Weakening Putin? Discussing the Long-Term Significance of Wagner’s March to Moscow

Jonas Driedger, Adrián del Río Rodríguez

8 mins - 23 de Agosto de 2023, 22:45

This article builds on previous work

On 23 and 24 June 2023, armed columns of the Wagner Group made their way from occupied Ukrainian territory toward Moscow, passing through Rostov and Voronezh. The declared goal of these Russian mercenaries under Yevgeny Prigozhin’s leadership was to depose Russian Minister of Defense Sergei K. Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery V. Gerasimov. Prigozhin accused both of having betrayed Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

In turn, Putin declared the march of Wagner to be “treasonous” and announced this “mutiny” would be suppressed and punished. Meanwhile, hectic security measures were enacted in Moscow and Prigozhin stopped the advance of Wagner, declaring that he would leave for Belarus. Thus, a non-expert audience might say that Prigozhin’s threat failed, and Putin’s war continues as usual. 

We doubt that. Prigozhin’s march to Moscow has the potential to weaken Putin’s regime, but also strengthen it. We discuss competing views of how the Wagner March could affect elite power struggles in the Russian government and conflict dynamics with Ukraine. 

Weakening Putin?
Russia is undoubtedly an autocracy but not a totalitarian state like North Korea. The regime does not have a total monopoly on information and does not believe it can keep its own population in check by fear alone. Putin’s reputation is vital for citizen support for the regime and its survival.

In its depictions of Putin, Russian propaganda draws on long-term tropes in Russian culture, wherein the government and the bureaucrats are corrupt, whereas the leader is virtuous and competent. This is reflected in Russian opinion polls: Putin’s approval rates usually far exceed those of other members of government, the bureaucracy, and the perceived state of the country.

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Besides economic growth, Putin’s approval hinges on the perceptions of his abilities as a crisis manager and commander-in-chief. Putin’s ascent to power at the end of 1999 was carefully orchestrated with a reignition of the war in Chechnya. In the 2000s, Putin’s approval rates rose, as he was perceived as responsible for victoriously ending the Chechen war and overseeing steep economic growth fueled by rising oil and gas prices. When Putin annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014, his approval rates underwent what the statisticians called a “Crimea bump” for several years. 

But the march to Moscow harmed Putin’s domestic image as a competent and patriotic crisis manager, which has wavered ever since the Ukrainians fought off and rolled back Russian advances on Kyiv in mid-2022. The regime’s declared goal to completely “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine has never seemed less attainable than now. Thee march to Moscow also puts question marks even on the less ambitious war aims that state propaganda sought to sell: that the invasion was going as planned. 

Against this backdrop, the Kremlin will face a harder time preventing perceptions in the Russian populace of Putin’s unpopularity, especially if the war escalates further. Even though the mutiny failed its aim, somebody dared to directly challenge the regime with the implied threat of military force, got away with it for two days, and was not visibly defeated on the field or punished in the aftermath. Such overt and direct defiance of Putin is unprecedented. Past public defiance to Putin’s rule, such as the Russian journalist Anna S. Politkovskaya (2006) and Russian politician Boris Y. Nemtsov (2015), ended with their murder. 

A second powerful signal for Russian populace is that Wagner’s advances in Moscow were not militarily suppressed. Rather, reports of scattered fighting, Putin retreating from Moscow, and Chechen dictator Kadyrov approaching with troops of his own suggest that the regime deemed an all-out battle possible – and shied away from it. The apparent need to try to involve Russia’s few international allies also speaks of rampant distrust and weaknesses among regime elites. Kazakhstan and Iran were asked to mediate – and declined. It came down to Belarusian President Lukashenko to strike a dubious bargain with supposed amnesty for Prigozhin and his troops. In light of this public and extra-legal infighting, the regime will struggle to maintain the façade of official, constitutional, and functional politics.

Or not?
In the light of these likely changes, the Russian regime might well decide to double down on repression and its maximalist war policy. While this is likely to harm Russia, Russians, and probably also the Russian regime in the long run, such policy shifts might well cause regime consolidation in the short- and medium term. This would fit a long-term pattern of the regime increasingly accepting risks in the pursuit of its core interests.

Various developments following the Wagner episode suggest that, indeed, the regime is increasing repression and its war efforts. The Russian military recently underwent purges of top military officers suspected of treason. Russian state media reported on 23 August that Prigozhin and Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin died in a plane crash

Russia also abandoned a deal where it had committed to allow Ukrainian naval exports of grain and started to bombard Russian port cities crucial for these exports.

One might take Prigozhin’s public dissent, Putin’s timid response, and the visible popular support for Wagner among ordinary Russians as a sign that we might soon see a mass movement against the regime. However, it must be noted that the challenge came from a peripheral insider of the regime who was actively involved in fighting Russia’s war against Ukraine, instead of creating structures to mobilize mass support. Similarly, Prigozhin’s public dissent casts only a weak signal to other Russian political and military elites to defect from their support to Putin: the mutiny did not target Putin’s rule or offer political alternatives, to which parts of the current power elite can safely defect (as Adrián del Río’s research shows). The march to Moscow provides more hints that the necessary preconditions for such mass protests and elite defections do not currently exist in Russia, as the Kremlin has systematically worked to erode them.

And if Putin were to go?
On top of all this, the march to Moscow exacerbates the problem of Putin’s succession. As the regime is so closely linked to him, regime transformation probably requires his removal from office. But even if Putin wanted to abdicate, he would have to factor in that doing so would make him vulnerable. Thus, it seems more likely that Putin and his inner circle will try to increase repression and control to prevent another challenge like the one posed by Prigozhin and the march to Moscow.

Further worsening the outlook, the march will likely fuel the spread of stab-in-the-back myths among the Russian elite and society. Wars brutalize societies and often lead to the spread of chauvinist and authoritarian ideas. They also tend to lead to more aggressive and violent policies when a country has lost a conflict or when the conflict ended without a clear victory. Due to the belief in their own superiority, chauvinists cannot accept that shortcomings in their war efforts are due to a superior opponent. Rather, fifth columns and traitors in their ranks need to be blamed. The iconic example is Germany after the First World War and the stab-in-the-back myths that helped Hitler and his ilk rise to power. 

Russian propaganda has long depicted the war against Ukraine and the struggle with Western countries as a patriotic duty and a war for the survival of Russia. If the regime does not want to be held responsible for coming short in these confrontations, it will have to accuse forces within Russia. Prominent ultra-nationalist voices have long criticized the regime for lack of determination and ruthlessness in pursuing the war effort. The march to Moscow further increased these pressures on the regime, as Prigozhin accused prominent regime elites of backstabbing the Russian war effort. This accusation likely spells bad news for the mid-term prospects of ending the war. 

In sum, the war in Ukraine shows us that many unexpected events can occur. These are key to learning about Russia's political dynamics and regime strengths. But, considering established regime dynamics and data at hand, it is unlikely that the Wagner episode will have positive effects in the long run.

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