Prigozhin’s insurrection has exposed a fragile Russia
Putin’s reliance on the Wagner Group was always a sign of weakness, not strength.
Suddenly, the fragile foundation on which Russia’s ruling oligarchy rests has been exposed. Who would have imagined that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary Wagner Group, so central to Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, would turn on Vladimir Putin and launch an armed insurrection inside Russian territory?
When Prigozhin told the world yesterday that the Russian military had deliberately shelled a Wagner camp, and that he and his army were crossing the border from Ukraine into Russia, with the aim of overthrowing Russia’s military leadership, he effectively called into question the legitimacy of Putin’s rule.
The ease with which his troops took control of military buildings and the airport in the city of Rostov indicates that the Russian army is neither an effective nor a reliable force. Crossing the Rubicon has never seemed easier.
Even more remarkable was the Wagner chief’s sitdown with one of Russia’s deputy defence ministers, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, at the Russian military’s Rostov headquarters, reportedly this morning. In a video, Prigozhin can be seen telling Yevkurov that he will only hand back control of Rostov if Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian military, and Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, come to Rostov to meet with him. Prigozhin seems particularly intent on publicly humiliating the hapless Shoigu, who he has been railing against in videos for months.
Prigozhin has largely been careful not to explicitly defy Putin himself. Instead, he has focussed his ire on Russia’s poor military leadership, blaming it for the death of thousands of soldiers. In another video filmed in Rostov earlier today, he says that until Gerasimov and Shoigu are handed over to him, ‘we’ll blockade the city of Rostov and head for Moscow’.
However, this remains an indirect attack on Putin’s political authority. And the threat posed by Prigozhin has finally been acknowledged by Putin. In a statement this morning, he condemned Prigozhin and his forces as traitors. In response, Prigozhin has said that Putin is ‘deeply mistaken’ to call him and his forces traitors, and that ‘no one is going to surrender to the demands of the president, [the] FSB, or anyone else’.
Prigozhin’s motivation is as yet unclear. And we do not know what his endgame is. But an armed rebellion, mounted during the course of a major conflict with Ukraine, signifies the beginning of the end of the present form of oligarchical rule in Russia. And it raises the possibility of a civil war.
At the very least, the insurrection calls into question the wisdom of Putin’s reliance on the mercenaries of the Wagner Group. Putin has heavily relied on Prigozhin’s men to do his fighting on several fronts. From Syria through to Africa and now in Ukraine, these mercenaries have developed a reputation for being the shock troops of the Russian state. That Moscow had relied so heavily on a mercenary force indicates the low regard in which Putin holds sections of the Russian army.
Yet mercenaries are never a substitute for an army whose loyalty is to the nation and its people. Throughout history, mercenaries have proved to be unreliable, disloyal and frequently a threat to the ruler who hired them. This point was eloquently elaborated by the Renaissance Italian political philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli, in his famous essay, The Prince:
‘I say, therefore, that the arms with which a prince defends his state are either his own, or they are mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed. Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.’
Putin should have studied his Machiavelli.
In his televised statement this morning, Putin warned that anyone who takes up arms against the Russian army is a ‘traitor’:
‘We are fighting against anarchy and capitulation. This internal mutiny is a mortal blow to us, it is a blow to our people as a whole. All those who deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, embarked on the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment. They will answer both before the law and before our people.’
Putin knows that he is up against a formidable foe, which is why he did not mention Prigozhin by name.
There will be a lot of speculation about who is ‘really’ behind this uprising. Conspiracy theories will flourish. America, China and all the usual suspects will be brought into the frame. Nevertheless, the real issue at stake here is not the motives that led to this insurrection, but the strength and viability of oligarchical power in Russia. The insurrection will serve as an invitation to other members of the oligarchy to review their options.
Even before Prigozhin’s uprising, the war in Ukraine had already come to represent a moral defeat for Moscow. Now, Prigozhin threatens to expose the Russian state as a super-sized Potemkin Village. There is a real possibility that the insurrection will lead to oligarchical infighting, even a civil war. Whether the Russian Federation can withstand the pressure towards fragmentation remains to be seen.
As odious as Putin’s government is, the breakup of Russia is not a prospect we should welcome gleefully. Forces would be unleashed that won’t be easy to contain.
Dangerous times lie ahead – not just for Russia and Ukraine, but for the world.
Frank Furedi’s The Road To Ukraine: How The West Lost Its Way is published by De Gruyter.
This is an edited version of an article originally published on Frank Furedi’s substack, Roots and Wings.
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