After Prigozhin, a deluge of questions about future of Putin’s Russia
In the aftermath of the withdrawal of the Wagner Group from its march on Moscow – and presumably its disbanding as an independent force – Russia’s (and Putin’s) future circumstances are unclear. What are the likely effects of its invasion of Ukraine, its standing in the world, and its future political stability?
Now that the Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive coup – or whatever it was or was meant to be – seems to have reached a conclusion, at least temporarily: the aftermath of those extraordinary events may only now be beginning to play themselves out. Here we discuss several such possibilities.
First, of course, is the very future of Vladimir Putin himself as his nation’s leader. Until the week prior to the Wagner caravan, Putin had largely been viewed as a kind of modern embodiment of near-absolute power over Russia. In his own mind, and based on his speeches and essays, it seemed he had viewed himself as a contemporary evocation of the spirit of the 300-year Romanov dynasty rule over Russia from the beginning of the 17th century until the last disastrous years of World War 1.
For Putin’s future, the pre-eminent question is whether he will be able to re-establish the texture and reality of his previous control – or is his power now inevitably ebbing away, day by day, as others begin vying for a place in the centre ring in his stead?
Then there is the question of how this recent upheaval will affect Russia’s prosecution of its now-spluttering war of choice, the invasion of Ukraine.
Will the sitting generals – especially those who might have been quietly sympathetic to Prigozhin – continue their pursuit of the war with the vigour expected by Putin so that he can eventually claim vindication?
Recent reports indicate a not-insignificant number of senior military officers and security officials were secret members or supporters of Prigozhin’s Wagner Group of mercenaries. That, in turn, could help underscore uncertainties about their institutional loyalties – or their deeper loyalties to Vladimir Putin.
Further, what do those developments mean for the international arrangement that brackets Russia with Belarus (Prigozhin’s proffered place of negotiated asylum and now the location for Russian tactical nuclear weapons), as well as Russia’s relationships with America, the other Nato nations, and China? There may also be important implications for the heretofore important and destabilising role of the Wagner group across a wide swathe of African states and in Syria.
Finally, we should open the door just a crack on to a particularly dreadful part of Russia’s past to ask if the “Great Purge” might have some kind of post-Wagner echo and what that might imply.
Will the aftereffects of the coup-that-might-have-been mean the Russian president might decide to undertake a purge of military leaders reminiscent of the one that began in the late 1930s and continued onward for years?
Beyond the actual suffering of the thousands killed, it also left the Soviet Union initially incapable of warding off the shock of Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa invasion of 1941. This final question returns us to the question of the future of Vladimir Putin’s leadership of Russia.
‘Nothing to see here’
Begin, then, with that first question – the future of Vladimir Putin. To some degree, his future depends on how effectively and successfully he can inject a sense of “nothing to see here, move along” into how Russians – the nomenklatura and military leadership, as well as the rest of the population – come to view the political circumstances of their nation.
To that end, Putin has already been seen at various public events much more frequently than over the past several years, as part of an effort to inject the reassuring sense that everything is under control, just as before. That, of course, means people must be convinced everything is under control; that Russia has successfully returned to its status quo ante, despite the evidence of the contrary, observable by anybody in Russia with access to electronic communication.
The fact is, however, that a large, motorised, mercenary army could carry out a volte-face from a battle zone to carry out a march nearly to Moscow, with little or no opposition from civil or military authorities or forces under their control who were in the path of the Wagner Group’s advance – and then reverse their movement. But the electronic memory for millions must surely concern those in Putin’s corner hoping to erase it all from the textbooks.
Read more in Daily Maverick: President Putin unmasked – pulling back the curtain on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary mutiny
Historically, strong men compelled to negotiate with those who hanker after becoming their replacements – as Putin did with Prigozhin – no longer are seen as wielding a monopoly on power, let alone the ability and the will to use it. Instead, they may well feel compelled to carry out more extreme actions designed to demonstrate that despite what had just happened, they are and will remain in full control and in charge.
What happens next, of course, still is unknown, but other military and civilian leaders may now be quietly evaluating their options, futures, and allegiances. Such individuals may include those in the CCC+I (command, control, communication, and information) structures of the country’s nuclear weapons, most especially the tactical ones reportedly moved to Belarus. There will be questions by those in the Pentagon and White House, at 10 Downing Street, the Élysée Palace, Beijing’s Forbidden City and beyond, who analyse and evaluate these things for the future.
Going forward, every statement, act, announcement or public appearance by Vladimir Putin will now be parsed as to whether they enhance or stabilise Putin’s power – or if, instead, they betray signs of weakness or indecision on his part, and if such signs indicate rising, alternative centres of power and opposition. (Consider how the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the sense that the USSR had been outplayed, led, within two years, to the demise of Khrushchev’s leadership of the Soviet Union.) This is not the kind of discussion an all-powerful authoritarian wants to hear as the topic of conversation regarding their rule.
