What a difference a day makes. In the past twenty-four hours, Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin announced a rebellion against Russia, claimed his forces seized the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, and marched his forces toward Moscow. However, after a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, it appears the Kremlin has dropped its charges against the mutinying mercenary leader, with Prigozhin agreeing to withdraw his fighters and leave for Belarus.
How did Prigozhin’s rebellion get as far as it did? And how will its aftermath affect Putin’s hold on power and the war in Ukraine? Read analysis below from Atlantic Council experts on what these breakneck developments in Russia mean for the Putin regime, the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and the Moscow-Beijing partnership.
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If Prigozhin doesn’t pay a heavy price, Putin’s regime is in serious danger
Prigozhin’s rebellion needs to be viewed in several contexts. First, the war against Ukraine has divided the Russian elite into two factions—hawks who want nothing short of the conquest of Kyiv and a military parade on the Khreshchatyk and kleptocrats who want to go back to the pre-February 24, 2022 world. Neither of these things are going to happen, so nobody is happy. Of these two factions, the hawks are by far the more powerful and the more serious threat to the regime. This has put Putin in a very precarious position regardless of how Prigozhin’s rebellion is resolved.
Second, Prigozhin’s rebellion also illustrates the perils of Putin’s “venture-capital foreign policy,” which outsources key tasks to nominally private-sector actors outside the normal chain of command. The Russian system is based not on institutions but on informal patronage networks with Putin as the ultimate arbiter. When Putin is strong, this approach works, to a point. But when Putin is weakened, it can spin out of control.
Third, Prigozhin’s kryshas in this informal system appear to be abandoning him. General Sergei Surovikin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have already disavowed him. It is also hard to imagine another alleged ally, Rosgvardia leader Viktor Zolotov, siding with Prigozhin over Putin. This probably accounts for Prigozhin’s tactical retreat. But even if the immediate crisis is resolved, its underlying cause will continue to weaken the regime.
Fourth, if Prigozhin doesn’t pay a heavy price for his rebellion, it will put the Putin regime in serious danger. This is because political change comes to Russia when three factors are present: a divided elite (check), a dissatisfied public (check), and an absence of fear. If fear is removed from the equation, then the regime will be in peril.
Finally, this crisis will further undermine Russia’s warfighting capabilities in Ukraine just as Kyiv is ramping up its counteroffensive. The Russian elite is not behaving like it expects to win this war.
—Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas-Arlington, and founder and host of the Power Vertical Podcast.
Russian instability further endangers Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
Despite the internal power struggle, Prigozhin and Putin are unified by their dedication to the continued assault on Ukraine, including crimes against humanity at scale, albeit through diverging approaches. This shared interest is of particular concern, as Ukraine is once again raising alarms about the ticking time bomb of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant’s unsafe conditions. Russia’s leadership instability is heightening these risks and could lead to contradictory or unclear orders for the plant’s illegal occupiers. Moreover, Russia has been emboldened by the weak response by the West to their destruction of the Kakhovka dam, and the absence of unity in calling out Russia’s culpability in the horrific incident, notwithstanding ample evidence pointing to Russia. Zaporizhzhia’s safety can only be guaranteed when the Russians give up control of the plant, which they are unequipped to manage. The international community must prioritize securing this transfer in order to prevent a looming catastrophe.
—Olga Khakova is the deputy director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center (GEC). She leads GEC’s portfolio on synchronizing climate and energy security efforts through transatlantic cooperation.
The Russian colossus is standing on feet of clay
Prigozhin’s mutiny has exposed Russia’s major defense blind spots and highlighted Putin’s weakening grip on power. The Kremlin’s strongman turned out to be a strawman; and a colossus of Russian military power appeared to be standing on feet of clay.
While this may sound reassuring to Ukrainians, who may have an easier time fighting against a demotivated army of conscripts and convicts rather than against well-paid professional mercenaries, Kyiv and the West must nevertheless face a sobering reality.
It took sixteen months of fighting, three successful Ukrainian counteroffensives (in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson), and occasional raids by pro-Ukrainian Russian groups into the Belgorod region to ruin the myth of Russian military power. It required the flagship cruiser Moskva to be sunk, Ukraine to spend months waiting for Western weapons and EU candidate status, and Finland to join NATO before the West began to question the credibility of the Kremlin’s “red lines.”
