Three Lessons From Wagner's Insurrection — None Are Good News For The Tsar
The fate of Prigozhin, Putin and Ukraine hang in the balance. And though much is still not clear, Russia is simply no longer under the reign of an all-powerful Vladimir Putin.
The dramatic events that shook Russian President Vladimir Putin's power for a few hours this weekend still have more secrets to reveal — and the shock wave could be felt for weeks and months in unexpected ways.
At this point, we can draw at least three lessons from the events that have ushered Russia into a new era.
First, we must address Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the anti-hero of this episode. While historians may struggle to define him, they will at least agree that he was a creature of Putin and that he escaped the president's control by seeking to become the master of the game himself.
When Putin talked about a "stab in the back" in his Saturday morning address, he was describing the betrayal of a man who owes him everything but violated the golden rule of the leader's relationship.
Prigozhin gained confidence by offering Putin his only victory of the year in Bakhmut, Ukraine — albeit at the most barbaric human cost. But Prigozhin engaged in a power struggle with Moscow's military leaders and lost. What will remain of Prigozhin and Wagner when the dust settles? It's not certain that they will carry much weight. One does not challenge the Tsar without being sure of winning— that is the first lesson.
Pyrrhic victory for Putin
What about Putin? That remains the crucial question. Putin is undoubtedly weakened by this crisis. It's true that he held onto power, that there was no civil war and that Moscow remains under control. But it is only a Pyrrhic victory.
For more than 20 years, Putin's power has been built on the myth of the strongman. He did not establish a modern state but rather created a "system" based on the redistribution of income, a multifaceted security apparatus and an authoritarian state that allows little room for dissent. What remains of it today?
By challenging him, Prigozhin — the man who does the dirty work, the mercenary leader and mastermind behind troll farms pushing disinformation — showed that the emperor had no clothes. Juggling between Wagner, the Chechens and other factions within his own army, Putin has lost control.
This vulnerability adds to his failures during the war in Ukraine and reveals a vulnerable Putin, forced to barricade himself in the Kremlin — not against NATO, but against his own creation. It will leave scars, perhaps even fatal ones.
What it means for Ukraine
What impact does all this have on the war in Ukraine? That is the third lesson: for a moment, Ukrainians believed that a miracle had arrived, that a civil war in Moscow would divert the Russian army elsewhere. That was not the case.
Still, the impact of this crisis on the military remains elusive. What has become of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who have been largely unseen? What is the impact of Prigozhin's accusations, claiming that it was not the threat from NATO that triggered the invasion of Ukraine, but rather the generals' greed?
It's too early to tell, but all this confirms, once again, that this war was the most serious mistake of Putin's reign, and it reinforces the West's decision to support Ukraine.
What happened this past weekend was Russia's worst crisis in 30 years, and it is far from over.
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