Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has suffered perhaps the greatest challenge to his authority in the nearly 25 years he has been in charge. The armed action by the private military company, Wagner, under the command of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, came within a couple of hundred miles of Moscow – shooting down seven aircraft and killing 13 Russian servicemen along the way.
The crisis provides insight on the levels of politics, security, and society. For the West, the confrontation should alert policymakers to the likely further destabilisation of the Russian political system, including even more violent armed unrest. They should plan for such scenarios and support Russian civil society activists.
- Not a single member of the Russian elite publicly supported Prigozhin. By Saturday night, several regional governors and federal elite members had publicly backed Putin. This shows the limits of the opposition to Putin in the upper echelons. Their responses varied, but rather than turn against the leader, the members of the elite either remained silent, dragged their feet over expressing support, or outright backed the president.
- Putin made a strategic mistake by letting Wagner evolve and flourish over so many years. He permitted this in return for plausible deniability for Russia’s actions in Africa and the Middle East, where Wagner has assisted local regimes by offering security paramilitary assistance in countries such as Syria, Libya, and Central African Republic, and promoting disinformation campaigns in Madagascar and Mali. On one occasion, Wagner even fought alongside UN peacekeepers to repel an attack on Bangui. Putin allowed Prigozhin to expand his force both in size and quality. In Ukraine, Wagner received modern tanks, artillery, and air defence systems, as well as thousands of inmates from Russian prisons. This enabled short-term Russian operational gains. All this resulted in the presence of a well armed and experienced fighting force that the Russian state did not control.
- Wagner was thus an alien body in the Russian political and security systems. Never before have Russian rulers provided so much power to a quasi-institutionalised armed group. Despite its ineffectiveness, the Russian system is relatively bureaucratised with formal rules and organisations acting as channels and boundaries for political action. Prigozhin existed outside the boundaries of this system.
- The various security forces in Russia remained loyal to the civilian leadership. Wagner seized the Southern Military District headquarters but this did not lead to wider unrest or destabilisation on the frontlines. Not a single Russian acting officer joined Wagner. This is despite the loathing in the ranks for the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, and even more so for the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. In the end, the episode demonstrated continued subordination by the military to the civilian leadership.
- The Russian security sector desperately lacks initiative and coordination. For almost 24 hours, Wagner troops were able to travel relatively freely, with only a handful of instances of engagement, which came from the Russian air force. Prigozhin bypassed Russian military, police, and FSB bases with no attempts by those units to stop him. This illuminates the fragility of the Russian political system. In the absence of clear executive decision-making from the centre in the first hours of the mutiny, more local decision-makers were likely to simply do nothing rather than use initiative and act autonomously.
- Russian society remained largely passive towards the unfolding events; some appeared to display a curiosity about what was going on – but little more than that. Lacking capable independent leadership, Russian civil society groups could not act on their own and seize the momentum when the political system was under strain as never before. At the same time, allegedly pro-Putin societal groups, such as popular pro-war social media groups, government-affiliated youth movements, or even “The Battle Brotherhood” veteran NGO did not swing behind the president before the Russian leadership officially responded on Saturday. Public responses to the incident rather suggest that support for the Kremlin primarily stems from passive acceptance of the status quo rather than a social movement in favour of Putin. Russians tend to refrain from active political participation, including protesting, and instead adapt to various circumstances, whether they be political repression, the conflict in Ukraine, military mobilisation, or instances of anti-systemic revolt, such as the recent mutiny and peaceful democratic protests.
Lessons for the West
To avoid being caught off-guard by internal developments in Russia, European states and their allies should undertake serious long-term strategic scenario gaming. In Russia, nothing changes forever until everything does in a moment. Developing responses to varieties of unfolding scenarios will help place Western political leaders in the best position possible to inform their own decision-making.
Support Russian civil society and democratic politicians
European policymakers should ensure that democracy promotion projects engage Russian alternative political and civil society leadership with a positive agenda and assist sensible leaders. Russia’s war in Ukraine makes it difficult to imagine that democratic Russians can focus on anything else. But those 25 per cent of Russians who say they would like to participate in politics more actively need to be made to feel that their engagement will make a difference. This messaging needs to be conveyed in straightforward terms that are adapted to the local context and shared by activists who remain in Russia
European politicians should ensure that Russian civil society leaders and democratic politicians are involved in the scenario gaming exercises so that they can share their expertise and build trust among themselves. During the Wagner mutiny, responses from the Russian opposition varied in nature and message, and many came only after the rising had subsided. Mikhail Khodorkovsky publicly supported the armed action and called on others to assist it. The grassroots network Feminist Antiwar Movement argued against supporting the mercenaries. Maria Pevchikh, the head of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, followed suit. However, similarly to the elites, none managed to draw advantage from the incident. They will need to start now to work out how to make the most of future such events if they are to bring about the change they desire in Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.