In a drastic turn of events, Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, launched a military mutiny and marched toward Moscow to topple the Russian military leadership. The mercenaries have crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia and captured Rostov-on-Don, a key commending and logistic center of the Russian war in Ukraine.
Even though Prigozhin and Kremlin had a bumpy relationship after the battle of Bakhmut, the coup still came out as a surprise. Some Western governments have argued that this is the most dangerous moment of Putin’s regime. Yet, President Lukashenko of Belarus, on behalf of Putin, reached an agreement overnight with Prigozhin. All troops have now retreated to the base camp in Ukraine while Prigozhin will head towards Belarus.
However, the real dangerous moment for Moscow and Putin’s regime is just arriving. The attempted coup has revealed the serious issues behind the walls of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the mercenaries’ rapid movement toward Moscow may indicate the Russian government lost control of the military. As the Ukrainians may see an opportunity in counter-offense, Moscow’s war effort has taken another massive toll.
The mutiny revealed the great weakness of Russian politics behind closed doors. Prigozhin, in reality, has already become a quasi-warlord. Russia’s irregular military has snowballed in the past few years. Within a few years of development, Prigozhin commanded a force as powerful as a smaller nation’s military with heavy equipment and experienced soldiers. However, he is not the only warlord in Russia. Kadyrov of Chechnia has also expressed his ambition to expand his military like Wagner. Even companies like Gazprom have considered launching their private military. All of these quasi-warlords are ticking bombs for the Kremlin. Some of them, like Chechnia, even had a history of war with Moscow. If Prigozhin wanted to rebel and not face severe consequences, no one could guarantee that the others won’t follow his footstep.
Other than the new warlords, the factions within Moscow could also see this as an opportunity to topple Putin. Putin’s remaining in power also primarily comes from his strong man image. This image has already faded substantially during the war in Ukraine. The rapid shift from “terrorists” to “not prosecuting” mutiny participants further indicated Putin’s weakness. The previous drone attack in Moscow has already erased some elites’ trust in Moscow. As Putin has been considered too irrational to many liberals in Russia, while the Russian nationalists complained about the lack of more iron-fist measures, a warm bed for a power struggle has come up. Putin’s weaker position than ever could entice the ambitious ones to challenge his position in the future.
Some details in this entire coup d’etat reveal that the Russian government may have lost control of some of its troops, a critical sign of political instability. Prigozhin and the Wagner mercenaries passed through Voronezh oblast and reached some 500 kilometers away from Moscow. The rapid speed and no efficient blockade of Prigozhin moving towards Moscow may indicate that some Russian regular troops also participated in the coup d’etat. Prigozhin’s main base is in Ukraine, as he ordered the mercenaries to return there. Soldiers with heavy equipment travel back into Russia without sounding any alarm at any level, proving further that the Russian government lacks the information and the troops are not under their command.
The support of the coup from some Russian troops became further evident when the Wagner group claimed that they had taken over the military facilities in Rostov “without a single shot.” Rostov is the southern frontline’s key commanding and logistics center in the Russia-Ukraine war. Even if the coup happened unexpectedly and Rostov’s defense could be as weak as one imagines, at least there would be shots fired or even casualties. Yet, the defense force put down their weapon, and Prigozhin managed to take over the city rapidly. Meanwhile, some 180 police and military people surrendered to Wagner at one of the checkpoints in Voronezh. It becomes evident that the Moscow government is losing its grip over its military.
Even worse for Moscow, the coup may become one of the most incredible opportunities for the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Kyiv government has already started actions on two fronts and is yet to “start the main phase of counteroffensive.” Ukraine has already gained ground in Bakhmut and improving conditions on the southern frontline. Although it did not immediately affect the frontline, the diversion of resources and potential clean-up of the Russian military may provide a vital window for Ukraine to gain more from the counteroffensive.
Militarily speaking, Russian troops were not directly and immediately influenced by the coup, yet the troops’ morale could be hit significantly. The Wagner soldiers blocked the road between Rostov to Donetsk region. This action could cut off the entire supply of 150,000 Russian military on the frontline. How much can the soldiers fight when knowing that their supply could be cut off? Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defense offered contracts to the Wagner soldiers not participating in the attempted coup. Yet, with a much less trusting environment, how much motivation the soldiers have to keep the war going remains a question. Also, how Putin will deal with the relationship with troops that may have participated in the mutiny and even the military leaders, the target of this mutiny remains an important question. All of these are worsening the predicament position that Moscow is in.
The coup itself started and ended faster than anyone anticipated. Moscow may have avoided lethal domestic chaos or even a civil war for now, but the true challenge begins here. The Russians still have to face growing warlords and factions in the government, potentially shaking up the political order again, a military slowly going its way, and a changing Ukrainian frontline that benefits the Kyiv government significantly after the coup. The political tsunami after the coup d’etat could still wash the Putin regime for good.