“The sower of the wind, as they say, will reap the storm,” Putin declared.
Such logic may hold in the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors and make sense to an audience trapped in Russia’s state media information space. But 16 months after Putin launched his nation’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president finds himself weaker and more isolated than ever, his nation’s military reeling after a long, demoralizing series of failures, and his own grip on power seemingly as tenuous as it has ever been in the more than 23 years he has held sway in Moscow.
The weekend offered one of the clearest illustrations yet that Putin himself is reaping what he sowed. A bewildering chain of events saw an insurrection launched by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the commander of the influential Wagner mercenary company who had in recent months raged against the perceived incompetence and corruption of Russia’s military leadership. On Saturday, his forces marched virtually unopposed through the southern city of Rostov en route to Moscow, reaching positions just 120 miles outside of the capital.
Then, as onlookers feverishly speculated over the prospect of a coup or civil war convulsing Putin’s Russia, Prigozhin backed down by Saturday night. He announced that thanks to a deal supposedly brokered by the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, Wagner units would be returning to base, while Prigozhin himself appeared to depart for a form of exile in Belarus.
For the Kremlin, a jarring challenge to its control seemed to have been staved off. But the damage to Putin’s image and authority may be lasting. On Saturday morning, in the face of Prigozhin’s advance, Putin warned of the “brutal” response to be meted out on what he described as a “rebellion” launched by “traitors.” By the evening, his chief spokesman announced that looming charges against Prigozhin would be dropped and that Wagner fighters who did not participate in the mutiny would be offered contracts by the Russian Defense Ministry.
The climb-down revealed a fragility and instability at the heart of Russian power. Prigozhin, a former St. Petersburg hot dog vendor who, with Putin’s blessing, parlayed a successful government catering business into the creation of a huge private army, had long railed against the mismanagement of the war, explicitly calling out Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and army chief Vitaly Gerasimov. His angry videos spoke to the ordinary Russian servicemen dispatched to the bloody front lines, and revealed a growing cynicism and crisis of morale surrounding Putin’s war effort in Ukraine.
Analysts speculated that Putin allowed Prigozhin a long leash as part of his own politicking among circles of Kremlin elites. That Prigozhin then decided to fully turn against Putin’s establishment, to the applause of locals in Rostov and the acquiescence of confused Russian authorities on the road to Moscow, is the latest blow to the Russian president’s prestige and legitimacy since the launch of his disastrous “special military operation” in Ukraine.
“For Putin, it was a failure that the special military operation collapsed,” Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant known for his hawkish views, told my colleagues. “It was a failure that the West totally and firmly joined this war, and now it is a total failure that the most battle-ready part of the Russian armed forces turned against him, and the Russian authorities.”
“Putin has unwittingly launched a stress test of his own regime,” Stephen Kotkin, a preeminent historian of Russia and biographer of Stalin, told Foreign Affairs. “He had already lost his mystique with the bungling of the aggression against Ukraine. Mystique, once lost, is near impossible to regain.”
Intrigue swirls around what’s to come. Some analysts struggle to see Putin tolerating the presence of the insurrectionist forces within his camp in the months ahead. Others doubt Prigozhin will slip into obscurity in Minsk and reckon he may remain a parallel source of influence over the Russian public. For years, Putin consolidated his power by both suppressing any alternatives to his rule and cultivating a cohort of de facto warlords, like Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who seemed loyal to him if not the overall chain of command at the Kremlin.
Wagner forces, including detachments of convicts, proved to be among the most effective fighters in Russia’s attritional campaigns and were praised by Putin just a month ago for their service. In March, Russia’s rubber-stamp Duma, or parliament, passed a law making criticism of the country’s mercenaries punishable by up to five years in prison. Now, in an echo of the histories of ancient empires, the esteemed elite guard may prove to be a dangerous fifth column.
“It’s difficult to imagine a stable equilibrium after today,” observed Andras Toth-Czifra, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, commenting on developments Saturday. “Whoever gets the upper hand will aggravate the grievances of the other side; if no one does, someone will try soon. A lot of taboos have been broken.”
Over the weekend, Russia launched another huge barrage of missiles at Ukrainian cities, a sign that its appetite and capacity for destruction may not be dimmed despite the crisis at home. Analysts can barely trace the outlines of the fallout from Prigozhin’s aborted coup. “We don’t know if it’s over,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and former deputy secretary general of NATO, to my colleagues. “We can speculate all we want, but the fact is we have little idea of what happens next.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was unsparing in a Saturday evening address, speaking directly to the Russian people about their president’s culpability in the crisis. “The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia,” Zelensky said. “The longer this person is in the Kremlin, the more disasters there will be.”