While the West has spent months trying to de-escalate, save Putin’s face, mitigate nuclear threats, and avoid provoking Russia, a rival warlord with a criminal past showed how easy it was to overtake the Russian military’s initiative and paralyze state structures. In its current state, Russia is likely to face an internal power struggle with more destabilization in sight. Putin will most likely use Prigozhin to present himself as the “best out of the worst,” and to redirect public attention from internal turmoil to more violence in Ukraine, including new acts of ecocide and nuclear saber-rattling. This must not be allowed.
The West’s choice is not between two Russian war criminals, who are equally engaged in the crimes of genocide and mass murder in Ukraine, Syria, and Africa. The choice is between maintaining illusions of European stability and taking the steps that are necessary to secure it. These include abandoning self-deterrence, developing a clear-eyed Russia strategy, and equipping Ukraine to win the war, with full-fledged NATO membership as a key element of Kyiv’s long-term victory.
The Russian colossus, as it is now, is likely to collapse sooner rather than later. Ukraine is the only country in the region that can protect NATO from its ruins when it finally falls apart.
—Yevgeniya Gaber is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkey. She worked as a foreign policy advisor to the prime minister of Ukraine from February to December 2021.
Is it 1917 or 1991?
What does the fast and apparently ended Prigozhin mutiny mean for Putin and for Russia’s war against Ukraine? Was it a 1917 moment or a miserable failure like the attempted coup against the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991?
In terms of numbers of forces available, Prigozhin didn’t stand a chance. Putin commands the regular Russian army and airforce, the National Guard, and other armed groups theoretically at government command. But Tsar Nicholas II also had a preponderance of force when he fell in February 1917; so did the Provisional Government when it fell to Lenin’s Bolsheviks in November 1917. The problem the tsar and Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky faced was not the availability of forces in theory but forces in practice. The tsarist regime was decrepit, hollowed out by many things, but especially by its failure in World War I. Kerensky’s government stuck with that war and also failed. By the time they were overthrown, the tsar and Kerensky had lost the confidence of Russian society and huge portions of the state they nominally commanded.
That was Putin’s problem: Prigozhin mounted a mutiny in protest of another failing Russian war, Putin’s war against Ukraine.
And now Prigozhin has announced he is turning around his forces short of Moscow. He seems to have worked out some sort of deal.
But a deal with whom and for what? Does this deal include a change of Russia’s military leadership that had been prosecuting the Russo-Ukrainian War that Putin launched? Prigozhin has been attacking Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov for their failures in Ukraine. But why would Putin cave to pressure by accepting such demands? What does that do to Putin’s authority? It’s Putin’s war in any case.
Whatever arrangements Prigozhin has extracted, Putin’s authority is diminished, as was Gorbachev’s after Boris Yeltsin defeated the 1991 coup attempt. And this is worse: In 1991 the coup failed. But Prigozhin seems to have pulled off something.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has not been going well, and Prigozhin’s attack on it as unjustified and incompetently led is now stronger than ever.
It may not be a 1917 moment for Russia. But the hot breath of failure is coming closer to Putin.
—Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Poland.
Frankenstein’s monster cooks up a coup
In his effort to bypass Russia’s regular military and governance structures, while personally dipping into the country’s military budget, it appears that Putin has created a monster that threatened the very foundations of his security services–based regime, and possibly the scope of his personal power.
Prigozhin, once known as “Putin’s cook” and head of the private military Wagner Group, demonstrated that he can run circles around Shoigu and Gerasimov. He and his Wagner military company quickly captured Rostov-on-Don, a large Russian city in the south, which is the headquarters of the Russian southern military district. Wagner then rapidly extended their control all the way up to Voronezh and to the boundaries of the Moscow region—850 kilometers.
During Wagner’s lightning advance, Russian ground forces failed to oppose them, and only minimal aerial attacks were conducted against them.
For a moment it appeared that Putin had left Moscow and Prigozhin might enter the city and finish off a coup despite the lack of outright support from any representatives of the Russian ruling circles. Yet, many Russian leaders, including the powerful Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev refrained from criticizing Prigozhin, suggesting that he may have at least some support at the highest echelons of power.
And then Prigozhin stopped. He turned around his troops, amid claims of a deal brokered by Lukashenka. Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov confirmed that the criminal charges of incitement to armed rebellion against Prigozhin would be dropped, he would be allowed to move to Belarus (and pursue his African business), and the Wagner members would be pardoned.
The Wagner rebellion is the most serious challenge to the Russian state’s foundations since 1993, when the Supreme Soviet rebelled against Boris Yeltsin, who brought in tanks to suppress the attempted coup.
