Has Putin been fatally wounded by the Prigozhin affair?

Jun 29, 2023
President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation, 24 February 2022

The world watched amazed as the drama unfolded in Russia at the end of last week, with the head of the Wagner Group, Evgenii Prigozhin, openly attacking the Minister of Defence and the military general staff, and some of his troops advancing on Moscow. Although this mutiny was blunted, many observers have been quick to argue that it has fatally wounded President Vladimir Putin and presages his fall.

Internationally, people from leading Western politicians through to many academics have made this claim. Domestically, Peter Harcher (in two major articles on successive days) and Mick Ryan in The Sydney Morning Herald have also advanced this argument, while Matthew Sussex has even suggested that Putin might not last out the year. How credible are such views?

The first thing to be said is that there is absolutely no evidence that Putin has been weakened. He may have been and the evidence is not easy to see. After all, in authoritarian regimes all can seem calm immediately before a change in leadership. But in Russia at the moment, the claims are based on surmise, on judgements about how other actors will react to the Prigozhin affair. So the question is whether those judgements are soundly based. I will look at this in terms of the arguments that have been made for his weakening.

A preliminary point: given that in authoritarian regimes, rulers lose office as a result of internal coup much more often than they do of revolution in the streets, it is how the Russian elites have viewed this affair that is most important for Putin’s future. The question is whether in their eyes, the Prigozhin affair has weakened him.

One argument, based on false historical understanding, is that in Russia when a leader is shown to be weak by a coup attempt against them or by defeat in foreign wars, a move will soon be made against them. There have been some instances of this, the most striking being the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 and his stepping down the following December, and perhaps Nicholas II and the February Revolution of 1917. But this did not happen in the cases of Boris Yeltsin and the 1993 conflict, of Joseph Stalin in the wake of the major military setbacks in 1941-42, of Vladimir Lenin following the early defeats in the civil war and the invasion of Poland, of Nicholas II following defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the revolution of 1905, or Alexander II and the Crimean War. Certainly some of these produced major changes, but of these seven cases, in only two was the demise of the ruler a direct result of a failed coup or military defeat. Nor is it the case in many other authoritarian regimes that an unsuccessful coup presages the early demise of the ruler. In many cases, the reverse is the result as the ruler cracks down even further on potential dissent.

More important are the arguments about the exact circumstances of how Putin handled the Prigozhin affair. It is certainly true that Prigozhin’s very public and increasingly bitter complaints, his seizure of the southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and the march of some of his men on Moscow was embarrassing and seemed to show that Putin had lost control, and therefore the image that had been built up of his power and authority was fractured. But against this needs to be put the fact that Putin faced Prigozhin down. Crucial in the Prigozhin backdown and the recalling of his men was the hardline stance Putin adopted in his public statement critical of what he portrayed as the attempted coup. He may have appeared to have lost control initially, but he reasserted it. Crucial here is the fact that the only hope Prigozhin had of success was either if Putin had supported him, or if the military or security elites had in part or wholly supported him. When neither did, he had nowhere to go because, as Lukashenka apparently confirmed to him, if he continued on he would be crushed.

The delay of some 13 hours in Putin publicly responding to the takeover of the southern military headquarters and Prigozhin’s outburst has been seen as showing Putin as a hesitant and uncertain leader as opposed to the image of the decisive man of action. However as the elite knows, Putin’s response to issues has often been slow; his delayed reaction to the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000 is a clear instance of this, while the general Russian response to Covid was also slow. Moreover it depends what he was doing in those 13 hours. He may have been consulting with those around him, including the military leadership in Moscow, about how to respond, a course of action that would presumably have been seen by Russian elites as positive rather than a sign of weakness. Given his former close relationship with Prigozhin, there may also have been some communications going on between the two, or their intermediaries. Thus his initial public absence may represent less hesitancy than a working towards a solution. And when he did go public, he appeared decisive and in control.

The difference between the firmness of his public statement – that the rebels would be destroyed – and the final outcome, with Prigozhin going to Belarus and his soldiers being forgiven, has been seen as a backing down on Putin’s part. However it is not clear how this will ultimately work out and perhaps judgement should be suspended until we see what happens. But in any event, while it has been claimed that Putin deals harshly with his enemies, during his tenure in office he has shown considerable loyalty to those close to him, and when they have been removed from their positions, they have often been given a soft landing. Prigozhin would appear to fit into this category.

The role played by Belarus leader Lukashenka is seen as also reflective of Putin’s weakness: he had to rely on Lukashenka to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. But Lukashenka could not have acted without Putin’s imprimatur, and it would have been odd if the offer of a home for Prigozhin in Belarus had come from anyone but the Belarusian leader. And again this is not alien to Putin’s normal modus operandi. In his balancing of cliques and factions, he does not always step in himself to resolve some difficulty but acts through an intermediary, such as Sergei Kirienko.

Some have argued that the failure of the Russian military or security forces either to defend the southern military headquarters or to block the path to Moscow shows that those forces were not firmly supportive of Putin. However as observers of the Putin regime have argued, it is one in which subordinates routinely wait for the word from the boss before acting; lower level initiative is frowned upon. Given that Prigozhin was seen as one of Putin’s intimates, reluctance to act unilaterally by lower level military commanders was quite understandable.

At the end of the day, in the face off between Putin and Prigozhin, in the short term the former seems to have been the unambiguous winner; Prigozhin appears to have got nothing he wanted, although there may still be some way for things to play out. Furthermore the military and security elite seem to have remained solid behind Putin. While it may be that this was just a case of preferring Putin over Prigozhin, if the arguments above are accurate it may also have been a vote of confidence in the Putin system. After all, Prigozhin’s argument was with defence minister Shoigu and the military high command, not Putin. It was the sort of difference that occurs all the time between factional groups within the Russian system, and it could be argued that this was settled in much the same way as those other differences were settled: appeal to Putin, he rules, and the dispute ends. Certainly the Prigozhin affair was different because it was played out in public, but the dynamics of its resolution were consistent with the way the Putin regime has functioned in the past. In this sense, rather than it being seen as a major challenge to the system that has weakened Putin, perhaps we should see it as a stress test that the system passed.

Of course these arguments may be wrong and Putin may be on borrowed time. These arguments do not suggest that there are no differences within the Moscow elite, because there are including over the Ukraine war, nor that there is not considerable dysfunction in the Russian political and military systems. But they do suggest that we should not be quite so sanguine in seeing the Prigozhin affair as portending the imminent end of Putin, as many of our pundits have suggested.

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