The U.S. Intelligence Community has no doubt been constantly assessing the most important question for national security decision-makers in the aftermath of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s June 24 attempted mutiny against the Russian military — namely, how will the fallout from the revolt, however temporary, change Russia’s threat to the West? Is it greater or less?
The determining factors in approaching that question include the U.S. government’s ability to forecast Russia’s stability and predictability, which clearly is diminished coming out of this episode, owing to President Vladimir Putin’s weakened position. Most importantly, Putin’s image of being all-knowing and all-powerful, which facilitates his more than two decades of one-man rule, has been compromised. He is likely to have sustained a loss in confidence — and fear — among those within the institutions on which he depends: the military, the intelligence apparatus, and the security services. He can’t spin this to regain the status quo of the conditions with which he once ruled — absolute and unquestioned authority based on the expected repercussions of doing otherwise.
Putin now has choices to make, and for the moment, he appears to be seeking an illusory middle ground with half measures. He waited too long to address Prigozhin’s threat, in part probably because he believed the Wagner leader’s behavior and contributions served his own interests, and in part because he might have feared too heavy-handed an approach could backfire.
The result will be less-reliable Russian national security institutions, regardless of what Putin does now. And that atmosphere will make him — and Russia — less predictable, and complicate the task of anticipating near-term, over-the-horizon, and wild-card threats. Those threats might come from among the desperate, motivated by fear, or from the opportunists who see his vulnerability, and/or it may come from the dangers in how Putin responds to either. Insiders might have reevaluated their greater odds to succeed — or at least their survivability — by moving, or joining a move, against him.
Undermining Putin’s Narrative
Prigozhin’s mutiny might not mean that Putin is holding on by a thin thread, but it undermined the Russian leader’s narrative of invincibility and fearlessness which poses significant consequences over time. Perception is reality, at least in Russian politics. Putin’s popularity, despite – and in some ways because of — his many years of kleptocratic rule, had much to do with his strongman image. He appealed to Russians who sought stability as the country emerged from the 1998 financial crisis and the restoration of their pride as a world power. And he likewise appealed to those in the West, particularly Europe, where Russia’s economic integration and Putin’s longevity suggested continuity, and predictability. The war in Ukraine and Prigozhin’s revolt has undone all of that, though clearly not entirely … yet.
CIA Director William Burns spoke about the Ukraine war’s corrosive effect on Russian leadership in remarks to the Ditchley Foundation in England on July 1. “Disaffection with the war will continue to gnaw away at the Russian leadership beneath the steady diet of state propaganda and practiced repression,” Burns observed. Consider how Prigozhin’s revolt might impact Russian thinking in the context of the CIA’s recent appeal to Russians for clandestine cooperation. The video guiding Russians who have sensitive information how they can securely contact the Agency garnered 2.5 million views in its first week, according to Burns, albeit absent details on how many originated from Russia. “That disaffection,” Burns said, “creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us at CIA.”
Burns likely knows that history supports his point. I spent 34 years as a CIA Operations officer, spoke Russian, and served one of my three Chief of Station assignments in a former Soviet republic under the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)’s intrusive monitoring. I recall well the opportunities resulting after China’s 1989’s crackdown on protestors at Tiananmen Square and those from the reverberations following the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. I expect that today’s opportunities are even bigger.
Putin waited too long to act even before the mutiny, and he did so again during the day it unfolded, compromising his all-knowing, all-powerful image. It was clear long before that day that Putin had sustained damage already from his reluctance to repudiate or harness the mercenary leader, and that foreshadowed an inevitable showdown with potentially volatile consequences. And so it is that Putin faces not only the loss of confidence among Russia’s elite and across his military, intelligence, and security services, but perhaps more importantly, some loss of their fear.
Whether it was Putin’s deliberate calculation to use Prigozhin as a lightning rod or counterpoint to the formal military leadership, or that he was concerned about potential blowback based on Prigozhin’s increasing public popularity or capacity to retaliate, the Russian president ultimately chose to degrade the Wagner mercenary leader’s power obliquely, via one of his henchmen whom Prigozhin already had targeted for vociferous criticism — Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. On June 10, Shoigu ordered all Russian private military companies and their fighters to sign formal contracts placing them and their arms under his direct control by July 1.
U.S. intelligence reportedly had gathered “an extremely detailed and accurate picture” of Prigozhin’s plans to strike, “including where and how Wagner was planning to advance,” according to CNN. Prigozhin said in a June 26 recording that he moved up his plans following Shoigu’s announcement, asserting that his hand had been forced by Shoigu’s plan, which he claimed his fighters had uniformly rejected. Prigozhin also described his actions as a protest, rather than a coup.
