For a moment, it seemed as though the Russian government would fall. On June 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the thuggish leader of Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit, raged against the Russian military and threatened retaliation after it allegedly bombed a Wagner training camp. The Kremlin denied the incident—and opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for attempting to incite an armed rebellion. In response, Prigozhin launched an open war against Russia’s military leaders, seizing the city of Rostov-on-Don and vowing to march on Moscow to remove them from power.
Chaos ensued. Wagner advanced. Vladimir Putin’s plane departed from Moscow; the Kremlin’s press service insisted that the president remained behind. The roads to the capital were blocked. The Russian internet was censored. Russian military units between Prigozhin and Moscow offered little resistance, and rumors of defections flew. The vast majority of soldiers remained stationed along the battle lines in Ukraine, even as the rogue mercenary group drove by behind them. Chechen fighters loyal to pro-Putin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov appeared ready to enter the fight from the south.
Then Prigozhin blinked. He issued a statement backpedaling—declaring that he had not sought to overthrow Putin, only to “march for justice,” and claiming that he would not attack Moscow to avoid spilling Russian blood. (By this point, more than a dozen Russian soldiers had been killed during the push north, though it is clear that the offensive could have been far more violent.) Through the mediation of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, a deal was reached whereby Prigozhin would leave the country and enter exile in Belarus. Wagner units would return to their posts in occupied Ukraine. The crisis was defused. Putin survived. The “end of history” was once again averted.
The eleventh-hour deal came as a surprise to many Western observers, who noted that the Kremlin’s early statements seemed to reject the possibility of a compromise. Putin, who had a decades-long relationship with Prigozhin and had supported him throughout the war, could have extended an olive branch. Instead, he gave a televised address condemning Prigozhin and his followers as traitors—seemingly giving the Wagner leader no choice but to seize Moscow and overthrow the government. The agreement gives both sides an alternative.
Prigozhin’s terse statement—released on his Telegram channel—has been his explanation for why he chose to accept Lukashenko’s proposal. The reasons it lays out are entirely selfless: Prigozhin, a patriot, wished to avoid the needless loss of Russian life. It is far more likely, though, that his acceptance of the terms—even with his army on Moscow’s doorstep—was in recognition of the futility of the mission he had taken upon himself to carry out. A report from The Telegraph hinted at other motivations, including threats made against Prigozhin’s family.
In a narrow sense, Prigozhin might have succeeded in his objectives. He ended his offensive within Moscow Oblast, less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the capital. Russian troops remained garrisoned within the city, but their defenses would have been gravely inadequate against Wagner’s hardened and well-equipped veterans. Absent outside interference, Prigozhin could have captured Moscow in short order.
But then what? The rogue warlord’s next move would not have been at all clear. Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, and any other Russian leaders of importance would have fled the city before Prigozhin could capture them. The Russian state has famously abandoned Moscow before; the city’s fall would not cause the collapse of the government. Even if he had wanted to extend his northern march to St. Petersburg, Prigozhin would not have had the strength. While he nominally had a total of 25,000 troops at his disposal, the convoy traveling north only contained around 5,000—hardly enough to hold Moscow, a city of 13 million, even if the population had been totally compliant. If Russian troops had arrived in greater numbers from the front lines in Ukraine, Prigozhin could not possibly have held the city, even with additional Wagner reinforcements.
More importantly, by shooting his way into the Russian capital—and then fighting to defend it against the military—Prigozhin could have caused thousands of deaths, both among the soldiers on both sides and the civilians caught in the crossfire. In doing so, he would have abandoned any pretense of acting on behalf of the Russian people, or of having the country’s best interests in mind. One of the reasons that Wagner troops were able to travel north so quickly was the lack of opposition from the Russian military or police units between them and Moscow. The military’s inaction bodes poorly for Putin, but it also gave both sides a critical opening to defuse the crisis before it escalated further. If Prigozhin had fought an open battle in Moscow—or even a battle with Kadyrov’s troops near Rostov-on-Don—a deal between the two sides would have been much more difficult to reach.
In no conceivable universe would the crisis have ended with the installation of “President Prigozhin” in the Kremlin. Putin would never have voluntarily surrendered power, and if a civil war had erupted, one side would have had two million troops of various stripes and the other would have had 25,000. It is unclear how exactly this would have proceeded, but sooner or later, it would have inevitably ended in Prigozhin’s death. Even now, as Putin reasserts his grip on the country, the Wagner leader’s ultimate fate is unclear. In the past, Putin has said that he could never forgive betrayal—a term he applied to Prigozhin’s actions on the 24th. Even in his relative safety in Belarus, Prigozhin may wish to avoid open windows for the foreseeable future.
While the Kremlin has remained tight-lipped on the Prigozhin incident, the Lukashenko deal was clearly in Putin’s interests as well. Prigozhin would not have succeeded in toppling the Russian strongman in the short run, but he has already done incalculable damage to his position. By accepting the deal, Putin has cut his losses, gained an opportunity to reassert his authority within Russia, headed off prospective challenges to his leadership, and ultimately avoided a far greater tragedy.
The most enduring consequence of Prigozhin’s actions will likely be the shattering of Putin’s carefully cultivated image of invulnerability. Russia’s state-controlled TV channels cut off coverage of the attack immediately after it began, and pro-Wagner websites were swiftly censored, but the people of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh—two major cities with more than one million inhabitants each—watched with their own eyes as Prigozhin’s troops seized control of city military installations. Worryingly, the two cities’ inhabitants welcomed the attackers, giving them food and water and cheering for them as they passed through. As Prigozhin left Rostov-on-Don for exile in Belarus on the night of June 24, he was thronged by civilian supporters, and Russian police re-entering the city after the mercenaries’ departure were blocked by an angry crowd chanting pro-Wagner slogans. If Putin’s position remains that the Wagnerites committed an act of treason, a number of Russians appear to be comfortable with treason.
Perhaps more ominously still, Russian civilians’ sympathies for Prigozhin and the Wagner Group appeared to be shared by some Russian military units during their drive north. Elements of “Storm-Z,” a second Russian mercenary company formed by Putin allies to rival Prigozhin, spoke in support of his campaign against the “rats in the rear.” Rumors that various Russian units had joined with the Wagner Group appear to be false, but these units did nothing to stop the mercenaries’ advance, either. Ordinary Russian conscripts seem unwilling to die for Putin—a development with uncomfortable parallels in Russia’s past.
Total fealty to the ruler has long been a feature of Russian military history. The Tsar’s army experienced mutinies and desertions during the First World War, but it never attempted to overthrow him. Joseph Stalin executed dozens of high-ranking officers during his purges, and for decades afterward, the Soviet military remained totally subservient to the Communist Party; one of the reasons for the failure of the 1991 coup attempt was its leaders’ reluctance to escalate the situation after Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin simply refused to meet their demands. Putin has sought to maintain this principle. Whatever their performance issues, Gerasimov and Shoigu have been unquestionably, unflinchingly loyal, even as their troops have not.
Ironically, the prioritization of loyalty over competence in the Russian military helps to explain Russia’s disappointing performance against Ukraine—a performance that necessitated the involvement of the Wagner Group in the first place. Given a freer hand and greater resources, Wagner quickly overshadowed the Russian military in effectiveness, forcing Ukraine out of Bakhmut after a months-long battle. Perhaps it is this gap in competency, coupled with frustration at how the Army is doing things, that drove Prigozhin to rebel.
But an effective mercenary is a double-edged sword. “The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not,” Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, advising his sovereign against their employment: “if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness.” Putin would have been wise to listen.