Prigozhin has demonstrated just how weak the Putin regime is and how the Russian president’s own “chef” could potentially put nuclear-armed Russia into the hands of a fragile and extremely dangerous dictatorship of former KGB officers and hardened criminals—Vory v Zakone.
Russia’s international stature, and its future military performance in Ukraine, are likely to suffer from these events, as will Putin’s power.
—Ariel Cohen is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
In the mutiny’s aftermath, Russia’s soldiers face a crisis of trust
Plainly, it’s difficult to tell what on earth happened in Prigozhin’s supposed twenty-four-hour rebellion, now apparently called off after negotiations with the Belarusian strongman Lukashenka. How Putin and his elites rally to reassert dominance after an open challenge will prove decisive for determining what comes next and whether Russian forces substantially waver in the battlefield in Ukraine. Authoritarian regimes like Putin’s rely on creating a sense of invulnerability, and challenges from warlords like Prigozhin call that myth into question.
While Prigozhin claims he called on his forces to stand down to avoid spilling Russian blood, it’s likely that the Wagner Group chief received significant concessions personally or serious enhancements to Wagner’s role in the war effort. At the end of the day, this “rebellion” was purportedly about a disagreement over how best to prosecute Russia’s unprovoked war of annihilation against Ukraine.
If Prigozhin’s challenge does indeed come to a speedy conclusion with Wagner returning to the front, Kyiv may not get the all-out chaos it was likely hoping to exploit for battlefield gains. But even so, the fact that a significant portion of Moscow’s fighting force is not apparently loyal to Russia and can be swayed will have real impact on the battlefield, with Russian army forces having to question to an even greater extent than before just how much they can trust those they’re supposed to be fighting alongside.
Putin’s regime may have survived Prigozhin’s challenge, but almost every aspect of this episode indicates that the Russian system is more brittle than ever. This all occurred because Russia is performing disastrously in its war—and Ukraine’s main effort in the counteroffensive is still to come.
—Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, where he focuses on Russia’s war on Ukraine, authoritarianism in Russia, and Ukraine’s democracy-building process.
For Lukashenka, a short-term win that could undermine his long-term standing in Belarus
In a stunning turn of events on Saturday, Lukashenka said he had negotiated with Prigozhin an end to the movement of his mercenary troops inside Russia in order to deescalate the situation.
Prigozhin himself confirmed the turning back of the Wagner columns of the mercenaries and returning them to field camps in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.
While Lukashenka’s position could be strengthened by this unexpected mediation, in the longer term, his regime will face the repercussions of the insurrection led by the Wagner paramilitary group.
The growing demotivation and demoralization regarding Russia’s actions may raise concerns among the power vertical, military, and elite circles within Belarus. Such chaotic developments in the neighboring country will lead to questioning Lukashenka’s policies and decision making. With Putin’s authority weakened, the regime in Minsk may find itself with reduced backing and support from Russia.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Lukashenka has declared unwavering loyalty to the Kremlin, allowing attacks and using Belarusian territory as a training ground, disregarding the will of most Belarusians.
Lukashenka placed a risky bet on Russia’s swift victory in the war against Ukraine, essentially banking everything on that outcome. Pro-regime propaganda in Belarus claimed the notion that Russia was incapable of losing. However, this strategy could potentially have negative consequences. Prigozhin’s armed rebellion indicates a political crisis within Russia and shatters the myth of Russia’s invincibility and overwhelming power.
The Belarusian democratic forces and the Kalinouski regiment fighting in Ukraine against the Russian troops used these chaotic developments to appeal to the elites and the military to side with them. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenka’s rival in the disputed 2020 election, has stated once again that this is an opportunity to free Belarus from dictatorship. The Wagner insurrection will become yet another argument for her to present Russia as a source of instability and conflict. It appeals to Belarusians who want to keep away from the war against Ukraine.
—Hanna Liubakova is a freelance journalist and researcher from Belarus. She is currently a journalist with Outriders, an international multimedia platform that produces in-depth multimedia and interactive reporting and focuses on solutions journalism.
