EXPERT PERPECTIVE — In the wake of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s 36-hour mutiny and the scant and the confusing smoke signals emanating from the Kremlin since then, evidence of Vladimir Putin’s decision-making disfunction and his way forward are coming into focus. How he manages these issues in the coming weeks may very well determine Putin’s ability to maintain his grip on power over the long run.
The twists and turns, as Putin appears to have struggled to gain his footing in response to the most serious challenge to his regime, have defied easy explanation. You would not be alone if you have wondered why Putin did not nip the threat from Prigozhin in the bud; why has Putin not acted more decisively; and why is Prigozhin still apparently freely moving about Russia and now operating in Belarus? The short answer is: it’s complicated.
Even the deepest of experts cannot get inside Putin’s head or truly understand the Byzantine personal, business, and power relationship that lie behind the Kremlin walls. Perhaps we underestimate the psychological shock of betrayal from someone whose power Putin personally cultivated during their thirty-year confederation. And then there are daunting practical matters. Putin must unravel the symbiotic relationships between the Kremlin and Wagner and manage the fallout from the mutiny, including the evident strains between elite factions exposed by it.
A Few More Puzzle Pieces Have Dropped Into Place
Prigozhin recently reemerging in a video from Belarus, with one clear message: he and at least part of his Wagner empire might be down, but they are not out. Both Prigozhin and the elusive Wagner founder, Dimitry Utkin, are heard addressing hundreds of troops proclaiming that PMC Wagner’s immediate focus is to train Belorussia’s military and prepare for “a new path to Africa.” On July 27, Prigozhin’s presence on the margins of the Russia-Africa leaders’ summit in St. Petersburg, where he privately met with the African leaders he knows so well, underscored that he remains indispensible in leading Wagner’s operations in Africa.
During his address to his troops in Belarus, Prigozhin said that Wagner will remain in Belarus “for some time,” a point punctuated by the presentation of the Wagner flag that had flown over their now-closed base of operations in Russia and now adorned with Belorussian-Russian ribbons to mark their new “homeland.” He also pointedly ruled out rejoining the “disgraceful” fight in Ukraine, for now.
On Sunday, Putin and Belarus President Lukashenko met in St. Petersburg, where Putin and Prigozhin met three decades ago, much of it staged for the media. Lukashenko theatrically described Wagner as chomping at the bit to invade Poland but assured that he had them under control. Later the two toured the site of a famous mutiny crushed nearly a century ago by Leon Trotsky, then head of the Red Army, and they took pictures with adoring fans.
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Just a week earlier, Putin told a Russian journalist, “there is no PMC Wagner!” Putin also recounted his meeting with Prigozhin and dozens of Wagner subordinates, just five days after the mutiny, saying that many of them nodded agreement to his offer of continuing to fight in Ukraine under another Wagner commander, not Prigozhin. Putin said that Prigozhin, sitting in front, did not witness their acquiescence and rejected the offer. Meanwhile, Wagner’s heavy weapons have been transferred to the Russian Ministry of Defense, lest another mutiny might cross their minds, and the Kremlin has reportedly cut off financing for Wagner’s Russia-focused contracts.
A Plan Emerges
While much of this drama might not make sense at first blush, we can discern clear patterns in these developments. Putin’s plan to stabilize his position post-mutiny appears to have at least three facets. First is to stabilize his position domestically and boost his image as a strong and popular leader, fully in control. Second is to neutralize the threat unleashed by Prigozhin. Third is to gain control over the vast Wagner enterprise, whose multifaceted operations have enabled the Kremlin’s ability to project influence globally.
Dilemmas, rather than interests, are shaping Putin’s response. From this lens, it makes sense that Putin’s efforts to regain control of this monster of his own creation will take time and that Putin might want to keep some options open in the process. The complicated nature of striking a balance between sub-optimal options may explain the caution and lack of clarity in the weeks following the mutiny, including why we have not seen Prigozhin jailed or killed.
Three factors create the basis for the multifaceted dilemmas Putin is facing: Prigozhin remains popular, his message has salience, and Wagner is an important foreign policy tool for the Kremlin.
Dilemma 1: Prigozhin retains a consequential loyal following, including a literal army of supporters. Polling by two separate firms in Russia, which one would expect to be biased in favor of Putin, show that Prigozhin has lost about half of his support since the mutiny but still retains about 20-30 percent support among the general population and close to 40% support among people who get their news from the Telegram social media site, generally younger people.