War without Wagner
Turn, then, to the second question: The future prosecution of the Kremlin’s war of choice in Ukraine in the aftermath of the Wagner Group’s abortive march on Moscow. For several years, this force has been a kind of military force independent of the country’s formal military (but largely and quietly funded by the government and acting at the behest of Vladimir Putin).
It has been available for the darker aspects of Russian foreign activities in various African nations, in some cases to the point where it effectively has the run of things as in the Central African Republic, as well as being essentially the only sharp point of the Russian lance in its war on Ukraine.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Wagner mercenaries have entirely captured Central African Republic, The Sentry report finds
With the Wagner Group’s effective withdrawal from Ukrainian fighting, it is an open question of just how willing Russia’s remaining troops (and their commanders) will be to carry the fighting forward (and accept the inevitable fatalities and possible defeats) against an increasingly well-equipped, well-trained Ukrainian military. This would be beyond Russian forces’ willingness to defend themselves in their already occupied spaces in the face of the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive and the possibility of forced withdrawals eastward.
But a stalled effort in subduing Ukraine presents Vladimir Putin with a series of unpalatable choices. He can insist Russia must put its collective shoulder to the wheel to “bear any burden”, no matter how costly and painful it is, until victory is achieved, in the hopes Ukraine finally buckles and its Western allies tire of assisting Ukraine. He might even choose to threaten nuclear weapons to achieve this end, as has been hinted at several times.
Alternatively, and reluctantly, he could effectively declare a kind of limited victory, accept Russia’s hold over 20% of Ukraine as the endpoint, and attempt to convince his nation, its military and the rest of the globe that this was what was intended in the first place and that the cost in fatalities, national economic damage and international isolation was worth the effort.
A de facto cold peace without a formal declaration of an end to fighting would be that outcome. (Consider the rough equivalent of Israel’s borders with its neighbours and the largely unresolved nature of that situation.) As part of that approach, Putin might even choose to offer drawn-out negotiations with Ukraine to bring the actual fighting to an end without a general retreat and thus find face-saving ways out of their current predicament.
But none of these outcomes would demonstrate Vladimir Putin’s implacable control over the Russian state. Further, it would not argue against the possibility that a further period of his leadership might yet give rise to others, yet unknown, who might wish to shoot at the king, but not miss this time around, as the saying goes.
Russia’s place in the world
This leads ineluctably to the third question; Russia’s relationships with the world. While the sanctions regime established by the US, Nato nations, the EU and various others in the wake of the invasion has not been universally applied, the negative effect on Russia’s trade with nations imposing sanctions has been considerable.
Russia’s exports of oil and natural gas to Europe (a major source of Russian foreign exchange earnings) have largely been turned off (perhaps permanently) as its former customers have sorted out alternative suppliers. Russia has increased its supply of these products to China (and India) – but at discounted prices as these markets are taking advantage of Russia’s export Achilles heel of its need to sell the product almost regardless of any level of pricing.
Beyond oil and gas, Russia really has few products the international market needs for which there are no other better sources of supply. (One partial exception is military hardware, although one of its heretofore prime markets, India, is making noises about diversifying its sources of supply as it carries out its slow, but deliberate movement into a tacit alliance with the US in the Quad formation of India, the US, Australia and Japan.)
Meanwhile, some African nations (including South Africa) remain publicly reluctant to criticise Russian behaviour, lest they seem to be lining up uncritically behind the West. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that Russian interventions in a number of African states via the activities of the Wagner Group, in collusion with extractive authoritarian regimes (for a share of the profits), have been inimical to African economic growth and domestic political stability.
Thus, a key, still unanswered, fourth question, now that the Wagner Group is to be merged into the regular Russian army, is how will Wagner’s African operations be controlled and managed, and how will its considerable revenues be directed? Will Prigozhin, from his presumed exile in Belarus, still hold control over its operations and its revenue stream? Or will the money begin to flow elsewhere? Or, even, will the group simply be disbanded as an operation that runs the risk of becoming a loss leader for Russia in the changing international environment?
Read more in Daily Maverick: Prigozhin’s rebellion has thrown future of Wagner drive, Russian influence in Africa into doubt
Much of Russia’s forward circumstances vis-a-vis relations with other nations will depend on how it proceeds in its war on Ukraine. In particular, this will likely be whether or not it can work out how to extricate itself from its self-inflicted crisis without tearing apart the fabric of its own society and political circumstances even further.
If the Russian polity (and Putin’s regime) begins to falter or fall prey to a period of internal political instability, that might even nudge the Chinese to re-envision their current, close relationship with Russia, in contrast to the more difficult one of pre-Putin times. The awkward vision of their being yoked to a dying horse might begin to apply, despite Russia’s utility as a source of energy imports and other raw commodities for Chinese industry.
