Is Putin toast?

Could the Wagner mutiny be the beginning of the end for Putin?

vladimir putin
(Image credit: VALERY SHARIFULIN / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for unity this week after a 24-hour mutiny by Wagner Group mercenaries, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had marched toward Moscow. Putin called the organizers of the rebellion "traitors" and said they "would have been suppressed anyway," but argued he gave them time to come to their senses and turn around without bloodshed. Putin met with Russia's top security chiefs — including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin wanted Putin to fire — as he tried to project stability.

Russians linked to the Kremlin expressed relief the uprising didn't spiral into civil war, but agreed the armed mutiny by fighters who had been a key part of Russia's war effort in Ukraine posed the most serious threat yet to Putin's 23-year hold on power. "It's a huge humiliation for Putin, of course. That's obvious," a Russian oligarch who knows Putin told the Financial Times. "Thousands of people without any resistance are going from Rostov almost to Moscow, and nobody can do anything. Then [Putin] announced they would be punished, and they were not. That's definitely a sign of weakness."

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the uprising showed that Russia is "an unpredictable state." U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the spectacle of Putin's government having to defend Moscow "against mercenaries of Putin's own making" — Wagner forces have been a key part of Russia's Ukraine invasionexposed "cracks" in Putin's armor. Could this be the beginning of the end for Putin?

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This shook Putin's "aura of power"

The Wagner mutiny "revealed the hidden instability of Putin's regime," said Max Boot in The Washington Post, and shook "his aura of power." And if the "infighting" in Russia distracts Putin and the Kremlin from the war in Ukraine, it could help Kyiv "score more battlefield successes," further undermining Putin's grip on power. "There is a lesson here for all future tyrants who might think of launching wars of aggression. Are you paying attention, Xi Jinping?"

This "fiasco" cost Putin his image as the person who "provides stability and guarantees security" to Russia's elite, Konstantin Remchukov, a Moscow newspaper editor with Kremlin connections, told Anton Troianovski of The New York Times. This could lead people close to Putin to try to persuade him not to run for re-election next spring, something they otherwise wouldn't have dared. "If I was sure a month ago that Putin would run unconditionally because it was his right," Remchukov said, "now I see that the elites can no longer feel unconditionally secure."

This might embolden Putin

This event is far from Putin's downfall, Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, said in Politico. "In fact, his support among the military might increase — both from Shoigu and top brass, but perhaps more importantly from generals and officers at the frontline." It might even have "helped somewhat defuse tensions that had been growing within the Russian body politic." Putin might "escalate hostilities" in Ukraine to "demonstrate, to Ukrainians and to the West, that he has not been weakened," said Serge Schmemann in The New York Times. A "few uniformed heads" might roll, but getting rid of some lousy generals won't hurt Russia's war effort. Putin also might use this as an excuse to launch an "even more vicious crackdown" on any Russian who questions him or his war.

It was telling that "nobody seemed to mind, particularly, that a brutal new warlord" was threatening Putin's regime, said Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. Normally, "a certain kind of autocrat, of whom Putin is the outstanding example, seeks to convince people" not to pay attention to politics. Under Putin, the Kremlin has opened up "the famous 'firehose of falsehoods'" to make it impossible for people to know what's true. The idea is to make them see no point in protesting or engaging in politics at all. That has given Putin free reign. But "the side effect of apathy was on display" as citizens and the army stepped aside to let Wagner march toward the capital unchallenged. "For if no one cares about anything, that means they don't care about their supreme leader, his ideology, or his war."

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.