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Russia’s Wagner Rebellion: How Will Putin Emerge From the Crisis?

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Yevgeny Prigozhin’s June 24th rebellion against the Russian military will likely go down in history as the most perilous, even seminal threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power. The more-or-less bloodless uprising lasted less than 24 hours, with the Kremlin apparently emerging victorious and Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, going into exile in Belarus as part of a deal negotiated by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. From Wagner’s march on Moscow to its retreat to its bases in Eastern Ukraine only hours later, the matter seems to be settled, with Putin coming out on top – as always.

However, taking a closer look at the events and, moreover, how they concluded, shows that things are anything but simple. Putin may very well have saved Moscow from a bloody military assault at the hands of some of Russia’s best (and most ruthless) soldiers, but it was not a straightforward victory for the country’s president. Though Putin and his system of authoritarian rule will likely be able to find a number of new notable advantages from the rebellion, Putin’s public standing has taken a series of irreparable hits that will not be forgotten easily. As the remainder of this article will demonstrate, the events and aftermath of June 24th could result in profound benefits, drawbacks, or even both, for Putin and his system of heavy-handed governance and control.

How the Wagner rebellion could help Putin

It was unlikely from the very beginning of Prigozhin’s rebellion that he would actually manage to threaten Putin’s control over Russia. This is partly because Prigozhin never desired this goal in the first place. He did not direct his rebellion at Putin or the presidency itself, but rather toward the military leadership over its handling of the war in Ukraine. His goal was to convince Putin of his value as a member of Russia’s elite and exact a number of benefits, such as funding and an extension of Wagner’s activities. He did not want to threaten Putin personally. Regardless of Prigozhin’s reasons for rebelling, Putin decried the treasonous “betrayal” that was taking place that morning in a televised address, which did not mention Prigozhin directly. Hours later, Prigozhin announced that his mercenaries would cease their actions and return to base. Putin, with the apparent help of his Belarusian counterpart, ostensibly put an end to the greatest threat to his rule.

For many, Putin came out on top and Prigozhin lost, regardless of what actually happened. This “victory” is likely to help Putin further clamp down on perceived threats inside of the country. For the purposes of security and stability, greater repression of the opposition and dissent should be expected. The threat is no longer just Ukraine, or NATO, or the West. The threat is now truly inside the country. All measures possible will need to be taken to prevent any threats to Russia, to Putin, and to the power structures of the country. Like the totalitarian regimes in Russia before his own, Putin has now found his “fifth column”. As a result, he is likely to use this discovery to apply further repressions against any and all threats.

A second benefit that Putin will draw from the outcome of the events is that Prigozhin, who for a long time has grown in notable popularity at the expense of the president, will be side-lined as an alternative authority in Russia. For months now, Prigozhin has been a thorn in Putin’s side, criticising the army’s handling of the war, publishing notably higher (and likely more accurate) death counts among Russian soldiers, and making military gains that the regular Russian troops simply could not manage. Russia’s far-right military correspondents (bloggers) often supported Prigozhin’s honest and authentic nature, amplifying his narratives in the hope of forcing the Russian military, and by proxy, the Kremlin to escalate the war. By side-lining Prigozhin, Putin is demonstrating that he is the ultimate authority in Russia, with no tolerance for disloyalty and dissent among the ranks. In sum, if handled correctly, Putin will be able to tighten his grip on Russia, further intensifying totalitarian trends in the country.

How the Wagner rebellion could hurt Putin

Though Putin may have removed his greatest threat inside the country, the mere fact that Prigozhin accomplished a semi-rebellion for an entire day could have devastating consequences for Putin and his image. Domestically, Putin demonstrated a notable amount of weakness throughout the affair. A militarised group of a few hundred men was able to take over the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, occupy the centre of the city, and in a matter of hours make its way to the gates of Moscow. The Kremlin’s reaction was, for many hours, a complete media blackout, followed by presumably evacuating Putin and other elites from Moscow to St. Petersburg. This was then followed by Putin’s address to the nation. For all intents and purposes, the government looked weak and indecisive; many Russians spent the day wondering “what is happening?” rather than expressing confidence in their government and its response. The lack of support coming from the masses and Russia’s influential far right was also notable.

Internationally, the situation was not much different. The world watched as the events unfolded in Russia. However, for much of the West and Ukraine, one fact became apparent: Russia is not in the position to effectively police – never mind prevent – an insurrection on a large scale. Beyond the obvious boost in morale for Kyiv’s soldiers, the Ukrainian military leadership is likely to draw the conclusion that if they do make gains from the counter-offensive, then making a push for a larger Russian city will be less of a challenge than previously expected. After all, Moscow’s most notable line of defence involved torn-up highways, which were excavated only minutes before. Having closely watched the events unfold, both western governments and NATO are likely to believe that Ukraine has a better chance than previously assumed given Russia’s structural and systemic weaknesses. This situation will make it easier to consider improved and expedited weapons deliveries.

For those in Russia unhappy with the war and Putin’s growing authoritarianism, the mere possibility of such a rebellion will have garnered notable attention. Putin’s image as an infallible Russian leader, which he has cultivated over two decades, has begun to crack. Groups considering protest, revolts and further acts of opposition are likely to feel emboldened, especially as the Kremlin hardly moved against the armed Wagner militants. However, as the case of Prigozhin demonstrates, even patriots can revolt against the system. The Kremlin has sent a message that rebellion will not always be met with a massive show of force, and if the stakes are high enough, will not even be punished that severely. A continued weak performance in defending against Ukraine’s counter-offensive, including further Russian losses in Eastern Ukraine, both in terms of territory and personnel, could only encourage this outlook further among the population. Russian soldiers disillusioned with the war may take up Prigozhin’s narratives, opposing the Russian military and its (mis)handling of the war. Knowing that Wagner’s rebellion even got off the ground could be reason enough to push back against the military’s leaders. If that happens, Putin’s position will only be weakened further. For everyone unhappy with the war, Putin, and political trends in the country, the events of June 24th have exposed cracks in the floodgates. If opened, they may be impossible to close.

Will Putin emerge weakened or strengthened from the crisis?

The advantages and disadvantages of the rebellion for Putin and his system are not, paradoxically, mutually exclusive. Rather, Putin is likely to clamp down on perceived threats and fifth columns with evermore severity, exacerbating totalitarian trends throughout the country whilst simultaneously growing weaker in the eyes of Russia’s population. Fear, after all, is a symptom of weakness. It must be remembered that Putin has not moved to repress large swathes of Russian society due to his confidence in their boundless support and trust, quite the opposite. It will likely be weeks or months until the dust has finally settled following the Wagner rebellion, but in the meantime, it is to be expected that Putin will only strengthen his grip on Russia, further pushing the country into a realm of totalitarianism not seen since the 1930s. For Russians that have seen his newfound weaknesses, they may start considering an alternative.

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