Winston Churchill’s famous characterization of the Soviet Union during World War II — “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma” — is an apt description for events of the past few days in post-Soviet Russia, where a restaurateur-turned-mercenary chief may have come close to seizing power only to turn around and accept a brokered deal under which he has left the country for neighboring Belarus. The true facts of the 24-hour rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the so-called Wagner Private Military Company, may not become known for a while. What seems certain is that it weakens Vladimir Putin’s rule, and perhaps sets the stage for his eventual ouster.
While Prigozhin called his march on Moscow with some 8,000 Wagner fighters a “March for Justice,” it is extremely unlikely that he had any idealistic motives: His long-brewing conflict with the Russian army brass and the Ministry of Defense was, most observers believe, essentially a dispute over money and influence. The tensions finally erupted into an armed clash after the government moved to place the Wagner group under the ministry’s control.
Prigozhin’s attempts to position himself as a champion of ordinary people oppressed by the elites and poorly trained, ill-equipped soldiers sent to their deaths in Ukraine are preposterous given his own record: a corrupt businessman who grew fabulously rich thanks partly to his Kremlin ties and who owns a mercenary army notorious for its brutality not only toward “enemies” but toward its own members. Prigozhin himself has described the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, in which his men played a key role, as a “meat grinder.” Wagner was widely reputed to be especially ruthless in treating its fighters — many of them convicts recruited from penal colonies with the promise of a pardon — as expendable.
It is also worth noting that Wagner, essentially a terrorist army credibly linked to both atrocities and neo-Nazi views, has always been less a “private military company” in the American sense than a front for Russian military and intelligence operations, employed for dirty work (not only in Ukraine but in Africa, the Middle East and Central America) to which the Kremlin did not want to be officially linked.
Because of this background, a number of commentators — in the West, in Ukraine, and in the independent expatriate Russian media — have suggested that the Prigozhin/Wagner mutiny was a fake rebellion, staged in coordination with Putin himself for some unexplained purpose. But this seems extremely unlikely, given that its main effect was to expose Putin as a weak leader who is not in charge and whose supposed popularity is largely fictional. A state in which an armed insurrection can go unpunished after seizing two large cities and killing somewhere between 15 and 40 military service members looks like a failed state.
The conflict between Prigozhin and the Kremlin was essentially, as expatriate Russian satirist Victor Shenderovich has put it, a turf war between two mob families. But notably, by the time this conflict exploded, Prigozhin had become a de facto critic of the war in Ukraine — an extraordinary shift from his earlier hawkish position. Yes, he has continued to make noises about the need to conduct the war more efficiently. Most recently, he has cited his unit’s rapid march on Moscow as an example of how the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine could have been wrapped up in three days — a preposterous claim, given that the Wagner troop movements met virtually no resistance. Yet over the past month, he has made several lengthy statements essentially admitting that the war was launched under false pretenses in a grab for power and wealth, and that none of the Kremlin propaganda claims made to justify it — be it a plot to use Ukraine as a launchpad for NATO aggression against Russia or the persecution of ethnic Russians by a “neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv — are true.
Some Ukrainian and expatriate Russian pundits have speculated, even before the rebellion, that Prigozhin was now a frontman for a “dovish” or at least pragmatic faction within the Russian political elites — a group that saw the war as a disaster for Russia and for their own interests and wanted to end it quickly.
It’s hard to say whether the Russians who cheered Prigozhin and the Wagner men in Rostov, the first city taken over by the group, were cheering for the war hawk or the war critic. What does seem likely is that they were cheering for what looked, at least briefly, like the real possibility of the end of the Putin regime.
What comes next is anyone’s guess — and depends, among other things, on the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Perhaps the real lesson of the past few days is that Putin’s Russia is far more unpredictable than we realize.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.