The mutiny in Russia may be over. But it still damages Putin
Updated June 25, 2023 at 1:24 PM ET
A mutiny by Russia's Wagner Group of mercenaries appears to have ended with the leader recalling his troops, but the uprising may have done irreparable damage to the image of President Vladimir Putin at home and abroad, analysts say.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the shadowy private army that has played an outsized role in the fighting in Ukraine, claimed on Saturday to be in control of Russia's military headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don, a key installation the Kremlin has used as a base for its offensive operations in Ukraine. Wagner forces then began making their way toward Moscow in what looked to the outside world like an attempted coup d'etat.
Within hours, however, Prigozhin — a former close confidant of Putin who had accused Russia's military leadership of attacking and killing his soldiers — said he had commanded his forces to return to their bases.
Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, says despite the apparent end of the mutiny, the Russian leader will undoubtedly be weakened by the strong challenge to his authority.
"He will try to compensate by making the regime even more hands-on," Gabuev told NPR. "The regime will become increasingly more repressive at home."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul says there's "no doubt" that Prigozhin's mutiny weakens Putin and "raises doubts about his ability to continue to govern Russia in an effective way."
U.S. officials knew a rift was possible
U.S. intelligence had learned earlier this month that Prigozhin was planning to take military action inside Russia, according to two U.S. officials.
Biden administration officials briefed the Gang of Eight, the top congressional leaders who receive regular intelligence briefings, this past week that the Wagner Group was planning to take military action against the Russian military's leadership, a source familiar with the matter confirmed.
For months, Prigozhin has been an unusually vocal critic of the Russian military, and in particular of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom he has accused of incompetence and whose resignation Prigozhin demanded.
The rift between Prigozhin and Russian officials "has been pretty public and it's been out there for a while," according to a senior Biden administration official. The official said there "has been increasingly bellicose rhetoric between Prighozin and folks in Russia ... for a few weeks now."
"A Wizard of Oz moment" for Putin and Russia
Late Saturday, Prigozhin announced on social media that his forces were ending their "march for justice" to Moscow that saw the mercenaries make their way from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don to the outskirts of the Russian capital. He ordered the forces to "turn our columns around and go in the opposite direction back to a field camp as planned."
In what appeared to be part of a deal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the criminal case against Prigozhin and his fellow mutineers would be dropped and that the Wagner boss himself will "go to Belarus." Wagner troops who did not participate in the uprising will sign contracts with Russia's Ministry of Defense.
Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp, cautions that at the moment, little is known, but "one thing we know for certain is that Putin's authority is irreparably damaged."
"It's sort of like a Wizard of Oz moment, where it turns out that the people who have the guns are not willing to use them to prop up your authority," he says.
Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst at the Crisis Group, says it's possible that Prigozhin will be arrested or killed and that Wagner would be "disbanded or assimilated into the conventional armed forces."
"Then, the war in Ukraine will surely go on, alongside likely even more crackdowns in Russia," he says.
After Prigozhin announced he was standing down, Julia Ioffe, a Russia expert and Washington correspondent for Puck News, tweeted: "Okay, so what happens now? I can't imagine Putin says 'it's all water under the bridge' and everything goes back to normal?"
Meanwhile, the messy uprising, which played out in plain view of the world, is good news for Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said of the mutiny that "Russia's weakness is obvious."
Andrew Weiss, who oversees research on Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks that Putin is bruised, but can't be counted out.
"There's no mistaking the overall decay and degradation of the Russian regime led by Vladimir Putin as a result of the war in Ukraine," Weiss says. "The problem for him is he's stuck and there isn't a way out of the mess that he's created both for himself as well as for Russia as a whole."
"But this is a leader who has survived for 20 plus years because he's very tactical and very street smart and knows when to throw a punch," he says. "That's the guy we're dealing with ... not someone who's going to shrink off into the corner and feel embarrassed or humiliated."
NPR's Tom Bowman, Tamara Keith and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.