Consequently, jailing or killing Prigozhin would make him a martyr to many and boost his message challenging the Kremlin. Foreign commentators warning Prigozhin to avoid tea cups and open windows, while making clever soundbites, are likely to be disappointed that his demise is probably not imminent. Instead, the Kremlin has unleashed a full-blown Kompromat campaign designed to discredit Prigozhin, focusing on his corruption and brutality. His telling of his come-to-Putin meeting also was designed to show Prigozhin as a disloyal leader who misled his patriotic fighters.
At the same time, Putin has sought to bolster his own public image. Gone are the absurdly long tables and his solitary midnight mass on Orthodox Christmas. Now it is walk-abouts with the common man, although little girls and women merit special attention. He lavished praise on the very domestic security forces that did little to stop Prigozhin’s advance toward Moscow and announced raises for the military and law enforcement, even though they already were in the works.
These media blitzes support all three facets of the Putin campaign: make Putin look strong and popular, undermine Prigozhin, divide and conquer Wagner. But Putin’s effort to diminish Prioghzin is not as easy as it looks. Core Prigozhin supporters are not put off by accounts of his brutality and misdeeds and may even be energized by them. This is particularly true of young men, who buy into Wagner’s macho marketing, as shown in the polling. The audacious brigand Prigozhin exhibits qualities that Putin now appears to lack, explain several Russian psychologists interviewed by independent Russian news outlet Meduza. Prigozhin, they say, expresses himself in ways that validate Russians’ worries, anger, and disappointment. Sound familiar from a U.S. political context?
Dilemma 2: Relatedly, Prigozhin’s message is powerful and presents a potentially much greater threat to Putin’s regime than Prigozhin himself. CIA Director Burns says that one-third of the population viewed the video he released during the insurrection, in which he challenged the very purpose and conduct of the war like no one had before. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Prigozhin’s method and message struck a chord with a curious mix of Russians. Even more concerning to Moscow, the mutiny appears to have opened a pandora’s box exposing divides in the security establishment over the execution of the war and the competence of its leaders.
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Meduza interviews with a range of Russians found, counterintuitively, that some anti-war Russians who view Prigozhin as “a bandit and war criminal” are nonetheless compelled by his challenge to the system, his naked exposure of the corrupt system—never mind that he is part of that system—and his threat to tear it all down. Pro-war Russians, who are incensed by the military’s poor execution of the war, also are attracted to his points. Russia’s highly popular ultranationalist military commentators on state TV and social media, referred to as “milbloggers,” have been chastising the military leadership for ineptitude and corruption for some time.
While this has been tolerated by Putin—perhaps because he thinks this is the least damaging of two bad options—there is a bright red line not to be crossed: denigrating Putin himself. But the mutiny seems to have encouraged several prominent figures to push past these bounds; they now look likely to pay a price. Last Friday (21 July), the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Igor Girkin, himself a former FSB officer convicted by a Dutch court for his role in downing the civilian airliner MH17 when he was “Defense Minister” of Ukraine’s separatist Donestsk region. Girkin, one of the most popular milbloggers known for dressing down Russia’s military leadership, called Putin a “lowlife” and “cowardly bum” who should step down.
Several Girkin associates belonging to his “Club of Angry Patriots” have also been detained after openly criticizing Putin and military leaders and challenging the validity of Girkin’s arrest. While surely designed to intimidate and muzzle other ultranationalists, there is risk of backlash and public confusion if the campaign extends to the ultranationalists who support the war and Putin but have criticized its execution. The Russian public feeds on such commentary that widely appears on social media and State TV alike.
Girkin is an example of former members of the security services that remain intertwined with the intelligence and military establishment. This includes most Wagner leaders, including its founder, Dimitry Utkin. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, to learn that some senior officials inside of this establishment supported Prigozhin’s efforts to decapitate the corrupt and incompetent Russian military leadership, according to intelligence sources interviewed by the Washington Post, even if many do not like Prigozhin himself.
The mutiny, ironically, has forced Putin to choose his loyal but incompetent military leadership over the disloyal Prigozhin. While this has not led to a widespread purge, it has made it impossible for Putin to fire Chief of General Staff Gerasimov and given Defense Minister Shoigu a new lease on life and even greater power.
