Did the Wagner drama expose Putin’s weakness?
Two months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced the biggest test of his 23-year reign, when Yevgeny V Prigozhin, chief of the paramilitary Wagner Group, seized control of a Russian military office in the city of Rostov-on-Don and made a brief attempt to march in Moscow. The insurrection by the Russian strongman's one-time ally led to sprawling commentary in Western media, which jumped at the sight of Putin's seemingly "weakening grip" over a nation that is, largely and solely, just his.
Theories were concocted in galore that the rebellion panning out would disarray the Russian military, turn the Kremlin upside down, and possibly end the Ukraine war. For context, the Wagner Group has played a significant role in the war against Ukraine, spearheading some of the bloodiest battles in the conflict, including the fight to conquer Bakhmut, which killed thousands. Putin has publicly said that the Russian state paid Wagner almost $1 billion in the first year of the war. Some commentators perceived that, without the mercenary group, the Russian front would collapse – none of which materialised.
The mutiny turned out to be nothing but a short-lived moment of humiliation for Russia's leader, catapulted by Western journalistic cliches that mistakenly examine Russia's strictly personalist dictatorship through the black-and-white lens of Western liberal conceptions of dictatorship. Even juxtaposing Putin's Russia with Stalin's doesn't take us far enough to understand what's going on today. Though the Stalin era was brutally repressive, it was not as unpredictable and arbitrary as the current state of affairs.
The absence of the Wagner Group has not hurt Russia's position in the Ukraine war, nor has it objectively created negative ripple effects on the morale of the Russian military as analysts had predicted. The Russian Federation has not been fragmented and the military has instead held off against the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Bereft of a proper framework to understand the hidden Kremlin politics, commentators and analysts have approached the past two months of Prigozhin-filled headlines with wishful thinking and fantasies of a dark political thriller in the making.
The absence of the Wagner Group has not hurt Russia's position in the Ukraine war, nor has it objectively created negative ripple effects on the morale of the Russian military as analysts had predicted. The Russian Federation has not been fragmented and the military has instead held off against the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Putin's response in the aftermath of the mutiny led to a universal conjecture that he is "weak." Ukrainian President Zelensky used the same label to criticise his adversary. Despite calling the Wagner chief a "traitor," Putin allowed him to strike a deal with Belarus and leave Russia for exile, invited him for a three-hour chat at the Kremlin, and dropped formal charges against him. For each and every day that Prigozhin lived, it reinforced the impression of "Putin's weakness" in the West. The lack of violence in the first response, divorced from the usual course of Russia's reputation for deceit, paved the way for the West's shortsighted discourse on Putin's political strength.
Then, two months from the day the Wagner chief stepped out to betray Putin, the expected fate arrived. Prigozhin is now reportedly dead in a plane crash, with some of his top lieutenants. The crash also came the same day Gen Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian air forces, was dismissed. Surovikin was close to the Wagner Group, which lends itself to a plausible theory of a calculated, carefully planned purge of those associated with the mutiny – the ultimate act of betrayal against Putin.
The information regarding what caused the crash remains suspicious. While at first, it seemed like a missile from the ground shot the aircraft down, US intelligence now suggests it was sabotage with an explosive onboard. Whatever it was – and whether the Wagner chief is actually dead or in some secret cave somewhere – there seems to be little confusion among observers that it was Putin's handiwork. Though the Kremlin has dismissed the claims of Prigozhin's assassination as an "absolute lie," leaders around the world, including US President Joe Biden, are seemingly not surprised at Prigozhin's fate.
Things often happen in Putin's Russia like dark magic, with rarely any explanations or conclusions. People fall from windows "by accident," and dissenters coincidentally die by suicide. A long series of mysterious events in the past two decades – such as the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Putin's biggest opponent, and the sudden death of former Russian KGB officer, and Kremlin's foe, Alexander V Litvinenko from radiation poisoning – have all been perceived as Putin's cunning ways of "payback" and his political prowess.
Yet, with Prigozhin's demise, the Western media has been more reserved at drawing conclusions that uphold the narrative of Putin's sustained grip over Russia. The leaderless Wagner Group, with its fighters stranded across multiple countries, is said to be finished, and in the hands of Vladimir Putin, who can frankly do anything he wants with the remnants of it. Still, rather ridiculously, the fact that Prigozhin was alive for the past two months is being analysed by commentators in Western media as a reminder that Putin is weak.
The whole Wagner saga has been interpreted as an embodiment of domestic distrust towards Putin among the ranks of Russian elites and private military organisations. But that doesn't even matter. The Wagner Group's demise only shows that the regime's strength, and Putin's control, are largely disconnected from the will of the Russian people, including the elites. The fact that such a high-profile political challenger was thrown off the scene reflects the unbound nature of political options that Putin still has.
We all assumed that Prigozhin was alive on borrowed time. But to hold on to the trajectory of circumstances in that borrowed time, only to purposely underscore Putin's weakness, is completely far-fetched and unproductive. If the ruthless leader's revenge was coming, then wouldn't the guarantees of safety that Putin gave to Prigozhin have all been a part of his twisted game? This remains the least analysed aspect of the Wagner drama in the Western circle.
Let's face it, amid the wildfire of speculations, no one will actually know what happened. But if we need to gauge anything about Putin's Russia, it's that Putin is Russia.
So, Western media can sing the "Putin is weakened" song as much as they desire. But it will play in a vacuum of meaningless conjecture that pushes us further away from truly understanding how things work in a dictatorial system where the leader is the system, and from understanding the actual power of the very leader whose political decisions are severely costing the entire global system.
Ramisa Rob is a journalist at The Daily Star.