Moscow rebellion: why Putin is now 'weaker than before' and what's next for Russia after Wagner Group mutiny
After Putin thwarted an almost-civil war in Moscow, NationalWorld spoke to Professor Mark Galeotti about why the Russian president's grip on power is now weaker than ever
As the war in Ukraine rages on, people around the world watched on in shock as Putin teetered dangerously close to the edge in his own country.
Scenes of an attempted armed rebellion came out of Moscow last weekend, with the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin's two-decade reign at the top of the country's political-sphere looking ripe for collapse. The mutiny was led by Putin's mercenary ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the country's paramilitary Wagner Group, with members of his forces travelling towards the Russian capital in an attempt to stamp his authority on the Kremlin.
However, 24 hours later, and the rebellion was quashed; Moscow had survived the attempted rebellion with Prigozhin stating that he didn't want to "spill Russian blood" and the Wagner Group boss had been exiled with no criminal charges appearing to loom over his or his troops' heads.
Putin put up a strong and defiant face to the Russian public, stating that Prigozhin's actions were a "knife in the back" of the country and that "justice" would be found for those involved in the killing of at least 11 Russian military members. But Putin's facade to the Russian public did not match his actions, with Prigozhin shipped off to close ally Belarus in a deal seemingly struck by Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko with little punishment.
Political analysts have begun to theorise over what the surprise attempted rebellion could mean for the future of Putin and his country. NationalWorld spoke to Professor Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Council on Geostrategy and expert in Russian security affairs, about what the episode could mean going forward.
'It was the last act of desperation'
While the eyes of the world watched on as Prigozhin and his mercenaries made their way into Moscow, many may have never believed that they would see such scenes coming out of Putin's Russia. His tight grip on power has been controlled by a heavy-handed approach to media and censorship, meaning that the thought of anyone turning so publicly against the Russian leader was unthinkable.
However, Prigozhin's attempted mutiny came from frustration not with Putin directly, but with the running of the Russian military forces.
"“I think it was the last last act of desperation," said Prof Galeotti. "It's not that Prigozhin was trying to topple Putin or anything like that, this was really a form of coercive negotiation."
“He was basically trying to get through to Putin to change his mind because Prigozhin had long been in a struggle with the Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu."
Prigozhin's frustration came from the fact that the Kremlin had introduced new regulations to have mercenaries - including those within the Wagner Group - to sign contracts with the Defence Ministry by 1 July. This would have meant that the group's "freedom of manoeuvre", which has been evident in the conflict with Ukraine so far, would have been hindered and the group would have been subordinates to the department, with Prigozhin vocally denouncing "mistakes" made by Russian military officials in the war so far.
Prof Galeotti continued: "I think what he was expecting is that he would show his strength, show his will. Other military units would then rally to Wagner's cause, and Putin would see the error of his ways and would reverse course, backed Prigozhin against Shoigu and everything would be fine. It didn't work out quite like that."
'Putin has been left weaker than before'
Prigozhin's calls for his mercenaries to pull back and retreat from Moscow out of fear of "spilling Russian blood" over the matter. Anti-terror measures had been introduced into the Russian capital as troops drew closer on Saturday (24 June).
The Wagner leader was somewhat defeated in his goals, with Putin issuing an ultimatum to the mercenaries - either sign the contract or go to Belarus. But in a world where Putin's troops have rolled into Ukraine and spilled blood in the country and political detractors have been dealt with a heavy hand, his lenient approach to punishing Prigozhin and the Wagner Group was as much a surprise as the mutiny itself.
“Putin sort of managed to scrape through, but he is left weaker than before," said Prof Galeotti.
"He didn't actually have to basically try and quell this by force. We didn't have TV pictures of cities like Rostov on Don under artillery fire and that kind of thing. He settled the issue. But the point is he has settled it in a way that makes him look very weak.”
As footage and images streamed onto social media, the ease with which the Wagner Group formed and moved towards Moscow was evident. And this could create issues for Putin in the future should anything be seen to be going wrong in the Ukraine war.
“What must be very worrying for Putin is that although the regular military and security forces didn't defect to Prigozhin nor were they willing to really stop them. We particularly saw that exactly with Rostov on Don, the local Garrison's and so forth - they just more or less ignored what was happening.
“It has always been assumed that his final backstop of power is that he controls the security forces. And this suggests that they're not turned against him, but they wouldn't necessarily put themselves out to protect him either.
“When Prigozhin left Rostov on Don, we saw footage of them being applauded and people taking selfies with him and that kind of thing. Which again, suggests that in fact, the Russian mood is not especially happy with what's going on.”
Lukashenko now has 'leverage'
Lukashenko has been a staunch ally of Putin throughout the war, with Belarus being the only European nation to publicly declare its support for the Russian invasion and subsequent war in Ukraine. The Belrussian leader had allowed Putin to send troops into Ukraine from his country, as well as a new deal which will see Russian nuclear weapons held in the country.
However, it was in his role as de-facto mediator between Prigozhin and Putin in which he had now shown his strength of loyalty to Putin. He appeared to fly in at the eleventh hour to avoid civil war in Moscow, offering the deal in which those involved in the violence which did take place - including Prigozhin - immunity in Belarus.
However, it has also allowed the president to gain some "leverage" in the relationship, according to Prof Galeotti.
“Lukashenko is now dependent on Putin, because he doesn't really have any other sort of support, but on the other hand, he's not willing to simply to become Putin’s vessel. He's kind of constantly doing what he needs to keep Putin onside, but also trying to stay independent.
"For example, he's willing to let Russian troops attack Ukraine from Belarussian territory but he's not willing to actually send Belarussian troops into the war."
Prof Galeotti continued: “Lukashenko himself is picking up his role, but he is a show man. And he does tend to deploy exaggeration to fine effect.
“It’s clear that Lukashenko ultimately helped pull Putin’s position back from what could have been a very dangerous one. And that's going to give Lukashenko a little bit more leverage at some point in the future."
What is next for Russia in the conflict?
The Wagner Group, many of whom are now in exile in Belarus, has been a key part of Russia's bombardment of Ukraine for the past 18 months. While not an official sect of the Russian military, the group has fought and moved around the country freely on the side of the Kremlin.
But what implications could this new development have for Russia's next moves in the war?
"Wagner had already been pulled out of the battleline. It had been so mauled by the recent fight over the city of Bahkmut, that it was probably being kind of reconstituted and prepared so that it will be used as emergency reinforcements in the future.
"If the Ukrainians do make some major gains in the next couple of weeks, Wagner will not be available to deal with it."
However, the 'if' for Ukraine is a big 'if', with Prof Galeotti describing their highly-anticipated spring counter-offensive, which is now underway, as a "damp squib" so far. Instead, the Russian military is likely to continue to chip away at the country, and "outlast" rather than defeat Zelensky's troops.
“I don't think Putin is really imagining that he can win this war on the battlefield on now. Instead, he hopes to basically outlast to outlast Ukraine's will and capacity to keep fighting, but also outlast the West's willingness to dump billions of pounds, euros and dollars every month into supporting Ukraine and the war effort.”