Today brought new twists in the evolving drama of an apparently attempted mutiny against Russia’s military leadership and President Vladimir Putin. The developments illustrate the difficulty of quickly or easily assessing who has the upper hand in Russia’s opaque and disinformation-fueled system, especially considering the absence of reliable independent news reporting on the ground. Initial assessments also may be clouded by wishful thinking about Putin’s odds in Ukraine or his chances of political survival at home.

The revolt on June 24 by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his paramilitary Wagner Group had seemed to come to an anticlimactic resolution with public announcements by both sides of a deal brokered by Belarusian strongman and Putin ally Aleksandr Lukashenka. It included dropping criminal charges of rebellion against Prigozhin and letting him “leave for Belarus.” Prigozhin himself seemed to publicly agree to the deal, declaring his “march for justice” to be over, turning around the Wagner convoy that had rolled within 125 miles of Moscow, and leaving the Russian Southern District Military Headquarters with smiles and waves streamed on video

But after a day of silence and mystery yesterday surrounding the whereabouts of Putin, Prigozhin, and the officials Prigozhin had sought to oust – Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Army Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov – signs of a possibly more protracted power struggle emerged. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office declared today that the investigation of Prigozhin was in fact ongoing. Then, Shoigu resurfaced in state-distributed video, though undated, apparently intended to show him still firmly in charge. Even Putin was seen in a video congratulating young engineers at an industry forum, notably in a city south of Moscow that lies along the route Prigozhin’s convoy was taking to the capital just two days ago. More cryptically, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave remarks that seemed aimed at reassuring regimes in Mali and the Central African Republic that “Russian instructors,” which in the past referred to Wagner forces but is now less clear, would continue their work there, which had focused on countering insurgencies. “These relationships are beyond the scope of internal issues within the Wagner Group,” Lavrov said. “The recent upheaval within the group’s leadership will not have any bearing on our collaboration with our partners and friends.”

And then Prigozhin himself finally resurfaced, if reported audio is to be believed. An early translation generated by artificial intelligence and distributed by Russia watcher Kevin Rothrock on Twitter, as well as emerging news reporting, has Prigozhin defending his Wagner Group and his mutiny. He confirmed that the impetus for the revolt was two-fold: 1) a Russian Defense Ministry plan to wrest Wagner paramilitaries formally into the regular military as of July 1 and disband Wagner, and 2) an alleged air strike on a Wagner camp by regular Russian military forces that Prigozhin says killed 30 of his soldiers. Though Wagner had long been an auxiliary force and dependent on the Ministry of Defense for ammunition, they began acting increasingly independently as Prigozhin’s vehement criticism of the military’s poor performance in Ukraine escalated in the past year. 

But Prigozhin also seemed to try to assuage Putin’s ire over the rebellion, claiming today that Wagner’s takeover of the southern headquarters and its convoy streaming toward Moscow two days ago was intended as a “protest” rather than a coup of what Prigozhin called a “legally elected government.” He noted, too, the ease with which they moved and the gaps it exposed in the regular military’s security.

What’s Actually Going On and How Weak is Putin Really?

The shifting scenarios and statements, interspersed by long silences, and the notorious unreliability of any information emanating from Putin’s camp or from Prigozhin highlight the difficulty of discerning what’s really going on behind the scenes – or even knowing where those scenes are playing out. Prigozhin didn’t say where he was – is he indeed in Belarus? If so, under what circumstances? A generally reliable Russian media outlet today was reporting that camps were being built in Belarus, supposedly to hold detained Wagner forces. Or did Prigozhin escape the Kremlin’s clutches and go into hiding somewhere else, waiting to record a message until he had “proper communications” that could not be geolocated? (Prigozhin’s company had explained his absence yesterday by saying he would “answer questions when he will have access to proper communications,” possibly suggesting he may be concerned for his safety or perhaps in custody.) Likewise, the Shoigu video was undated and not independently confirmed.

While Prigozhin’s rebellion was indeed the most serious challenge yet to Putin’s more than two decades in power and  exposes “real cracks” – as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it yesterday – in Russia’s leadership structures, predictions that Putin has been significantly weakened should be taken with a measure of caution. It’s still early, and there are many potential theories about what has happened and what is to come. Beware also comparisons to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev – he was far weaker throughout his tenure than Putin ever was. 

Furthermore, most of Putin’s visible acolytes remained on his side during the standoff with Prigozhin, and the president (once prime minister) has perpetuated his power for many years with a brutal carrot-stick combination of illegal largesse and well-founded fears of persecution – even death. An unidentified senior western official told the Washington Post: “If Prigozhin intended to drive a wedge between the command of Russian Federation Armed Forces and the Kremlin he failed.” Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Post that the ease with which the Wagner convoy pushed north toward Moscow from Rostov was more a factor of what the journalists paraphrased as “the fear and apathy of local officials rather than active support for Prigozhin.”

It is also too soon to draw the conclusion from this episode that Putin backs down when confronted. That depends on the veracity of the deal with Lukashenka, and whether Prigozhin is captured or killed by Kremlin forces.  