Ukraine can take advantage of Russian confusion
Is the Wagner Group marching on Moscow or heading back to the front? Is Prigozhin attempting a coup d’etat, part of a false flag operation to allow Putin to purge his failing military leadership, or is he trying to change the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense, as he claims, perhaps to prevent them from absorbing his private militia into the Russian Army? It is impossible to know for sure, but we do know that the recent turn of events in Russia could not come at a better time for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s best chance for a successful counteroffensive is to attack deep behind the current Russian front line and force the Russians to fall back from their six hundred miles of layered defense-in-depth fighting positions to prevent Ukraine from cutting Russia off from its supply lines. It is unlikely even the most audacious among the Ukrainian military leadership ever envisioned launching an attack on Russia’s Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, where Russia’s war in Ukraine is being run, but that is precisely what the Wagner Group’s sudden rebellion has done.
Whatever Prigozhin’s real motivations are, or the outcome of his revolt and then apparent about-face, a few things remain clear: Massive amounts of confusion have been sown in Russia’s rear area, and whatever confidence rank and file Russian soldiers had left in their leadership is gone. Once an army loses confidence in its leaders, morale collapses and the will to fight goes with it. The Wagner Group will almost certainly be gone soon as well, and it was the most effective unit fighting for the Russians in Ukraine, admittedly a low bar. Whether it is absorbed into the Russian army or disbanded, its members reassigned piecemeal to various units, remains to be seen. Still, it is hard to imagine Prigozhin holding onto his private army or his life.
—John “Buss” Barranco was the 2021-22 senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
“When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
Some things are constants in this changing world, and one of them is that only a relatively small number of people make all of the important decisions in Russia, and they each have lots of money, lots of guns, or both. At certain points in history, these elites compete among themselves to determine who leads, resulting in one person in charge, some dead, and the others falling into line. Recent events should be understood as the latest episode in this centuries-long storyline.
But today’s agreement that halted the immediate Wagner threat to Moscow and consigned Prigozhin to Belarus is not likely to be the end of this story, but just the beginning. On the surface it may appear to be a victory for Putin, but he has been weakened by both the very fact that it occurred and the reality that it was resolved only through a negotiated compromise rather than a public demonstration of physical power. The military, historically the institution most esteemed by the Russian people, has been humiliated once again under Putin and shown to be corrupt, ineffective, and led by lackeys. As has been the case since his failure to take Kyiv last year, Putin’s primary focus must be to secure his standing, and thus his survival, among that small number of Russians who matter, with shows of strength. Thus, those who stubbornly hope for a negotiated resolution to Putin’s war in Ukraine will continue to be disappointed. As for Prigozhin, he will need to reflect on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous admonition, “when you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Indeed, for the time being he may want to steer clear of any upper-floor windows, as in recent years Putin’s adversaries tend to be especially clumsy around them. In any case, as this story continues to develop, the people behind the 2017 movie The Death of Stalin should be busy taking notes in case there’s soon need for a sequel.
—William F. Wechsler is the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. His most recent government position was US deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
A stumbling Russia means greater isolation for China
Chinese President Xi Jinping is famous for proclaiming that “the world is undergoing changes unseen in a century!” Yet his prognostication probably didn’t include Putin’s former caterer and mercenary army founder/funder Yevgeniy Prigozhin directing an armed assault toward Moscow.
I hesitate to call relationships between autocrats “friendships,” but to the extent either Putin or Xi has friends, their bond is certainly stronger and more substantive than others. They seem to share a view of the world as straining against “American hegemony,” and poised to accelerate toward a multipolar order where both Russia and China can dominate respective spheres of influence free of “Western interference.” But Xi—being more traditionally Marxist—saw this new world emerging over the course of this century, while Putin undertook direct actions—in Georgia, Syria, Ukraine, and Ukraine again—to hasten changes and reassert Russia’s position as a great power. Beijing’s reaction can be summarized as “Bold! But strategically incompetent!”
But as I noted in a recent Atlantic Council publication, “Beijing has deep strategic interest in ensuring that Moscow—and Putin personally—remains a viable ally in blunting US power… Most importantly, Beijing has a strategic need to keep Russia from internal turmoil or international setbacks that could result in the rise of a regime that is hostile to China. One of the greatest gifts to Beijing of the Sino-Russian rapprochement [has been] a passive 4,200-kilometer border.”
In that context, China will support Putin if he remains in charge in Moscow. If Putin falls, Beijing will wait for the dust to settle and cultivate the new power structure, perhaps with a fresh chance to counsel that Russia extricate itself from Ukraine and refocus on long-term competition with the United States/Western alliance.
