On Friday evening Moscow time, the Kremlin—and the world—was stunned to witness what seemed like the beginnings of a coup against the government of President Vladimir Putin. The man leading the charge, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has a long history with the Kremlin. A former restauranteur, Prigozhin eventually, with the help of government contracts, built himself into an oligarch. But what he is most known for today is having founded the private military corporation Wagner Group. Since its inception in the early 2010s, it has seen action around the world, most notably in Africa and in the Russo-Ukrainian War, where it has played a large role in patching holes in sometimes weak Russian lines.
For the past few months, tensions between Prigozhin and the Kremlin—though Prigozhin has until recently been careful to critique the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and not Putin himself—have risen, with Prigozhin claiming that Shoigu was purposefully denying Wagner ammunition. On Friday, those tensions reached a boiling point as Prigozhin posted a video that he claimed showed the aftermath of a Russian missile attack on a Wagner camp (though analysts have found that, based on videos of the same camp from one day before, nothing had changed).
Within twenty-four hours, Prigozhin and his forces proceeded to leave Ukraine and reached within 200 kilometers of Moscow. As of the time of writing on Saturday evening, according to news reports and Prigozhin’s own Telegram messages Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko has apparently negotiated a ceasefire and potential resolution. Prigozhin claimed that his forces will return to Ukraine—though what Putin has promised in return is unclear.
What really caused Prigozhin to begin his self-proclaimed “March of Justice” is likewise unclear. While he originally claimed to be only hunting Shoigu and spoke repeatedly about not being against Putin, his drive toward the Kremlin seemed to belay that possibility. After all, any attempt to kill, usurp, or otherwise remove Putin’s minister of defense by force would clearly be seen as an attack on Putin himself.
Speculations that this was all some grand, 4D-chess-style play by Putin himself to eliminate Shoigu can be dismissed. Prigozhin’s spear penetrated deep into Russia, humiliating the Russian armed forces which were either unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to fire on his troops (with the exception of a few pilots). If Putin wished to eliminate Shoigu, firing him would have been far less of a hassle.
But where do things go from here, how does this latest incident affect both Russia’s and the West’s future? While nearly anything can happen, there are only four potential scenarios.
The Likeiest Scenarios
The first scenario can be called “the Truce Holds.” Here, Prigozhin returns to the front, possibly keeping some troops in Rostov, and resumes fighting. What happens to him in the medium and long term, however, is open to some speculation, pending further details. Likewise, the nature of the agreement between Putin and Prigozhin and what it entails has yet to be seen. Perhaps Putin agrees to fire Shoigu (which would be something of a political earthquake, as Shoigu is the only person to have served in the top levels of the Russian Federation’s government since its founding). Whatever the ultimate outcome, however, Prigozhin is unlikely to remain in Russia. He has at this point eliminated multiple Russian Air Force targets—possibly killing the pilots—and humiliated Putin’s government on the world stage. Exile of a sort seems like the likely outcome.
The second scenario, “Mop Up,” sees the truce break. Prigozhin either immediately or in the near future rebels yet again. This time, however, he is captured or killed. The Russian government then proceeds to mop up the rest of Wagner as a semi-independent force. Putin’s credibility would still take a hit—after all, a private military company he allowed to come into existence would have driven over 200 km into his own country in a coup attempt, pulled back, and attacked a second time—but he would remain in power, for now. Russia’s war in Ukraine would be hampered, however, as Wagner’s forces made up a not insignificant amount of troops there. Depending on the nature and scale of the mop-up, Russia would be forced into either a temporary or even permanent defensive posture for the remainder of the conflict. Moreover, even if Prigozhin was killed, Putin would likely not last much longer in office—having created the conditions for repeated potential coup attempts by private military forces is too great a stain on his record. He’d be quietly pushed to retire before the next presidential election.