The MoD already has begun to squelch criticism within its ranks, demoting or arresting officers who have been critical of military leadership, including combat-effective commanders not under his sway. Some are directly tied to Prigozhin, like General Sirovikin, one of Russia’s most competent senior officers who oversaw the daunting defensive lines now hindering Ukraine’s offensive. Sirovikin has not been seen since the rebellion and, according to one Russian official, is “resting.” More than a dozen other senior officers have been suspended from duty or fired. Some of these may not be tied to Prigozhin but have criticized military leadership for incompetent and “inhumane” orders.
Putin’s previous leniency toward such criticism by senior officers and the lack of punishment for Prigozhin may have encouraged insubordination. Putin might allow some of these officers to be rehabilitated down the line, as he has done in the past. Now he has little choice but to allow at least some to be punished, prioritizing loyalty over competence. These choices could lead to problems on the battlefield, although there is no evidence of these effects yet.
Dilemma 3: Prigozhin and Wagner are powerful tools of the Kremlin, particularly in projecting influence in the Global South. Prigozhin is no figurehead when it comes to Wagner’s extensive operations. He has used a complex web of companies and contracts to execute missions on behalf of the Kremlin around the world, including protective details for leaders and critical infrastructure, anti-terrorism operations, influence campaigns, and gold, logging, and diamond concerns.
Just as important, he has been personally involved by building relationships and dealing with details for decades. His energy and personal leadership has generated deep loyalty (and also fear). His appearance in St. Petersburg on Thursday, where he reportedly met with officials from several countries that have significant Wagner operations—the Central African Republic and Mali, as well as a pro-Russia media outlet—demonstrates his centrality to Putin’s efforts to ensure Russia’s influence in Africa. Prigozhin also, worryingly, met with officials from Niger, where a coup could provide an opportunity for Wagner and the Kremlin to find another foothold.
As a result, Wagner cannot be unwound or replaced wholesale. Instead, we should expect it to be dismantled, rebranded, and subsumed under government or loyal oligarch leadership, where possible. While Putin has declared that Wagner does not exist, both Prigozhin and senior Russian officials have made assurances that Wagner’s contracts will be upheld. The confusion over Wagner’s continuing role in Africa shows that Prigozhin has not yet given up this part of his empire and that Putin doesn’t have what it takes force his divestiture without risking the golden goose they represent. His appearance in St. Petersburg on Thursday suggests that Prigozhin and Wagner will continue some role in Africa for the foreseeable future.
Putin has already gone after easiest of the Wagner entities to subsume. The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a key tool in pumping disinformation globally—including in the 2016 U.S.
Presidential election—has been shuttered. It’s value to the Putin suggests, however, that it will be rebranded under new management. The Russian MoD has also taken over Wagner operations in Syria; while one of the easiest of Wagner missions to subsume given the robust presence of the Russian military in Syria, some reports indicate it has been far from smooth, putting important oil infrastructure that Wagner has been guarding at risk of attack.
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At stake in sub-Saharan Africa is certainly income for the Kremlin and, just as importantly, influence. It seems no coincidence that Putin is hosting African leaders this week for the first Russian-Africa summit since 2019. The 54 African nations comprise the largest voting bloc a the UN, although they have not voted as a unified block on UN resolutions criticizing the war. Putin is more anxious than ever to solidify his influence in Africa given headwinds caused by his inability to attend the BRICS summit next month in South Africa in person–because of the ICC arrest warrant against him–his cancelation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that so many African nations count on for direct supply or from lower global prices, and the uncertainty created by Wagner’s withdrawal. But the summit demonstrated more starkly than any other recent event that Putin’s influence with the Global South is waning. Only 17 countries were represented, in contrast to 43 in 2019. And his rather paltry offerings in terms of free grain shipments, trade, and debt relief were focused mainly on the handful of his closest allies on the Continent, who already have few other options given their autocratic systems. Given these circumstances, Wagner has become a more important tool than ever for Putin to project influence in Africa.
There are surely more developments, and surprises, that will unfold in the coming weeks as Putin tries to get his hands around the monumental challenges unleashed by Prigozhin’s ill-fated mutiny, both at home and abroad. While Putin is unlikely to be deposed any time soon if ever, his unsteadiness as he faced the most consequential threat to his regime ever was evident to all. This will forever be baked into how Putin is considered by elites in Moscow, friends in China, fence-sitters in Africa, and adversaries. Whether Putin’s emerging efforts prove to be successful in mitigating doubts about this leadership or mark the beginning of his end is impossible to say now, but that he is standing atop a watershed moment is clear.