Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma. It’s been a bit of a slow news week, and it’s therefore hard to decide what to debate in our column, but this week I thought we could cover, I don’t know, maybe the armed insurrection in Russia?
Do you happen to have any thoughts on that small matter?
Emma Ashford: Well, my thoughts are a bit disorganized; like most Russia watchers, I didn’t get a lot of sleep this weekend!
But my goodness, what a shocking turn of events. If you’ve been living under a rock, here are the basics: On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian state-backed mercenary organization Wagner Group, escalated his war of words with senior Russian military commanders into action. He mutinied, and his forces seized the city of Rostov-on-Don— including its pivotal military headquarters—and drove much of the way to Moscow before a deal orchestrated by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko finally turned them around.
It was the biggest sign of instability we’ve seen in Russia since the 1993 coup attempt, and I have been frankly shocked by the folks in Washington celebrating Prigozhin’s actions, rather than worrying about the potential consequences.
MK: I was shocked at first, too. And then I wasn’t. Many people, including me, have predicted that the collapse of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime would be one potential outcome of the stalled war in Ukraine. It reminded me that, occasionally, unlikely foreign-policy scenarios do come to pass.
Then I was also surprised by how suddenly it all ended. I was mentally preparing for days, weeks, maybe even years of civil war in Russia, but the entire episode concluded in just about 24 hours.
I don’t know that I was “celebrating” Prigozhin, but I did see several opportunities to advance U.S. and Western interests if the mutiny had continued, and I was somewhat disappointed to see Putin reestablish control so quickly.
EA: I think you are misinterpreting it a bit. Prigozhin was not trying to overthrow Putin; that much is obvious from his recorded statements during the incident. If anything, the impression he gave was that he was trying to save Putin from the incompetent generals who are losing the war. That’s an assessment that’s since been bolstered by the disappearance of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a man known for his brutality and for being one of the few competent military leaders of the Russian campaign so far. Surovikin denounced Prigozhin early in the mutiny, but intelligence leaks now suggest that he might have had foreknowledge of the event. Certainly, he would have stood to gain from the removal of Russia’s current incompetent military leaders.
Prigozhin, meanwhile, didn’t even mention Putin until well into the incident—after Putin effectively denounced him—and it was clear from the confusion and from the eventual end to the incident that he really didn’t plan a coup. It was more of a mutiny. Prigozhin expected that regular Russian military units would back him up, and while many stood aside, no senior officials defected from Putin.
I’m skeptical that any of this is good for Western interests. Perhaps the chaos will allow Ukraine to make some battlefield gains? But even that doesn’t seem to have happened.
MK: It’s correct that Prigozhin was going after the Russian military leadership, not Putin. But a full-scale civil war between Wagner and the Russian military would not be good for Putin and the stability of his regime.
And a destabilized Russia could have presented several opportunities. With Russian military and Wagner forces fighting each other, it would have been easier for Ukraine to win the war and take back all of its sovereign territory, including Crimea. With Russia distracted and focused internally, it could have been easier to fast-track Ukraine’s NATO membership, including possibly by the July NATO summit in Vilnius. And the biggest defense problem facing the United States is how to deter China and Russia—two nuclear-armed great powers increasingly aligned—at the same time. That problem is a lot easier to manage with Russia off the chessboard.
Of course, there would have been serious risks as well—like the danger of loose Russian nukes. And this threat has still not entirely disappeared. But on balance, I think U.S. interests are better served by a Russia that is too weak than one that is too strong.
EA: Let me give you some reasons why we should be worried. First, whoever replaces Putin, particularly in the context of this war, is likely to be worse. The liberal opposition has been neutered, and the most powerful remaining political force in Russia is the pro-war right. Putin, strange though it sounds, is not as extreme as many of them. Prigozhin wasn’t really a viable candidate to replace Putin anyway, as he has no power base of his own in Russian politics aside from his mercenaries. But could you imagine someone more politically connected and with his views in the Kremlin? It would be disastrous.
Second, during the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s administration worried about one thing. It was the same thing that the Clinton administration worried about during the 1993 coup attempt against Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin: loose nukes.
I think you’re underplaying it. No one wants to mess around with civil unrest in a nuclear power. The last time a Russian government collapsed under pressure of war and revolution, it gave the world a chaotic civil war and the rise of the Soviet Union. You really want to repeat that with nuclear weapons?
And finally, Putin has been weakened politically by this stunt. There’s a lot of good research on authoritarian leaders—particularly those dependent on a cult of personality—who face challenges to their rule or who risk losing in war. Those challenges don’t typically make them more likely to compromise. They make them more likely to double down, doing what scholars call “gambling for resurrection.” In short: If a leader expects that losing a war will hurt them politically, they have every incentive to keep fighting in the hope, however slim, that they can turn things around.
MK: I agree those are real risks. Indeed, I worried that this could become history’s first nuclear civil war. Would Prigozhin try to seize Russian nukes? Would the Russian military be tempted to nuke Wagner forces? Fortunately, we did not find out this time, but the risk remains. Prigozhin is in Belarus, where Putin has stationed nuclear weapons. What if Prigozhin tries to overthrow Lukashenko or conspires with him to stand up to Putin? Presumably, they would both like to be less beholden to the Kremlin.
But Putin was weakened by the mutiny even if this one failed in the end. I think it is now more likely that we see future internal threats to Putin’s rule.
EA: I agree with that. I just think it won’t necessarily be good for the United States.
MK: Why is it bad for Washington?