The Kremlin’s Spin
The Kremlin will struggle to credibly spin this episode; though that hasn’t stopped it from trying to regain for Putin the status quo of absolute and unquestioned authority and depict a sense of normalcy. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov asserted at a news conference, that Russia would emerge “stronger and more resilient,” and dismissed the rebellion as insignificant.
Meanwhile, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s June 26 account and his press service’s earlier description of his role bringing an end to Prigozhin’s mutiny suggests unsurprisingly that negotiations might have actually been managed by Putin’s de facto deputy, Russian National Security Council President and former FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev as well as current FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov. It was the FSB that owned the original relationship with Prigozhin, who started out as a St. Petersburg hoodlum and spent 10 years in prison. It was the FSB that partnered with Prigozhin and brought him into Putin’s camp. And it was FSB Director Bortnikov, Lukashenko said, whose assurances Prigozhin sought before accepting the deal.
Yet curiously undermining the Kremlin’s own spin, during a theatrically choreographed June 27 speech in a Kremlin courtyard surrounded by Russian service members, Putin appeared to have revealed the seriousness with which he viewed the threat. He thanked the army and Russia’s security services for saving “our Motherland from upheaval” and stopping “a civil war.” It’s more characteristic for Putin to minimize rather than magnify threats that might cast him as weak, making his choice of words surprising, if not revealing to those watching from outside.
Putin now has choices to make to assure his survival: a wholesale cleansing of the country’s military, security, and intelligence institutions; or the piecemeal removal of expendable scapegoats. The latter would suggest the need to likewise offer a wider circle of stakeholders greater influence and authority to maintain their support and cohesion.
Either option leaves Putin less control over his own fate. A purge leaves Russia’s institutions less robust in prosecuting his war in Ukraine, repressing dissent, and ferreting out threats. Such harsh measures could boomerang and push some thinking their number might be coming up to act. And concessions would come at the expense of Putin’s own power and authority.
A Role for Russia’s National Guard?
The middle ground is limited and could come with diminishing returns. Putin can harden his and the government’s defenses by strengthening the Rosgvardiya, the National Guard that reports directly to him. The Rosgvardiya is organized and equipped to crush unarmed civilian protestors. Yet they demonstrated little inclination to engage Wagner’s forces, let alone fight them to the death, which seemed to be confirmed by General Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and current National Guard chief, several days after the Wagner “march” toward Moscow. Zolotov suggested he expected to receive the tanks, artillery, and advanced weaponry that might be necessary to fend off a serious challenge in the future.
But any material gains for the Rosgvardiya, including equipment the military might seize from Wagner or Russian military inventory, would necessarily come at the conventional army’s expense. What Zolotov receives, the army loses towards its war in Ukraine, considering its reportedly catastrophic material losses. Reporting in late May 2023 of the most recent data from the open source intelligence website Oryx noted that tank losses alone exceeded 2,000.
Of even greater political significance, however, might be how such augmentation could make the Rosgvardiya an alternative center of power and Zolotov a more credible, if not well-armed, potential Putin successor. Citing the Russian outlet Vedomosti reporting on July 3 from internal law enforcement sources, the Institute for the Study of War indicated that Russian law enforcement authorities were “considering reassigning the `Grom’ special units of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) to Rosgvardiya” following Putin’s June 26 meeting with heads of Russian law enforcement. But bigger is not necessarily better, as Vedomosti’s sources included those who criticized the move owing to the poor quality of the equipment, training, and leadership.
Putin may choose to further isolate himself from his subordinates as well as the public, or end up doing so by his actions. Gleb Karakulov, who served as a captain in the Federal Protection Service that provides personal security for Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials and who defected in late 2022, described the Russian president as “pathologically afraid for his life.” Karakulov confirmed details of an armored train network that the president uses for travel, Putin’s aversion to flying, identical offices in different cities, the Russian president’s strict personal quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic and even since then, and his escalating security protocols.
Yet following the mutiny, Putin has been unusually visible. His highly publicized visit to Dagestan, ostensibly to chair a meeting on domestic tourism, featured images of him kissing children, hugging women, shaking hands and posing for photos among adoring crowds. And a virtual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was another example of Putin trying to restore his image and the narrative that he has strong external backing. The carefully controlled and calculated exposure suggests an effort to show he is confident, fully in control, with the support of his people, Russia’s institutions, and key international partners.
