The past 24 hours in Russia have witnessed a dramatic series of events that resemble a storyline from a political drama. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, launched a rebellion against the Russian Ministry of Defense. He marched into the city of Rostov-on-Don and then headed toward Moscow, demanding the ousting of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The city went on high alert as Prigozhin and his forces came within 200 kilometers of the capital.
However, it was announced that a deal had been reached, and Prigozhin’s forces turned around to avoid bloodshed. In the reported settlement, Russia dropped all charges against Prigozhin, who is now required to go into exile in Belarus. The Wagner fighters who did not participate in the rebellion will be granted amnesty and brought under the control of the Ministry of Defense.
It is unclear why Prigozhin initiated this coup and why it unraveled so swiftly. One possibility is that he had allies in Moscow who promised support but failed to follow through. Prigozhin’s overconfidence and lack of military or diplomatic expertise may have also played a role. Regardless, this episode is not a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He appears politically vulnerable, and his response, including leaving Moscow and seeking clarity on potential collaborators, has been perceived as weak and disorganized.
The involvement of President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus in brokering the deal may have been an unexpected choice but served the purpose of ensuring Prigozhin’s safe passage. Putin, a former intelligence officer, avoided negotiating in person with someone he perceived as beneath him. Prigozhin, while alive for now, has lost everything except his life.
This incident significantly weakens Putin’s political standing, as he had to strike a deal with a convicted criminal to prevent the embarrassment of an armed march on Moscow. It demonstrates the vulnerability of a leader who was once considered invincible. The extent of the damage to Putin’s power remains uncertain, as the fate of Shoigu and Gerasimov is unknown. The rebellion has removed Wagner from the Ukrainian conflict, but Putin may seek to compensate for this humiliation by escalating Russia’s actions there.
The impact of Prigozhin’s rebellion will have lasting effects on the Russian political landscape, particularly regarding Putin’s war in Ukraine. However, Prigozhin’s future in Belarus and his longevity there remain uncertain.