What’s Happening After Prigozhin’s Mutiny?

What is happening in Russia following Prighozin’s predictable but still shocking aborted mutiny? A great deal of ink has been spilled on this topic, and will continue to be spilled as observers on all sides try to understand the significance of these recent developments and what they portend for a Russia which had already been plunged into chaos by Putin’s war. I’m not sure that I have any particularly new insight that hasn’t been offered elsewhere, but I’m going to try to collect some of the best available commentary to help us all digest this fascinating, disturbing (and yet perhaps somewhat hopeful) set of developments which is still playing out. Intimately tied up with Putin’s disastrous launch of the Ukraine war last year, Prighozin’s rebellion is surely one of the most significant developments in Russian politics in recent years. The meaning of this event is far from straightforward, and raises many questions which do not have obvious answers at the moment. All parties involved (Putin, Prighozin, МО [Ministry of Defense], Lukashenko, etc. etc.) are trying to spin the events to their own benefit, making it difficult to establish where things really stand in the immediate aftermath of an event whose meaning historians and others will debate for many years to come.

The recent uprising / mutiny / rebellion by Yevgeny Prighozin (head of Russia’s Wagner Group) came as a surprise to most observers, although perhaps it should not have. Private militia forces have, throughout history, presented alternative bases of power which can become unaccountable to the established authorities. And yet Putin has allowed Wagner (and Prighozin himself) to accumulate power despite his paranoia, presumably because in his own analysis Putin had decided that the benefits of allowing Wagner to amass power outweighed the costs. This Guardian piece has a good account of that rise to power and how the Wagner group has been an extremely important (if unacknowledged) tool of Russian foreign policy in the last decade. Putin himself seemed caught off guard, which seems hard to account for, since we know that he is extremely sensitive to any possible threat to his power, and the Wagner group was an obvious threat, particularly given Prighozin’s increasingly outspoken criticism of the conduct of the Ukraine war in recent months. But Prighozin was carefully triangulating, making sure (in his Telegram and other posts) to direct his criticism not at Putin personally but (at least nominally) at the upper echelons of the Russian defense decision-making apparatus (Shoigu and Gerasimov in particular).

Despite his attempts to seem in control on the situation, it is clear that Putin and his disinformation apparatus was caught off guard by this threat to his power from the extreme ultranationalist right. Most of the internal effort to unify the Russian state and people behind the Ukraine war effort had focused on heading off dissent from the left – countering the argument that the war was morally wrong or (more practically speaking) too costly and should not be fought. Prighozin, though, is a supporter of the war in general (though he is critical of how it has been conducted thus far), and one of the people most responsible for its execution. Politico.eu has had a lot of good reporting on the Ukraine war, and one of their recent pieces highlights this breakdown of the Russian propaganda machine. The piece points out that, “In the aftermath of the Wagner Group boss’ aborted uprising, Putin and his propagandists — national broadcasters, high-profile politicians and social media influencers — have struggled to explain how Prigozhin, an archetypal Russian hero, suddenly turned into the country’s most infamous traitor. ” Part of the answer here is surely that the apparent ‘sudden’ development of these recent events was in fact far from sudden, reflecting tensions that have been building for years. In the information vacuum of Putin’s Russia (a situation which exists by design), great effort is being made to hide the truth of any internal wrangling from the rest of the world, so when these sorts of developments happen they seem sudden because very few observers have any sort of fully transparent view of what is happening beneath the carefully cultivated surface appearance.

As the rebellion was taking place, Russian state media stuck its head in the sand, initially downplaying the mutiny and even broadcasting a documentary on Silvio Berslusconi as the events of the rebellion unfolded. We can take this both as a sign that the events were largely unforeseen, even by the propaganda machine, and that that machine needed to buy time to figure out how to spin them. When you consider the fact that Prighozhin himself has for years now been a key instrument in that propaganda machine, it is no surprise that that apparatus, finding itself under attack from one of its own, initially spun its wheels, and that the rebellion produced chaos in the response on all fronts (security, media, foreign relations. etc.). In the days following the uprising, Russian media focused on establishing a narrative that business was largely continuing as usual, portraying Putin at, for example, a local textile conference. At the same time, Putin himself spoke to the Russian people, comparing the moment to the tumult of 1917. This head-spinning juxtaposition – trying at one and the same time to downplay the significance of the events and assuring Russians that everything was under control, while also admitting that the events threatened to plunge the country into another world-shattering revolution and civil war – is evidence of a propaganda machine that is terrified by the developments and unsure of the best way to regain the narrative.