Still, it seems inevitable that Putin’s exposure – and that of his inner circle – to this kind of global embarrassment and the underlying instability it reflects will plant additional seeds of doubt internally about his strength and viability in the long run, not to mention about the viability of the war effort itself. Washington Post reporters Catherine Belton (the author of the book “Putin’s People”) and Robyn Dixon wrote: “A recent sign that tension was mounting within the Russian elite was the public declaration earlier this month by an influential Russian MP — Konstantin Zatulin, close to senior members of Russia’s FSB security agency — that Moscow had failed to achieve any of its war aims and that many of them had become `senseless.’” Mikhail Zygar,  former editor-in-chief of now-exiled Russian independent channel TV Rain and author of the 2016 book “All the Kremlin’s Men,” described in The New Yorker “all the different clans,” within the Russian government and its military and security apparatuses. He observed, “There is the growing feeling that [Putin] is a lame duck, and they have to prepare for Russia after Putin.”

Harvard University Russian Studies Professor Timothy Colton floated one scenario for what could happen next time:

It is an open secret in Moscow that, whatever the complexities of public opinion at the mass level, many members of the Russian elite harbor deep misgivings about the war. This time, once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, they lined up with their absentee boss. How they will make future choices may be another matter. No more than ten or twelve members of Putin’s inner circle – if they could agree among themselves, demonstrate Prigozhin’s appetite for risk, and contrive an institutional formula for a national-unity government – could bring an end to the Putin era. The Russian precedent is the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev by the Soviet leadership in October 1964 and the initiation of a generation of oligarchic rule.

As for Lukashenka’s role, he is highly dependent on Putin, and Belarus is teeming with Russian forces, especially since Putin aided Lukashenka’s crackdown on street protests by millions of Belarusians after his regime falsified election results in 2020. So it’s hard to imagine Prigozhin would really feel safe in Belarus, if he had a choice of whether to go at all. And considering Putin’s documented penchant for domestic and transnational repression/assassination, including in the United States, Prigozhin may be safe only as long as Putin wants him to be.

Implications for Ukraine and Africa

As the saga continues to unfold, one of the key unanswered questions is what will be the impact on the Russian war effort in Ukraine and Russian-sponsored military operations elsewhere? 

Christopher Miller, a journalist with the Financial Times, reported yesterday that “Ukrainian officials said the power struggle in Russia brought no dramatic changes at the frontline but created opportunities to exploit the distraction and damaged morale of their enemy.” One Ukrainian soldier returning from the direction of Bakhmut, where the Wagner Group had been crucial to Russia’s extended and brutal capture of the city, told French news agency AFP, according to The Guardian: “As it attacked yesterday, Russia continued to attack today.”

If Prigozhin indeed manages to stay alive, ends up in Belarus, and solidifies his deal by continuing to aid Putin and his war in Ukraine, that could escalate the risk to NATO’s eastern flank. Lithuania’s president noted as much: “If Prigozhin or part of the Wagner group ends up in Belarus with unclear plans and unclear intentions, it will only mean that we need to further strengthen the security of our eastern borders.”

Another wild card in how all this plays out is the ramifications for Russian operations in Africa. The Wagner Group has been involved in Mali and the Central African Republic, under invitations from the governments to Russia to help fight insurgencies. The arrangements have dismayed western countries that were trying to provide support but have largely exited as a result of the Russian involvement. Earlier this year, United Nations experts called for an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by forces of Mali’s military junta and the Wagner Group. Separately, Open Source Intelligence Monitor reported on Twitter that the negotiations that led to the Putin-Prigozhin stand-down (if that’s what it really is) “are also reported to have included a ‘Stipulation’ that the Majority of Wagner PMC Forces will be Redeployed out of Russia and Ukraine to Africa.” That, too, could have significant ramifications for Russia’s strength on the frontlines in Ukraine.

Stepping back even further, while the Biden administration was admirably on top of Russia’s evolving plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the preceding months, and has gathered impressive allied support for Ukraine since then, any analysis of how the Russian power struggle plays out must take into account the initial overestimation of Russia’s military strength and organization. Just as the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine and Putin’s often bizarre behavior have exposed the underlying weaknesses of Putin’s regime, so too do they undermine arguments in favor of embracing autocrats based on a deluded impression of their “stability.” But how authoritarian regimes fall apart can vary tremendously and most often comes as a surprise, despite the world’s many years of experience with failed dictatorships. 

In any case, the fact that so much remains in flux in Russia’s leadership and that Wagner forces may be out of commission for the fight in Ukraine at least temporarily must be creating even more disarray than usual in the Russian war effort. But sheer numbers count, both in weapons and personnel, and Russia still exceeds Ukraine quantitatively. One question will be whether Ukraine can wield the new and improved weaponry flowing from the West and take advantage of the chaos in the Kremlin to resume outsmarting its foe, as it has so unexpectedly at so many junctures in the past 16 months.

IMAGE: Members of the Wagner group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, 2023. (Photo by ROMAN ROMOKHOV/AFP via Getty Images)