Will the Wagner coup be the beginning of the end for Putin?
Many questions remain after Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny. While it was certainly a turning point for Vladimir Putin's rule, the consequences for Russia and Ukraine remain unclear
Many international political analysts agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin will emerge weaker following the brief mutiny staged by Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin over the weekend. Moreover, there is a sense of bewilderment at just how the consequences might unfold in the coming days, weeks and months.
"The most important thing to note is that Putin has clearly lost some authority," Russia expert Fabian Burkhardt told DW. But the winner within the Russian power structure is only now being negotiated. "Many actors in Russia have most likely been surprised by this situation," Burkhardt, a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, added.
The beginning of the end?
"For me, it is the beginning of a collapse of the system," Irina Scherbakova, a Russian historian and co-founder of the human rights organization Memorial, which is banned in Russia, told German national radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
And in the US, historian and Yale professor Timothy Snyder wrote in an initial analysis for his Substack newsletter: "What was not to be seen was anyone in any Russian city spontaneously expressing their personal support for Putin, let alone anyone taking any sort of personal risk on behalf of his regime."
Prigozhin's march on Moscow showed the people of Russia, as well as the entire world, "that a small force" could reach Moscow with relative ease, Snyder said, describing Putin's loss of control. "That was not the case before most of Russia's armed forces were committed in Ukraine, where many of the best units essentially ceased to exist."
Putin lacks domestic troops
According to this logic, Putin deprived himself of unrestricted power in Russia through his war of aggression in Ukraine, which violates international law, because he allowed his military power base to slip away in his own country. But do the recent events in Russia really amount to a political "culmination" for Putin — that is, is it the beginning of the end for his rule?
Memorial founder Scherbakova, who lives in exile in Berlin, seems to think so. Though just "how long this will take, we don't know."
For Snyder, the apparent "apathy indicates that most Russians at this point just take for granted that they will be ruled by the gangster with the most guns, and will just go on with their daily lives regardless of who that gangster happens to be."
He is certain of one thing: "Backed into a corner, Putin saves himself."
Wars end when 'pressure is felt inside the political system'
This calls to mind the fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine, along with the question: Can Putin escalate the war there once again to consolidate his power base in the Kremlin? Or will the Wagner mutiny be seen as the beginning of the end of the war?
Wars generally end "when the pressure is felt inside the political system," Snyder writes. Looking to Ukraine's more than 50 US-led allies, he emphasizes: "Those who want this war to end should help the Ukrainians exert that pressure."
So far, there is no indication as to whether the Ukrainian army on the front lines can derive any benefits from the events in Russia. Or whether they have weakened the combat capabilities of the Russian armed forces. It is difficult to assess what Russian soldiers in Ukraine know about the mutiny, German security expert Nico Lange told DW.
"Their cell phones are being taken away and they are very much cut off from reality," said Lange, a Ukraine and Russia expert who also works for the Munich Security Conference.
Unrest among Russian commanders at the front
However, Lange expects that the level of unrest amongst the Russian commanders has probably increased. Meanwhile, the core of Prigozhin's troops are no longer on the front lines. Just how quickly, if at all, the 25,000-strong Wagner troops can be integrated into the regular Russian army is unclear, particularly after they occupied the Russian army's southern high command in Rostov-on-Don.
The Russian city of millions is a key supply hub for Russian forces across the land corridor between Russia and Crimea, which is currently occupied by the Russian army. Another key route goes across the Crimean bridge that spans the Kerch Strait.
Disrupting these supply routes is one of the Ukrainian army's military objectives in the ongoing counteroffensive. Without supplies of ammunition and fuel, Russian defenses would collapse.
Putin cannot allow that to happen without losing hope of victory in Ukraine. Prigozhin has taken advantage of this with his attempted coup. The dispute between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had been raging for months, with the Wagner chief repeatedly accusing the Russian military of failing to adequately supply his ranks, even during months of fighting around the town of Bakmut in eastern Ukraine.
In this respect, the occupation of the Russian southern command post in Rostov was consistent, and may now have helped Prigozhin to extract the best deal for himself from the Kremlin, particularly after it became clear that no other figures within Putin's power structure would support his cause.