The Intercept offers some valuable commentary on this note, pointing to one of the many contradictions at the heart of the rebellion. “Prigozhin is a pathological liar, a professional disinformation artist who was indicted in the United States in connection with the internet troll farm he ran, which was at the forefront of Russian efforts to intervene in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win. But as the mercenary boss began his mutiny in late June, he experienced a brief and surprising bout of honesty when he launched into an online tirade against what he said were the lies used by Moscow to justify the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. His comments were so candid and off-message for a Russian leader that it seemed as if someone had mistakenly handed him a speech meant for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.” That Prighozin has, for years, been an integral cog in Russia’s propaganda machine, speaks to the difficulty in the response to his uprising. It appears that, in a country in which great pains are taken to avoid speaking truth to power, Prigozhin finally decided to bypass the filters and speak candidly about his frustrations. This is a hugely dangerous counter-narrative, because it goes directly to the heart of the stated justification for the Ukraine war (and the logic of Putin’s agenda). This honesty threatens to have a delayed impact, further eroding support for the war among the Russian populace.

While questions about following the rebellion, there are a few things that we can be reasonably sure of in the aftermath, the CBC explains. One of these things is that Putin, and Russia, both appear less stable. Despite Putin’s attempts to put a positive spin on the events, Prigozhin’s uprising was very obviously a blow to Putin’s carefully cultivated image. And in a society in which the image of power is substantially bound up with that power itself, any challenge to the image materially weakens Putin. There are many people who would like to see Putin lose his hold on power, but the events of recent weeks highlight that a change of regime is almost certain to be chaotic and create multiple risks in the process. It’s hard to predict what Russia might look like after Putin, a leader whose implicit social contract was that in exchange for the support of the Russian people and elite, he would keep strict order and (literally and figuratively) keep the trains running on time. The Ukraine war, and Prighozhin’s rebellion arising out of it, have made it all but impossible for Putin any longer to claim that he is using his power to keep order. And though the Russian propaganda apparatus is working overtime to convince Russians that Putin still has two hands on the wheel of governance, and that Russia is in steady hands, that myth has been dealt a shattering blow. Russians are aware of what happened with Prighozin, and many of them, even those who have supported Putin, are surely re-evaluating their support.

In reading about this rebellion, I was reminded (from my undergraduate Russian history studies) of the Time of Troubles, a period of sweeping social and political crisis beginning in 1598 with the death of Feodor I, heir apparent to the Russian throne. Ivan the Terrible ruled with a strong hand, consolidating Russia under himself as the Tsar. But there was no obvious successor who could rule with the same strength, and the murder of Ivan Ivanovich (the heir apparent) at the hands of his father made the weak Feodor the likely successor to the throne, a situation which many found intolerable (and easy to take advantage of). This power vaccuum created a situation in which multiple ‘false Dmitris’ laid claim to the Russian throne, and as a result the country drifted from one disaster to another (armed conflict and famine) in the two decades following Ivan’s death. There are numerous parallels to what we are witnessing in Russia at the current moment. Putin has built his own personal political power at the expense of Russian civil society (what little of it existed before his rule). In Putin’s mind, the accumulation of power is a zero-sum game, and his two decades of authoritarian rule has thoroughly weakened Russia’s stabilizing institutions. There is no way to tell what will happen following Putin’s downfall because Putin has worked very hard to eliminate any kind of apparatus of succession, in order that no one could challenge him. But we should expect, whenever Putin does finally lose his grip on power, that a time of great trouble will follow, as multiple possible successors compete to establish a new center of power. This will be very bad for Russia, and for the rest of the world.

Prighozin’s uprising has shed a bit of light on the many cracks that exist within the foundations of the Russian power structure, and though Prigozhin’s mutinous efforts seem to have been thwarted, no one will forget any time soon that Putin has painted himself into a corner. The war is going badly, there’s no obvious way to turn things around, and while Prigozhin was uniquely willing to speak the truth (perhaps misreading his own power), everyone in the Russian elite is surely now aware that momentous change is possible, and might be coming soon. There is a powerful class of people (the oligarchs) who owe their wealth and power to Putin, but many of them must now be wondering whether Putin is a liability to them and to Russia. So while superficially some calm seems to have been restored at the highest levels in Russia, we would all do well to remind ourselves that beneath the surface there is much intrigue and positioning for power in a future Russia. The longer the war goes on the more of these fracturing moments there will be. The Prigozhin moment might have been all that is required to permanently shift the trajectory to one in which Putin is eventually ousted. And there will surely be more of these moments. Putin has created a war whose only logic was to cement his permanent legacy, and now that he has utterly failed in that objective, further events are working in precisely the opposite direction – to call his power into question, and unsettle the nation further. The events of the next months will shape the coming decades of Russian history in a uniquely powerful way.

Further reading:

After the Prigozhin Rebellion (The Nation)

Global Reactions to Prigozhin’s Rebellion (Globalaffairs.com)

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research (DFR) Lab

Time of Troubles (Wiki)

Russian General Knew About Prigozhin’s Rebellion Plans, U.S. Officials Say (The New York Times)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *