just asking questions

Why This May Be the Beginning of the End for Putin

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Contributor/Getty Images

Even Russia experts were confounded by the events of last weekend, when Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin — who said he was protesting the military’s treatment of his men and its management of the war in Ukraine — took control of a major Russian city, announced he would march with some of his soldiers to Moscow, and then abruptly agreed to an agreement that ended his revolt in exchange for amnesty and a new home in Belarus. Many questions remain about this strange episode, but it clearly represented a major blow to President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year-old rule. (On Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that according to U.S. officials, a powerful Prigozhin ally in Russia’s military knew about the plot in advance, further complicating matters.) For a little more clarity, I spoke with Aaron Schwartzbaum, a fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, about where the chaos leaves Putin, Prigozhin, and Russia.

Yevgeny Prigozhin is now apparently in Belarus, and Russia says the Wagner Group is handing over its heavy weaponry. This outcome, of Wagner becoming a diminished force, seemed predictable. So why do you think Prigozhin quit his march just when he appeared to have some leverage? 
Why he stopped is a mystery. But I think what it boils down to is that he was playing against the scenario he thought as most likely, which was Wagner being wholesale enveloped by the Russian military and Prigozhin losing everything — his turf, his influence, his source of money. He has been pretty explicit about that. Marching on Moscow, going against the Russian Ministry of Defense — those are extremely risky things to do, but he’s trading in a 100 percent chance of losing everything for an 85 percent chance of losing everything. If you’re looking at a 100 percent chance as your starting point, the 85 percent chance is actually a good trade.

It looks like he’s going to keep most of his guys — not a lot of them are signing up for the army — and he’ll get to keep his flow of capital from Africa and his footprint there. Considering that he was being charged with basically fomenting a mutiny, this might not be a terrible deal. He’s now allowed to kind of ride off into the sunset, have his fiefdom, and keep making money.

Plus he gets to live in Belarus. Who could pass that up? 
Sunny Minsk.

It seemed Vladimir Putin might have had to placate Prigozhin to a degree, since Wagner is clearly popular among some Russians. But now it looks like he’s not doing much placating. Which leads to the question: Why didn’t he just kill Prigozhin and some of these advancing forces in the first place?
A critical question and mystery here is how Prigozhin — even before this — has remained alive. He has been incredibly outspoken about his views on the conduct of the war. He was basically the one actor in Putin’s orbit who was allowed to speak candidly.

But Prigozhin had been useful to Putin until recently. My favorite relevant etymological fact I like to share is that Prigozhin — the name is a verb in Russian: prigoditsya, which means to come in handy, to be useful. That’s where his name comes from. And he was very useful. There’s a reason that his forces and convicts were used in Bakhmut: because it’s a gory, grisly, bloody, bloody urban grind. And it’s much easier to use convicts to take that kind of turf than traditional, professional soldiers.

To the question of why there was no bloodshed — I would make it clear that there was some. Thirteen Russian aircrew died getting shot down, which is frankly unbelievable. But why wasn’t there more? I don’t think it wasn’t in Putin’s interest. I don’t think he wanted to risk it. As a general matter, Putin tries to do as little as possible — sometimes while looking like he’s doing a lot. He avoids decisive steps and likes to keep his options open. And killing tens or hundreds of people can lead to unpredictable places — especially, as you mentioned, with the support among Telegram nationalists that Prigozhin enjoys. Putin has tried to keep that section of the population placated. Had Prigozhin’s actual aim been to kneecap Putin, there would have been more logic to it.

Prigozhin’s big rival is Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister. Putin recently gave him more authority over the war, which helped precipitate this whole crisis. I’m wondering why you think Putin did that — given that the war in Ukraine has gone so disastrously and that Wagner has been one of the few effective fighting forces there. Why is Shoigu so invincible?
It’s a great question. Shoigu is not a soldier by trade. I don’t think he has ever been in the armed forces. Prosecuting wars is not his core competency — navigating bureaucracy is. And I think, for Putin, that’s a benefit. In a government where the leader is afraid of really anyone or against anybody else having meaningful political capital, the people who get elevated in that kind of situation are not talented military operators. They’re people who are loyal technocrats who may not be good at waging war.

For what it’s worth, I think the difficulty with Russia’s prosecution of this war is partially the leadership but also that Putin seems to have planned so much of this in his own head and didn’t have bureaucratic buy-in or the forces required to do what he wanted. Had the generals — many of whom are competent — been roped in, they would’ve said, “You need an invasion force multiple times larger than what you have to achieve your political aim here.” But it makes sense if you think about Putin’s political prerogative. For an autocrat, staying in power is the principal aim.

But this war has been going so badly for Russia — I’m a little surprised that furthering the Russian chances of winning it is less important than the possibility of being overthrown, which had never seemed that likely.
I agree wholeheartedly that it has gone badly compared to expectations and plans, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the war is happening entirely outside of Russia — or almost entirely outside of it. Putin has control over the national information environment and has sidelined, if not arrested, most of the opposition domestically. So there’s not really a means for a narrative, the truth as it were, to come out.

Prigozhin did say during his march that the war was launched on false grounds from the beginning.
If you want to talk about the implications for Putin, this is a shocking event. It’s impossible to predict when the end is going to come, but the consensus, and it’s one I agree with, is that this is the beginning of the end. That doesn’t tell whether the end comes next month or in ten years, but I think this will go down as a critical event.

Why couldn’t Putin just brazen through it and continue on as before? 
I don’t think there’s any immediate threat to his governance, but let me give you a comparative case here, which is when Donald Trump publicly questioned U.S. commitments to NATO and whether we would intervene if Europe were attacked. Trump lost, we stayed in NATO, and nothing happened. But the fact that the possibility was publicly aired was a game changer that started processes in Europe. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. And for a moment, at least when this was happening over the weekend, Putin wasn’t reacting or making strong decisions. There are rumors he fled Moscow to St. Petersburg, and I don’t know whether those are true. But this basically made it publicly credible, feasible, and plausible that someone could mount a meaningful challenge to the government, take over cities, and Putin wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. And even though Putin has regained control, and will continue to maintain control for at least the foreseeable future, the possibility that someone could make a strong play and Putin would be in a position of weakness hadn’t really existed before.

An “emperor has no clothes” moment — to quote many people.
Exactly. The other way I’ve thought about it is — there’s a lot of analysis of Russia that postulates Putin is making lots of decisions independently of anybody else, that he’s pulling every lever in governance. And I think that’s inaccurate. It’s not a good way to look at it. I like to think of it more as a solar system, where Putin is the sun and gravity but there are other sizable actors. You’ve got your Jupiter in there. You’ve got other players that exert weight in the system. What happens now is essentially equivalent to the sun’s gravity wobbling for a second. Putin is back and exerting his pull. But in that moment when gravity wobbled, the orbits changed — maybe very slightly, maybe only by a few feet, but we may see consequences from that happening down the road.

Do you think this chaos helps Ukraine much on the battlefield? Especially given that the Wagner troops, as I’ve mentioned, were the most fearsome Russia had to offer and now their future seems unclear.
Obviously, we’ll have to see what happens, but I don’t think so. As best as I could track, Wagner had largely been pulled out of the Bakhmut area. They were a spent force that had been successful in combat while taking grievous losses and needed replenishment. And I don’t think Ukraine tried anything in this moment of paralysis, because its geographic options are limited. I do think a lot of Ukraine’s military and Ukrainians broadly had fun watching this. It was a bit of Schadenfreude watching Russia’s imperial policy come home — as it tends to do. But I don’t think this has a ton of direct military impact.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why This May Be the Beginning of the End for Putin