“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” comes from an aphorism of the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin survived Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny, he is extremely unlikely to emerge stronger after his (former?) ally’s failed rebellion.
When the Wagner Group launched its “march on Moscow” on June 23, Putin was nowhere to be seen. It took almost 24 hours for the Russian leader to address the nation and tell the Russians that his friend Prigozhin is a “traitor”. Most pro-Putin propagandists, on the other hand, remained silent until it became quite clear that the crisis is over.
Their silence perfectly made sense given that Putin, according to reports, departed Moscow and flew towards St. Petersburg while the Wagner Group was marching towards the Russian capital. In other words, the Russian political elite was most likely confused and did not have clear instructions on what to do. Thus, there is no guarantee that the Wagner forces would have encountered a serious resistance if they had entered Moscow.
According to Viktor Zolotov, a Russian military officer who is the Director of the National Guard (Rosgvardiya), the entire personnel of what is often described as “Putin’s Praetorian Guard” was “ready to die” defending the Russian capital. He said that on June 27, but during Prigozhin’s mutiny he did not make any public statements. Moreover, it is not very probable that his grandson, who reportedly lives in NATO member country UK – even though the Kremlin often insists that Russia is at war with NATO – would die for Putin.
Zolotov, as well as other Putin loyalists, was lucky enough that Prigozhin unlikely ever aimed to capture the Kremlin. Instead, it seems that his “march on Moscow” was a protest, and that he sought to reach a deal with the Kremlin. At this point, it remains unclear what Prigozhin’s real demands were. But if he wanted Putin to fire Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, his plan obviously failed.
The two Russian top military officials preserved their posts, which indicates that the Wagner Group frontman lost the battle against Putin’s close allies. However, the fact that the Kremlin was forced to drop all charges against Prigozhin – even though Putin initially accused him of “treason”, and the Wagner mercenaries downed at least two Russian military helicopters and plane – clearly demonstrates all the weakness of the Russian state apparatus.
After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan crashed the 2016 rebellion, he severely punished hundreds of military officers who attempted to overthrow him. Unlike him, Putin allowed Prigozhin to move to Belarus, while the Wagner Group, according to reports, continues doing business in Russia as usual. Thus, the Russian leader has once again showed his weakness, even though pro-Kremlin propagandists will undoubtedly portray his actions as a “great wisdom”.
Indeed, in order to consolidate Russia’s ruling elite’s positions, pro-Kremlin propaganda will now have to be louder and more aggressive than ever. Russian federal TV channels will attempt to create an illusion of a “unity” in the country, and will continue portraying Putin as leader who “firmly controls the situation”. Even though large segments of the Russian population nominally support Putin, the fact that the Wagner mercenaries were greeted in Rostov-on-Don as liberators indicates that there is a growing number of Russians who do not approve the way the Kremlin is conducting the so-called special military operation in Ukraine.
That, however, does not mean that the Russian elite will change its strategy regarding the war in the Eastern European country. Putin and most members of his inner circle likely aim to preserve the status quo as long as possible. More importantly, the Russian leader is aware that if he fires Shoigu and Gerasimov, oligarchs that have strong links the Kremlin may feel that they can no longer count on his protection. As a result, they might start looking for a candidate who can replace Putin as a “techno manager” (which is what he actually is) who could continue balancing the interests of various oligarchic groups.
In an attempt to prevent such an outcome, Putin will almost certainly increase his efforts not to change the situation on the ground in Ukraine, but to find ways to spread his propaganda in a more effective way. Given that very few people still take Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov’s statements about the enormous number of destroyed Ukrainian weapons and troops seriously, it is Putin that has started using Konashenkov’s propaganda scripts. Ever since Ukraine launched its counteroffensive, Russia’s leader made several statements about Kiev’s “huge losses”. But if Konashenkov has long become an object of ridicule, sooner or later Putin may have the same fate.
Another problem for Vladimir Putin is that he seems to live in a bubble. He reportedly does not use the internet, which suggests that he gets information about the war in Ukraine from people he trusts. But what if they deliberately provide the Russian President with fake news, or only with information he wants to hear?
Indeed, with such an incompetent and weak leader in charge, it is not surprising that some 25,000 Wagner mercenaries captured Rostov-on-Don, bypassed Voronezh and Lipetsk, and almost reached Moscow.