But for Xi and China, Russian internal turmoil and stumbles in the face of successful Western-backed Ukrainian military opposition and sanctions will further threaten greater isolation. A pragmatic option would be to reduce tensions with the United States and Europe, but Xi has proven to be more ideological than his recent predecessors. The loss of China’s main strategic partner is more likely to deepen strategic mistrust of the United States rather than greater diplomatic or economic accommodation.
—John K. Culver is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) senior intelligence officer with thirty-five years of experience as a leading analyst of East Asian affairs, including security, economic, and foreign-policy dimensions.
Prigozhin is the devil Beijing doesn’t know
While China has been preparing for a range of political and military outcomes amid the Ukrainian counteroffensive, it appears surprised by Prigozhin’s astonishing rebellion.
Beijing will seek to avoid taking any public side in the Russian domestic political struggle, at least explicitly. Still, authoritative state media such as the People’s Daily, are hinting that Beijing prefers that Putin prevail over Prigozhin. It’s not hard to understand why: Putin has been a reliable supporter of the relationship with China, has deep personal connections with the Chinese leadership, tacitly accepts Moscow’s “junior partnership” with Beijing, and has, up to now, largely maintained political stability within Russia.
Prigozhin is the devil Beijing doesn’t know. The head of the Wagner mercenary group has a mercurial (arguably volcanic) temperament which the Chinese leadership could find difficult to manage. Beijing was also likely troubled by his comment that Russia “needs to take a page out of North Korea’s book for a certain number of years,” as China can ill afford another nuclear-armed pariah state on its borders.
Beijing will struggle to find ways to assist Putin, however, although it appears, as of this writing, that he has prevailed over Prigozhin, who has reportedly accepted exile in Belarus.
People’s Republic of China (PRC) intelligence support for Putin seems risky and unlikely if Prigozhin resumes his apparent coup attempt. While Prigozhin has a complicated and often fraught relationship with the Russian security services, he appears to have ties with elements of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, as well as other elements of the force structures. Wagner Group’s stunning advance before Prigozhin’s about-face implies at least the tacit compliance of some figures in Russian military intelligence. Moreover, Wagner and the GRU shared a base in Russia’s Krasnodar district as late as 2020. Accordingly, if Chinese security services share intelligence with their Russian counterparts on anti-Putin coup plotters, they face a high probability of discovery and risk long-term damage to bilateral relations if an “anti-Putin” ascends to the power vertical in Russian politics. Moreover, sharing any intelligence on potential coup plotters would not only risk the compromise of methods and sources but also be an admission that PRC security services are spying within Russia.
If matters escalate again, Beijing might attempt to enable the Kremlin to rush troops back to Moscow from Central Asia, in a tacit, unspoken arrangement with Russia. Tajikistan hosts up to seven thousand Russian troops, while another five hundred are reportedly deployed to Kyrgyzstan (some troops have already been shifted to the front in Ukraine). China could offer security guarantees to Central Asian governments, indirectly enabling the Kremlin to further draw down in the region and shift forces to Moscow. This measure carries risks for the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai, however, and may be ineffectual. Putin’s fate will largely be determined by the loyalty of his subordinates, not the number of military personnel in Moscow.
If tensions between Putin and Prigozhin escalate again, Xi might decide that a direct or implied expression of support for Putin, perhaps through a phone call, is his best course of action. An intervention into Russian domestic politics would mark a bold step, however, and risks damaging bilateral relations with Putin’s eventual successor.
Unless it chooses to run significant risks, Beijing has little ability to influence events in Russia. Despite the considerable risks a Prigozhin regime would hold for the PRC, the Chinese leadership will likely observe events, rather than attempt to shape them.
—Joseph Webster is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, where he leads the center’s efforts on Chinese energy security. Webster edits the China-Russia Report, an independent, non-partisan newsletter exploring developments in Sino-Russian relations.
Without Wagner, Putin loses a substantial part of his African foothold
Prigozhin has not been defeated yet. The way he decided to turn around to avoid bloodshed gives the impression that he controls not only the narrative, but also the future of Putin’s twenty-three-year hold on power. Should Putin leave Prigozhin out there without arresting him? What about his actions and influence in Africa, where he has ongoing military operations?
Undoubtedly this rebellion will impact the African theater, particularly Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, and Sudan where Wagner has settled its troops. Whereas until now the interests of the Russian government and the Wagner group aligned, it will now be necessary for these countries to do business with two Russian actors with rival interests. This rivalry will put their African allies in an awkward position.
