July 7, 2023

Whither Russia after the coup?

By Robert O. Freedman, Johns Hopkins University

        The abortive coup undertaken by Yevgeny Prigozhin a week ago raises as many questions as it answers. Consequently, this essay will be divided into three parts. First, what is known about the abortive coup. Second, what is still unknown, and finally, the possible implications for Russia and Ukraine of the coup.


  Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-con and a thug, got his start in Russian politics by being close to Russian President Putin. He started as a chef and currently holds the lucrative contract for supplying food to Russian troops in Ukraine. He also has a media organization and a troll operation which he claimed interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election. Perhas most important, he heads a mercenary force active in places in Africa such as the Central African Republic, Mali and Libya. Originally, the mercenary force served Putin’s goals because it extended Russian influence in Africa while also being deniable. However, once Russian troops ran into trouble in Ukraine, Putin called on the Wagner troops for help there (the name Wagner was reportedly chosen because it was the name of Hitler’s favorite composer Richard Wagner).

        Once involved in Ukraine, Prigozhin sought to augment his forces by recruiting in Russian jails and got Putin to promise the convicts amnesty if they served for six months. While other Russian commanders were encountering difficulties, Prigozhin scored a victory over Ukrainian forces in the town of Bakhmut, albeit at a very high cost (reportedly 10,000 Wagner troops were killed). In the process he became highly critical of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov who he complained were not providing him with sufficient ammunition and other supplies. Putin tolerated this criticism, perhaps hoping that it would encourage Shoigu and Gerasimov to fight harder. However, by early June, 2023 Shoigu apparently convinced Putin that Prigozhin and his Wagner force had gotten too powerful and they would have to be integrated into Russia’s regular armed forces. When Prigozhin learned of this, he began to organize his rebellion, because he obviously did not want to lose the independent status of his Wagner forces. He seized the city of Rostov- on- Don, the command center for the Russian operation in Ukraine, and then dispatched a force to Moscow, claiming later that it was not a coup but a protest and an effort to cleanse the top echelons of the Soviet military of Shoigu and Gerasimov who had incompetently managed  the war.

     Putin, initially, saw Prigozhin’s effort quite differently, calling it “treason” and “a stab in the back” and threatening that the Wagner forces would “pay a price” for their action. However, several hours later, after the intervention of Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, a compromise—whose details we still don’t know — was worked out, under which Prigozhin would get amnesty and move to Belarus with his followers. This was quite a reversal for Putin, and many observers felt this demonstrated Putin’s weakness, but at least this stopped the march on Moscow and prevented further internecine fighting between Russians. (A number of Russians had been killed and helicopters shot down trying to stop the drive to Moscow.) Nonetheless, Prigozhin’s life expectancy may be limited, given the fact that Putin has regularly murdered his opponents, both in Russia and Europe.


       Besides the details of the Lukashenko compromise agreement, we also don’t know if Prigozhin expected support from other Russian officers who were also dissatisfied with the way the war in Ukraine was being managed. One such officer, Sergei Surovikin, has reportedly been arrested, but whether he was involved in Prigozhin’s plot is not yet known. Another major question is why Russian intelligence officials were not aware of Prigozhin’s plot. This is the second major error they have made, after misjudging Ukraine’s ability to repel the Russian invasion in February 2022.  A third question is what the Wagner forces will do in Belarus. Will they form a praetorian guard to protect Lukashenko against his domestic enemies –and possibly against Putin as well? In addition, we don’t know how Prigozhin’s empire will be managed. Can he do it from Belarus, or will he move to one of his bases in Africa, like the Central African Republic? Finally, how was Prigozhin so easily able to seize Rostov-on-Don?


    In looking ahead to some possible implications of the coup, one can see a few moves that Putin is likely to take. First, he will strengthen the Russian National Guard as a hedge against another military officer making a march on Moscow. (Of course he has to be sure of the loyalty of the head of the National Guard.) Second, he has to weaken, but not eliminate, the Wagner operation. Thus, he has already closed down Prigozhin’s media operation, and it is likely that the Russian government will take direct control over his computer trolling operation as well. Putin has to be careful, however, with Prigozhin’s catering operation since it feeds the Russian troops fighting in the field. In Africa, the Wagner operation has been useful to Putin in spreading Russian influence. However, it has also made huge profits in diamonds and gold, and Russia might take direct control of these lucrative operations so the profits go to the Russian government rather than to Prigozhin.

     As far as Putin’s continued control over the Russian Government is concerned, it is too early to tell how much the abortive coup has hurt him. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that he will again permit independent armed forces to operate in Russia. Indeed, the other, albeit smaller, independent armed force of Chechens is reportedly already being integrated into Russia’s armed forces.

     Finally, as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned, the picture is mixed. On the one hand, it is unlikely that Putin in the near future will fire Shoigu or Gerasimov or both, because that would be  tantamount to giving in to Prigozhin. Yet, if the Ukrainian offensive is successful, he may require a change in command. On the other hand, without the independent Wagner and Chechen forces, there is far more unity of command, and this may help the Russian war effort. What is not known is the effect of the abortive coup on the Russian officers fighting in Ukraine or whether the morale of Russian troops, already low, will be further eroded.

       In sum, the abortive coup in Russia has raised more questions than it has answered. Hopefully, in the course of time, these unanswered questions will be resolved.

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