The mutiny by caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary army ended on Saturday before it really began. Prigozhin apparently has been persuaded to desist by Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, who agreed to let him move to his country, presumably with part of his fighting force. But his escapade’s consequences have only begun to resound in Moscow and on the battlefields of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Though Vladimir Putin declared Prigozhin a traitor in a five-minute televised address to the nation, characteristically without naming him, Prigozhin’s “Justice March” faced little resistance. The rebels passed through the Rostov and Voronezh regions, shooting down several military helicopters that tried to follow or attack their convoys, including a Ka-52 — a fearsome machine that has been slowing Ukraine’s counteroffensive. They passed through the Lipetsk region, where local officials ordered some roads dug up to stop them — too late. They approached the Oka River in the Moscow region, 200 kilometers from the capital, as sandbags were heaped at checkpoints and roadblocks manned by a thin force of police and conscripts closer to the capital. Meanwhile, Chechen fighters who had professed loyalty to Putin and offered to put down the mutiny in Rostov apparently never showed up.
Suddenly it was all over. Using his standard mode of communication — a voice recording on Telegram — Prigozhin announced that he was ending the march on Moscow to avoid bloodshed and pulling back his fighters to their field camps. Soon, Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov explained that Lukashenko had negotiated a solution at Putin’s request: Prigozhin would receive immunity from prosecution and move to Belarus, and some Wagner fighters would sign contracts with the defense ministry. In Lipetsk, workers began filling the holes they had dug in the roads. In Moscow, the mayor decided not to cancel the day off he’d declared for Muscovites for Monday when he still expected things to get hot.
Things may still go wrong with Lukashenko’s purported plan: Putin likes to hunt down people he considers traitors, and Belarus is increasingly treated as part of Russia, so it’s not an obvious refuge for Prigozhin. What will happen in all the places where Wagner informally represented Russia’s shadier interests — in Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Libya — is also unclear. The significance of the failed mutiny, however, goes far beyond its direct consequences or the fate of Wagner and its founder Prigozhin.
Russia has rarely been an orderly place. On Saturday, Prigozhin did what many a lawless adventurer had done before him. During the reign of Catherine the Great, a Cossack named Yemelyan Pugachev declared himself emperor and seized some fortresses in the Urals before a large regular military force stopped him. During the Russian civil war following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, anarchist warlord Nestor Makhno waged successful campaigns against both the remnants of the Russian regular army and the Bolshevik-led Red Army as their main forces were busy fighting each other. Neither of these upstarts could count on long-term success, but it was enough for them to be kings for a day, to live it up wildly rather than submit to any kind of authority.
Even if Wagner, with a few thousand experienced fighters, could have seized some government buildings in Moscow, and perhaps even hung Prigozhin’s antagonists Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov from lampposts, they couldn’t have hoped to hold one of Europe’s biggest cities. For all the street cred Wagner has accumulated as it fought the toughest urban battles in Ukraine, it didn’t have the sheer strength for a successful coup d’etat, and Prigozhin, with his grating voice and his petty criminal past, didn’t have the political status or the popularity to lead one.
Suicidal desperation, however, can be a workable strategy in Russia. It confuses the cowardly bureaucratic machine and earns respect from the masses. In Rostov, crowds cheered Prigozhin as he left town in a black SUV. In the early years of his reign, Putin himself elevated Ramzan Kadyrov, the current leader of Chechnya, even though Kadyrov had earlier fought the Russian troops in a war the Chechen separatists couldn’t win. It was enough for Kadyrov to go over to the Russian side — for which he received Chechnya almost as a personal fiefdom where Russian laws hold little power. A berserk warrior’s grim determination to wreak havoc no matter what the cost can still, it turns out, be a strong negotiating position.
By recognizing it as such, Putin has, not for the first time but at a critical moment, shown weakness. Few in Russia jumped to his defense in the face of Prigozhin’s willingness to unleash chaos. While the troops continued fighting in Ukraine — and Russian generals continued to direct the fighting from the Rostov headquarters even as Wagner fighters patrolled the building — no one moved to take on the mercenaries for the sake of Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom Putin has stubbornly kept on despite the invasion’s endless setbacks. While some officials professed loyalty to Putin during the mutiny, the Russian state’s actions spoke louder, and they spoke of a fearful neutrality. Ordinary Russians, too, showed themselves largely indifferent, if somewhat confused.
As he declared his Justice March, Prigozhin openly questioned the motives of Russia’s attack on Ukraine — and no one cared to argue. Russia is fighting its unjust war by inertia and because many Russians can’t stand to lose. The lack of popular indignation about a mutiny during an enemy counteroffensive has provided undeniable proof that the nation’s heart isn’t in the fratricidal Ukraine invasion. It also has shown Russia’s fatigue with Putin. Even though Prigozhin didn’t win, his anarchical mutiny move exposed the regime’s brittleness to all who might want to exploit it. The emperor is naked. Sooner or later, whether by putsch or push, another courtier will make another move to try on his clothes.
LEONID BERSHIDSKY, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”