As the dust settles from a volatile two days in Russia, it is worth taking stock of the initial implications that the Prigozhin Putsch has for the Ukraine War. Much remains unknown about the putsch, but there are three clear implications: Russia’s Vladimir Putin looks to have set aside a relationship with those closest to him, his regime is under stress, and — when stressed — Putin will seek to diffuse the situation if the stakes are high enough.
All of this reinforces the case for military pressure against Russia, rather for than a poorly-planned negotiation.
Prigozhin’s apparent putsch began on June 23, when the Wagner Group leader released a video accusing Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MOD), specifically Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, of dragging Russia into a needless war for personal profit. This constituted a direct challenge to Putin’s rule, since any doubt that the Ukraine war is a necessary conflict explicitly contradicts every word of state propaganda since the war began on Feb. 24, 2022.
Wagner channels then released a video of a damaged Wagner camp, allegedly attacked by the Russian air force. Subsequently, some 25,000 Wagner mercenaries drove on Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, two vital logistical hubs for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
Prigozhin framed his putsch as a state-strengthening measure, one stemming from loyalty to Putin and the Russian state. His alleged objective was strictly the removal of Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of general staff. This is political fiction; Prigozhin was attacking directly the current Russian power structure and displacing the state’s monopoly on violence.
The fact that Prigozhin felt compelled to stage such a brazen display of his power demonstrates either that he thought his life was at risk in his competition with Shoigu and Gerasimov, or that Shoigu and Gerasimov had become so unpopular as to enable him to force them out. He may have been correct in the former; the latter may have been true as well, although Putin’s inability to remove subordinates — and need to turn to a mercenary group to do it for him — would indicate severe state decay.
The above, indeed, is the first implication of the incident: Putin does not operate in close coordination with any other member of the security system and, likely intentionally, obfuscates his views. Even his statement against the putsch was qualified, never truly condemning Prigozhin directly nor endorsing a specific organ of state. This is almost certainly a calculated choice, for by remaining as inscrutable as possible, Putin could separate himself from operational or strategic choices in the war against Ukraine.
Yet this method of autocratic governance indicates the stress under which the regime finds itself.
In China, Xi Jinping’s Communist Party takes pains to disseminate a host of doctrinal commentary, at times contradictory or unclear, to provide policy and ideological guidance to the millions of cadres across the country. It is a bureaucratic system that works slowly and imperfectly, but it possesses a sort of bureaucratic rationality.
The same cannot be said today of Russia’s system. Regime security is no longer paramount; rather, the person of Vladimir Putin has become sacralized, and his security and survival are the regime’s central focus.
Putin’s Russia is, by definition, more personalized than Xi Jinping’s China, even if Xi’s China has become more personalized since he became its “maximum leader.” Putin built the Russia that is currently at war with Ukraine and the West; he is synonymous with the Russian regime and Russian foreign policy, particularly since 2012.
Read the rest at The Messenger.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.