Prigozhin’s uprising will lead to a clarification on the nature of Russia’s partnership with these African countries. Moscow, which knows how influential Wagner is in these countries, may be tempted to cut off its supplies on the continent. These governments born from military coups rely on Wagner mercenaries to keep their power and/or secure their countries against jihadist movements. Wagner made very profitable deals in Mali, Sudan, and CAR on everything from gold to coffee to sugar to diamonds.
The rebellion of Wagner’s boss and the need for Putin to show that he still has the situation under control could force Bamako and Bangui to distance themselves from Prigozhin in order to maintain their alliances with Moscow.
Indeed beyond Wagner, Moscow has become the leading exporter of arms in Africa, but also of wheat. Russian state-owned companies are also active in the mining, hydrocarbons, and even civil nuclear sectors. But if Russia seems to be a more reliable partner, what about Putin, whose power seems weakened?
Finally, Wagner’s most visible impact is actually on the information front: Prigozhin—who was closely tied with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service—used CAR and Mali to foster anti-Western sentiment, gain sympathy for Putin, and fuel his propaganda via RIA FAN, the flagship of Prigozhin’s Patriot Media Group. Without this powerful tool, I’m not sure that the Russian influence will remain strong in these countries.
—Rama Yade is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
What does Prigozhin’s coup attempt mean for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?
How will Prigozhin’s brief mutiny against the Russian Ministry of Defense ultimately impact the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive? On the immediate frontline, many obstacles facing Ukrainian forces such as landmines, fortifications, and the Russian troops defending them will likely remain unchanged. However, Wagner’s disruption of Russia’s military command and logistics network may increase the possibility of a Ukrainian breakthrough on the battlefield.
Wagner’s seizure of the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, which has largely served as the forward command center for the Russian war effort, will degrade the timely command and control of Russian forces. A confused or disrupted chain of command will significantly impact the Russian military’s ability to conduct an effective defense-in-depth and prevent a coordinated response to Ukrainian offensive efforts. Roadblocks set up by the Russian government, and even deliberate damage to the M4 highway, designed to contain the Wagner group, will also restrict its military’s ability to shift forces and supplies between fronts in Ukraine. Evidence that Wagner fired on military helicopters will require Russian aviation in the area to operate more cautiously and complicate their ability to strike Ukrainian forces. Reports that some Russian units did not oppose Wagner’s initial march may also lower Moscow’s confidence in the loyalty of its forces and officers. While Prigozhin’s rebellion ultimately may be short-lived, his actions will create weaknesses within the Russian military’s command structure which Ukraine can exploit on the battlefield.
—Jacob Mezey is a program assistant in the Forward Defense program in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
This is the start of the end of the war
The attempted coup d’etat that the Wagner mercenaries sprung on the Kremlin in the middle of the evening on Friday has come to a rather unexpected and dissatisfying conclusion. What looks like a backroom deal allegedly brokered by Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka has turned the Wagner convoy around. The Wagner group had a serious battle plan with the Russian armed forces and security services seemingly unconsolidated enough to respond quickly. Prigozhin and the Kremlin both let loose the cry of war and stepped over their own self-proclaimed red lines before Prigozhin decided to fold the operation at seemingly the last moment. However, this rebellion has shown that the Putin regime was on its last legs (though they may now reconsolidate the power structures with Prigozhin holding a great deal more power than before).
That the rebel forces were even able to get as far as they did with little opposition and to take over Rostov-on-Don—which is also the headquarters of the Russian war against Ukraine—has shown the Putin regime to be weak and incoherent beyond all previous suppositions. It is hard to know how the Putin regime can regain its legitimacy after this. Putin had voiced his fears when he compared the situation to 1917, although 1905 may have been a better parallel. One way or the other, this is the payout stage of the gamble to invade Ukraine and this is the start of the end of the war. The Russian population and Putin’s elites had countenanced this war when it was far away—they will certainly think twice about doing so again after the conclusion of this farce.
—Vladislav Davidzon is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, based in France. Since 2018, he has served as a co-producer for a television series on the effects of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Sat, Jun 24, 2023
Fast Thinking By
Atlantic Council experts share their insights on what happened with the Wagner Group founder's halted mutiny and what it says about the stability of Putin’s regime and the war in Ukraine.
Sat, Jun 24, 2023
New Atlanticist By
A special edition of the Russian War Report on Wagner Group's mutiny against the Russian military and occupation of Rostov.