If that were to occur, the Chinese might even recalibrate their relationships with the US, Nato nations, and in the context of the Quad and Aukus (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US) formations so as to forestall directing increasing resources to military and defence capabilities.
While no one really anticipates the collapse of the current Russian state, the demands of many of its smaller ethnic minorities might also contribute to a growing sense of decline in Putin’s regime. That might even encourage China to look beyond Russia for the longer term for reliable trade and economic – or even political – partners.
Putin’s tentative sweep
And this, then, takes us to the fifth question; the way Putin will deal with his opponents domestically to demonstrate his continued control over the nation. Are there any historical precedents that are either reassuring or potentially terrifying?
As a first step, we should remember that Putin negotiated an ad hoc settlement with Prigozhin after the abortive march on Moscow, such that the latter removed himself to neighbouring Belarus (rather than be sentenced as a traitor and shot unceremoniously for deserting the front and presumably attempting a coup).
Further, the Wagner Group forces were to disband as an independent force, either joining the Russian military formally, leaving the mercenary group, or perhaps going into some kind of exile with their leader in Belarus. That state is virtually a satellite of Russia, and its long-time leader, Alexander Lukashenko, remains thoroughly in Putin’s corner – and in his debt. (Belarus received a major economic aid infusion from Russia some years ago to prevent Belarus’ economic collapse.) But at least for now, there is no clear understanding of what will happen to Wagner Group fighters strung out across Africa or in Syria.
A further development has begun to generate questions about how deeply and how widely Putin intends to root out the real or imagined dissension and disloyalty to his regime after the march on Moscow took place. It is being reported that a number of senior military figures were sub-rosa VIP members of the Wagner Group, and it is also being reported that General Sergey Surovikin, commander of Russia’s aerospace forces, has been brought in for questioning. There has been no further information about his whereabouts, or if charges are to be filed against him – or others.
So far, at least, this still-tentative sweep of the net is in contrast to the way civilian opponents of the Putin regime have been treated over the years.
Government critic (and former government official) Boris Nemtsov was fatally shot on a bridge near the Kremlin eight years ago, while political campaigner Alexei Navalny was poisoned and now languishes in prison. Meanwhile, various businessmen/oligarchs turned government critics have died via accidents involving windows and other unlikely causes, or been driven into exile after significant prison terms.
Perhaps the meaning of this is that the Putin government is more afraid of the influences and power of civilian, non-government critics and their “corrupting” influences than it is of incumbent officials and uniformed officers who defy the leader’s rule from within the belly of the beast.
Nevertheless, the time of Putin’s dealing with officers may only now be beginning. Purges in an authoritarian system generally mean the ruler is increasingly worried about the potential confluence of the disaffected in achieving a change, in the way Khrushchev and Gorbachev were dealt with by their opponents.
Stalin’s Great Purge
But the real historical model must also be contemplated. And that, of course, is Joseph Stalin’s vast imprisonment and killing in the late 1930s of the older revolutionary cadres and the military’s officer corps in the events called the Great Purge or the Great Terror – ostensibly designed to remove the remaining influence of revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky as well as, in the case of some officers, the charge that they were in league with Germany. By the time the killing ended, official records indicate 681,692 persons were subjected to judicial executions and unofficial tallies speak to nearly double that terrifying number.
Among the military victims, probably the most important figure was General Mikhail Tukhachevsky, nicknamed the “Red Napoleon,” and a hero of the Russian civil war. As a commander, Tukhachevsky had been engaged in an effort to modernise the Russian army, but by his opponents, he was denounced as a German agent, then tried and executed, apparently on the basis of forged evidence.
During the German advance on Moscow in 1941, a number of other generals were summarily executed as well. In the end, the Soviet army was gutted of its most effective leadership and its dismal, nearly disastrous performance in the early part of the war demonstrated how much of its competent leadership had been decimated.
Of course, no one is predicting a return to such violent, murderous madness on the part of the Putin administration in any effort to root out actual, potential, or even imagined disloyalty to him among Russia’s military or civilian leadership cadres. This would be the case even if he eventually chooses to bring in a modest number of civilian and military leaders for thorough questioning, humiliation, rustication, or worse, as retribution for support for the Wagner Group and its head.
Nevertheless, such a horrific example of an authoritarian dealing with potential opponents (or in an effort to freeze in place those who might become so) does linger as a lesson from history, serving as the ultimate temptation for restoring full, unchallenged loyalty to the state and its supreme leader.
What such behaviour further teaches is that Stalin thereby managed to remain unchallenged as the Soviet Union’s supreme ruler for a decade and a half after all that death, that is, until he suffered a fatal stroke and as his subordinates declined to summon medical aid as they began jostling among themselves over who would succeed him. DM