Prigozhin’s revolt: is Russia really heading for ‘sudden collapse’?

Wagner group’s short-lived rebellion against Vladimir Putin triggers speculation about ‘change of guard in the Kremlin’

Vladimir Putin and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin
Vladimir Putin has been weakened by the mutiny led by his former ally, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Britain must be ready for the end of Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia, government insiders have warned following the Wagner Group’s failed revolt at the weekend.

Senior government sources reportedly told The Times that diplomats were “hastily preparing” for a range of outcomes. And although the “apparent putsch” in the world’s largest nuclear power was “narrowly avoided”, said the paper, insiders believe that one potential outcome could be the “sudden collapse” of Putin’s regime.

The Russian president’s grip on power appears to have been weakened significantly after the head of Russian mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, seized control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday evening, following weeks of increasingly critical rhetoric about the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine.

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As the Wagner fighters advanced towards Moscow on a “march for justice” to demand an overhaul of Russia’s top military brass, a visibly shaken Putin used a hastily organised TV appearance to accuse his former ally of betrayal and treason.

With the Wagner forces just 200 miles from the capital, the revolt came to an abrupt end, amid reports of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday that the aborted rebellion exposed “real cracks” in the Russian regime and “was a direct challenge to Putin’s authority”.

What did the papers say?

The failed revolt has raised questions not only about the course of the Ukraine war but also the political direction of Russia and of Putin’s standing at home and amongst his allies. The Russian leader suffered a loss of face when, only hours after he denounced Prigozhin as a traitor, the Kremlin announced that all criminal charges were being dropped against the Wagner leader, believed to be in exile in Belarus.

Putin’s “mixed messages have been raising eyebrows here”, reported BBC Russia editor Steve Rosenberg, and “changing perceptions” of him.

As well as being shown up as “weak”, said The Economist, Putin has discovered “the limits of his people’s loyalty”. Wagner took Rostov, a strategic command centre for the war, without firing a shot, with online videos showing some citizens cheering militia troops. And the rebel convoy was then able to travel to within a few hundred miles of Moscow without encountering any significant opposition.

In his address on Saturday morning, Putin “invoked the spectre” of the Russian Civil War of 1917, said Politico. Back then, disillusioned troops battling in the First World War turned their anger towards the Tsarist regime back at home.

But a more appropriate parallel, the site suggested, might be the failed 1991 August Coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by Communist hardliners. Like Prigozhin’s mutiny, the August Coup was short-lived, lasting only three days, “but the fallout was catastrophic for the Soviet Union – it led to a loss of confidence in the Communist regime, and by December of 1991, the USSR was no more”.

Although this weekend’s revolt failed, said international security experts Stefan Wolff and Tetyana Malyarenko on The Conversation, “there will be lessons even in that for any future challenger to the Kremlin”.

What next?

Since the outset of the Ukraine invasion, UK officials “have believed that the war in Ukraine could result in political unrest in Russia”, according to The Times.

Putin has so far stood by his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov – both of whom have been the main focus of Prigozhin’s ire. In a further sign that Shoigu still retains Putin’s support, Russian news agency RIA Novosti released a video on Monday showing the defence chief visiting troops in Ukraine.

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But the Wagner forces have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war under Prigozhin, who was reportedly offered amnesty and exile in Belarus as part of the deal brokered by the country’s president, Lukashenko. The Mail on Sunday cited security sources who claimed Prigozhin was effectively paid off to stand down.

However, Russian state-owned news agencies are reporting that he is still being investigated by Russian authorities despite the Kremlin promising to drop all charges against him.

Putin is also facing an increasingly uncertain future, as his allies think twice about their unwavering support for a leader who looks more insecure than at any time in the past two decades.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping “now has to balance continuing support for Putin with hedging for the possibility that his time in the Kremlin could be cut short”, said The Guardian’s senior China correspondent Amy Hawkins.

All this “doesn't mean a change of guard in the Kremlin is imminent”, said Rosenberg at the BBC. But it is important to “keep in mind” that Putin’s current presidential term runs out next year, with potential rivals likely to grab this new opportunity to position themselves as his successor.

All the same, the the weekend’s events may represent “an opportunity missed for Ukraine”, said Wolff and Malyarenko on The Conversation. Had “the chaos in Russia continued long enough, it may have created a real opportunity for further advances in a counteroffensive” that even the Ukrainian leadership admit has not progressed as well as was hoped.

In this sense too, Wolff and Malyarenko add, “Prigozhin’s failed rebellion can be seen as an important dress rehearsal that offers valuable lessons, especially for Ukraine’s Western partners”.

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Elliott Goat is a freelance writer at The Week Digital. A winner of The Independent's Wyn Harness Award, he has been a journalist for over a decade with a focus on human rights, disinformation and elections. He is co-founder and director of Brussels-based investigative NGO Unhack Democracy, which works to support electoral integrity across Europe. A Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow focusing on unions and the Future of Work, Elliott is a founding member of the RSA's Good Work Guild and a contributor to the International State Crime Initiative, an interdisciplinary forum for research, reportage and training on state violence and corruption.