s aftermath. Whether he now moves to purge his regime and remove those suspected of disloyalty is a critical indicator to watch. When coups fail, the survival of leaders can often depend on the scope and depth of purges that follow. Indeed, research on leadership survival after coups has found that “more severe purges [are] associated with longer authoritarian tenures.” In the past, Putin has tolerated dissension among security elites. Whether he continues to do so or chooses to rid himself of potential rivals may well signal how much longer he survives in power.
The failed mutiny in Russia underscores that time is not on Vladimir Putin’s side. The longer that his brutal and unjust war in Ukraine continues, the more consequential and unpredictable the consequences will be for Russia and the rest of the world.
The talented Mr. Putin, like authoritarian leaders in China, Iran, and elsewhere, has managed to outwit his adversaries at home and abroad for decades by cultivating profitable elite patronage networks, repressing dissent, controlling information, coopting pluralistic institutions, and aligning himself with other autocrats. For nearly a quarter-century, Putin’s strategy for self-preservation has succeeded, at the expense of his citizenry and Russia’s neighbors.
Such endurance makes it tempting to overestimate regime resilience. But even durable dictators are vulnerable to the inconvenient forces of reality, particularly when they make strategic miscalculations with catastrophic human and economic costs. Putin’s grip on power appears firm, but Wagner’s gambit has laid bare the fissures within the system. They will widen so long as his military remains bogged down in Ukraine.
The events also reinforce the importance of ensuring that Ukraine emerges from this conflict independent, secure, democratic, and thriving. Much of the world is hedging its bets around this war, unwilling to jeopardize commercial and military ties with Russia. But in Putin’s darkest hour, most of Russia’s partners – with the notable exception of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi – did little to reaffirm their support for him. Helping Ukraine prevail will diminish both the allure and the threat of authoritarianism around the world.
My sense of what has just happened in Russia is that most of it was real, and not for show or stage. I see little reason why Vladimir Putin would have wished to create a sense of internal weakness through a possible attempt at a coup d’état by one of his top associates and cronies. The high-level criticism of the whole idea of the Ukraine war, as well as its execution, was surely bad enough in Putin’s eyes. But when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, went so far as to have his men seize a base and then begin a march on Moscow—a march that cost lives of Russian military personnel as they sought to repel it—he almost surely went way too far for the Russian dictator.
This is excerpted from a longer opinion article published by The Messenger.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny last weekend has left many questions unanswered. What is already certain is that it provides a greatly sharpened context for the upcoming NATO summit on July 11-12.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has begged for a credible, short, and specific road map to NATO membership for his country. Despite pressure from Eastern Europe and the Baltics, news reports in mid-June had suggested that this push stood little chance of success. Instead, the so-called Quad — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — was offering an umbrella agreement under which each country would conclude bilateral agreements with Kyiv to continue supplying it with weapons and financial aid. Arguably, the mutiny strengthens the position of those who argue that Ukraine’s security can only be guaranteed with a commitment to its eventual membership in the alliance.
In a broader sense, the mutiny has cast a cold light on the theory that it is possible for Ukraine and the West to reach — through negotiations with Moscow over a territorial compromise — a stable security equilibrium in the region. The hope that Russia might thereafter become a security partner once again seems even more feeble. And Europe’s remaining neutral states (Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta) surely have cause to re-examine the underpinnings of their security.
But the ground is already shifting. On Monday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced a decision Berlin had resisted for many years: the permanent basing of a German brigade (approximately 4,000 troops) in Lithuania, on NATO’s eastern flank.
There is still much we do not know about the last several days in Russia, and the implications are yet to fully unfold. Major questions remain, such as why Vladimir Putin’s security apparatus was apparently surprised by these events even though U.S. intelligence was not; what will happen to Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner Group; whether and how these developments will affect the battlefield in Ukraine; and what the crisis means for Putin’s political standing and the internal instability of Russia.
To add to the fun, Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Though its forces have robust safeguards, the crisis has been a reminder that internal stability can have nuclear consequences, especially when a nuclear power is also fighting a massive external war. So far, the nuclear dimensions of the crisis seem to have been minimal, but the situation bears watching.
Strategically, the crisis could distract Moscow, providing some breathing room or even a breakthrough opportunity for Kyiv. It will certainly heighten Putin’s distrust of his security services, military leadership, and armed forces, which could undermine Russia’s long-term ability to project combat power and might make Putin more reliant on Russia’s nuclear forces. Prigozhin’s scathing critique of the rationale for the invasion of Ukraine and the conduct of the war could also undermine Putin’s narrative of the war with the public.
Much will depend on Putin’s decisions in the coming days and weeks (and the United States has been smart to studiously avoid inserting itself into the drama). Putin will surely be laser-focused on restoring his authority and preventing any recurrence, and no one should count him out. Putin has stayed in power for more than two decades precisely because he is willing to do whatever is necessary to maintain his rule.