The third and unlikeliest scenario, “President Prigozhin,” sees the truce break—but here, the Russian armed forces melt like butter as Wagner resumes its advance and storms the Kremlin. It is not an impossibility; on the open highway from Rostov to Voronezh, Prigozhin faced effectively no resistance. He also, on his now-paused march, seemingly altered his goals (or at least publicly moved closer to his private ones): in response to an address by Putin demanding that he stand down, Prigozhin said that those against Wagner “today are those who gathered around scumbags.” As it is unlikely that Prigozhin drove to Moscow for a stern talk and a handshake, in this scenario he takes the Kremlin and installs himself or a politically presentable chosen ally as the new president of Russia.
If he manages to do this smoothly—without serious opposition from the armed forces or the intelligence services, which is unlikely—it would be fairly bad for Ukraine. Prigozhin has critiqued the Ministry of Defense for a while now on their running of the war—from the refusal to transition to a war economy to a, in Prigozhin’s view, reluctance to truly fight aggressively. The Wagneritr is also significantly more ideological than Putin; whereas Putin mostly gave meandering addresses about how sinister the West is, Prigozhin would likely put in place a “positive” vision for Russia. A Prigozhin in charge, either directly or indirectly, would likely immediately put the country onto a serious war footing instead of adopting Putin’s strategy of keeping the war as far away from the population as possible.
The Worst Case Scenario
Yet what if Prigozhin makes it to Moscow but fails to secure power? Perhaps Putin escapes to St. Petersburg and vows to fight on, or perhaps the Wagnerites and the Russian armed forces begin to fight in earnest on the outskirts of the city? This development, the fourth scenario, could only be described as the “Second Russian Civil War.” It is likely that, similar to the first Russian Civil War, the combatants would not remain limited to a two-sided conflict of government against rebels. Ramsam Kadyrov, the leader of Russian Chechnya who has until now been loyal to Putin, may sense an opportunity to truly make a kingdom for himself. Certain elements in Tartarstan or elsewhere, which have itched for their own ethnically-based states, may work for independence. China, which has had an eye on Siberian water for years, may—in the name of securing their border—move to take control of some strategic parts of Siberia.
The West, for its part, would need to consider how to proceed. A breakup of Russia into civil war would be disastrous, which is why realist thinkers like Henry Kissinger have urged the West to avoid such. A fracturing of Russia’s eleven time zones would open up a new chess board on the budding Cold War between the United States and China, exacerbating tensions and, ultimately, likely sucking Washington into conflicts there.
The United States would also likely have to reel in NATO and European allies. Questions that Washington has never had to confront will need to be answered. In the event of a Russian civil war, Ukraine would likely recapture all its territory. But what if it wants to go further: should Washington stop an angry Ukraine from performing its own “special military operation” in a shattered Russia’s frontiers? What happens if Poland, seeing Russian authority collapse, begins looking hungrily at the territories east of the Curzon line, which it lost under Josef Stalin?
Plus, there is the question of Russia’s nuclear stockpile. Russia, after all, possesses more nuclear weapons than any other country: what happens if they fall into the hands of any of the Tartar nationalists, Wagnerites, Islamic extremists, or other warlords who could emerge from the conflict?
Caution is Warranted
As of the time of writing, events appear to be defaulting toward the first scenario and least destabilizing scenario. Yet the situation on the ground is fluid—Prigozhin’s currently-declared exile to Belarus, among whatever other concessions have been promised, depends heavily on Putin keeping his word. Whether that is enough for Prigozhin is yet to be determined.
Ultimately, when coups get underway, the fog of war intensifies, making it difficult to see what will happen. In the event of “Mop Up,” the scenario otherwise most favorable for Putin, his authority may still be so weakened that someone else tries another coup in the months to come. “President Prigozhin” could see Prigozhin briefly control Russia, only to be challenged by yet someone else. And a full-scale “Second Russian Civil War” produces questions which been asked only in the nightmares of Western strategic planners. The last Russian Civil War produced the Soviet Union, after all. There is no reason to believe that this one would produce anything better.