EA: What we saw this weekend is that the Russian people and military are not happy with their leaders, nor with the war in Ukraine. Few actively supported Prigozhin. But the cheers his mercenaries received as they left Rostov-on-Don suggest that his goals had at least some support. I don’t think Putin is losing popularity because he is fighting in Ukraine; I think he’s losing popularity because the war is going badly. It will be extremely interesting to see whether he takes that message to heart. He could react here by removing incompetent military leaders like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or by purging competent military leaders like Surovikin out of fear that they’ll back future attempts to weaken him. So far, it looks like he’s going for the latter strategy.
This doesn’t seem to me to be great for Ukraine, either. Do you think it’ll be able to capitalize on this incident? Thus far, it seems like this big offensive is making remarkably little headway.
MK: On balance, I still think this is good for Ukraine. If Putin and other Russian leaders are focusing more attention and resources on internal security threats, that means less focus on the war effort.
Moreover, Wagner, Prigozhin, and Surovikin were the most effective Russian fighting forces on the battlefield in Ukraine. Now they have been removed. It won’t be as significant as a full-blown Russian civil war for Ukraine’s chances on the battlefield, but, overall, the failed mutiny helps Kyiv’s war effort.
Do you disagree?
EA: Wagner was moderately effective on the offense around Bakhmut, but it mostly achieved its aims by using its troops as cannon fodder. And a few weeks prior to this incident, it had already been rotated away from the front lines, as Russia prepared itself for defensive fighting this summer. So I think the effects are likely to be fairly minimal.
I worry that this whole incident may make it less likely that the conflict can be ended through negotiations. If Putin fears looking weak, he may not wish to engage in diplomacy, and that would mean that the war lasts longer. So on balance, I think Ukraine gets minimal military opportunity from this and potentially faces a longer, grinding war. Not a great trade-off.
Why do you think we haven’t seen the Ukrainians capitalizing on this more?
MK: They are trying, and they are making some gains, but, as you know, reclaiming territory from dug-in defending enemy forces is not easy.
On the other hand, the complete collapse of the Russian military position in Ukraine at some point seems somewhat more likely today than it did last week. This may buoy the spirits of Ukraine and its Western backers to keep fighting for total victory—which I think is the right approach. In addition, 3,000 Chechen fighters were pulled back from Ukraine to defend Moscow, weakening Russia’s defenses.
EA: To be frank, I think it just highlights the risks of a long-running conflict in Ukraine. You hear a lot in Washington about the low costs to the United States of the war in Ukraine, but substantial instability in Russia would be a serious strategic problem for the United States, and prolonging the war makes that more likely.
Do you think it will make any difference in the diplomatic fight? It is certainly possible that this could lower Russia’s stature among countries in the global south.
MK: That is another important implication of this episode. Let’s start with China. Xi Jinping is not pleased. He wants a strong Russia that can threaten the West. His personal bond with Putin is stronger than China’s bond with Russia. He backed Putin’s war effort thinking (like Putin) that taking Ukraine would be a cakewalk. Now, the war is dragging on. Russia grows progressively weaker. And Putin’s days in office might be numbered. Xi’s alliance with Russia is growing to resemble his alliance with North Korea—a partnership with nuclear-armed, near-failing states run by madmen is as much a liability as an asset.
He is probably wondering if he bet on the wrong horse, as Craig Singleton wrote in FP the other day. James Palmer also touched on the implications for Beijing in FP’s China Brief this week, and the Financial Times has an interesting op-ed arguing that this sort of split would have never happened in the People’s Liberation Army.
EA: It’s not like he has much choice. The Russia-China axis has always been more about necessity than friendship, even if Xi and Putin do like one another. Xi might be wondering whether he bet on the wrong horse, but without any hopes for rapprochement with the United States, he doesn’t have many options.
MK: That is right.
But a slightly different dynamic may be playing out in the global south. Countries like India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil do not like that Putin invaded his neighbor, but they figured that Russia is a major power and it is in their interests to maintain good relations with Putin. But, if Putin may be overthrown in a coup, or Russia is on the verge of becoming a failed state, they may reconsider that calculation. They will want to be on the right side of history and have good relations with Moscow’s future leaders—even if they are not yet quite sure who that might be.
This could be an opportunity for Western diplomats to make renewed attempts to drive a wedge between Russia and these hedging states.
EA: Sure, Washington could do more to persuade these states if it tried. But policymakers are also overestimating what can be achieved with diplomacy here, I think. The factors pulling states in the global south toward Russia have more to do with economics: energy, food, etc. Those haven’t been impacted at all.
The one practical area of impact may be on the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa. Right now, it appears that the group will continue to exist and operate, but elements of it in Ukraine will be brought under Russian military command. It’s not yet clear what that means for the mercenary work the group has been doing across Africa in recent years. The loss of those services—which include everything from on-demand election meddling to counterterrorism—could prove disruptive.
MK: Yes, Rama Yade, the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, argues that this could have big implications, particularly for Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Sudan. Will these countries need to choose between loyalty to Putin or Prigozhin? Will Wagner be as effective if it is brought under the formal control of the Russian military? If it remains quasi-independent, will it receive the resources it needs from Moscow? She also points out that Wagner’s information operations have been very effective in swaying opinion in the region, so that might also change.
This is another potential opportunity to weaken Russian influence.
EA: If the regime is so weak it’s about to fall, then why do other countries need to worry about weakening Russian influence? Either Russia is weak and they don’t need to worry as much, or it’s a significant threat that needs to be countered. You can’t have it both ways.
MK: Its foundations are weak, but its foreign policy is dangerous and destabilizing.
EA: That sounds like a cop-out. But it will have to wait for next time. I have my performance review with my boss in a couple of hours, and I’m hoping to try all the latest mercenary negotiating tactics. First up: round up my allies, get in our tanks, and drive toward his house unless he promises to raise my salary. What do you think? A successful approach?
MK: You should advise your husband to start looking for real estate in Belarus.