Yet the reality remains that of an isolated and paranoid leader who allows but a few chosen voices whose skewed input arguably contributes to his detachment from reality. Russian institutions are systemically stove-piped and dysfunctional, and feed Putin with news and intelligence that aligns with his predisposed views and paranoia. Moreover, descriptions of Putin’s leadership style — alternatively micromanaging and absent — are manifested in the self-aggrandizement, corruption, and ineptitude among major institutions such as the FSB, the Defense Ministry, and the Finance Ministry that manage governance, security, the economy and the war.
The ensuing inertia and apathy create vulnerability to surprises and can enable catastrophic misunderstanding and overreaction, such as might have led to Putin’s flawed decision-making concerning Ukraine. Even if one believes Rosgvardiya’s Zolotov that the FSB had some two days advanced knowledge of Prigozhin’s plan, the security services then were either too late, ill-equipped to do anything about it, or unable to stir Putin into action.
Observable events suggest Putin is pursuing that illusory middle ground. General Sergei Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon” by the Russian press for his ruthlessness as Russia’s overall commander in Syria and then Ukraine for a brief period, now rumored to have been detained on suspicion of being in league with Prigozhin, might be the first military domino to fall. But he’s not likely the last senior Russian officer destined for the proverbial-or actual, gallows. Russia’s costly prosecution of the war suggests that the military’s dysfunction and questionable loyalties go far deeper than Surovikin. Still, rather than a purge, a more selective disappearance of senior officials has been complemented by what would appear to be a carrot. An official government decree granted a 10.5 percent raise to soldiers, police officers and other security agency employees.
Prigozhin Threat Not Necessarily Over
The threat from Prigozhin, too, is not necessarily over. Former CIA Director and Army General David Petraeus told CNN that Prigozhin had “lost his nerve” once his revolt “didn’t appear to be generating the kind of support that he had hoped it would” and should henceforth “be careful around open windows.” But whatever Prigozhin might have been thinking when he decided to turn that convoy around, it seems unlikely that he would have surrendered his personal and financial security without reliable guarantees, and it seems particularly unwise had he trusted any assurances offered in Lukashenka’s “deal.”
It is curious then, that Prigozhin would accede to the status quo by standing down without more than an ostensible – and likely unreliable — get-out-of-jail free card. Allowing that Prigozhin may have exaggerated the 25,000 troops he claimed under his command (though estimates have varied, and a U.K. figure in December suggested 20,000 in Russia and Ukraine alone based on population drops in prisons, where Wagner had been recruiting), the Wagner leader still could have held Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, where it met no resistance, and laid siege to Moscow at least temporarily without challenging its defenses in order to exact more substantial concessions. Doing so also would have provided him time and exposure to secure greater support from the Russian public and the armed forces, elements of which he no doubt envisioned rising to join his anti-corruption crusade.
Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian human rights activist living in Paris who facilitated a number of defections from Russia’s military, intelligence, and security services, suggested Prigozhin is holding “kompromat” over Putin. But while further revelations might be embarrassing, it’s unlikely any would be surprising or sufficiently shocking to undermine his domestic support.
Prigozhin’s own security might simply lie with the manpower, tanks, artillery, ammunition, and man-portable anti-armor and air defense weapons he retains, including some Western weapons likely captured in Ukraine. Wagner was required to return its equipment, and many of their fighters were still required to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1. The Russian army would rather not have to secure these weapons by force, a move that could spark further volatility, and Putin would suffer from the optics of fratricide and upheaval for such fighting, after he claimed credit for how his decisions negotiating and ultimately dropping charges against Prigozhin and his fighters were taken to avoid such an outcome. And doing so would also mean diverting and possibly bloodying Putin’s best military assets in Ukraine, from which he would draw for the Wagner weapons seizure.
It’s hard to tell whether Prigozhin is taking up Lukashenko’s offer to relocate his forces and their wares into Belarus or whether he hopes to continue running his worldwide operation from there. And while Lukashenka claimed on June 27 that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, there has been no first-hand confirmation of that, and Prigozhin didn’t say in his post-mutiny audio statement the previous day where he was located.
The New York Times reported, however, that commercial satellite imagery taken June 26 by Planet Labs, a private company with a network of shoebox-size satellites, “shows that Belarus is rapidly building what appear to be temporary structures at a deserted military base, revealing a possible location for Wagner fighters.” And a BBC investigation suggests that as of at least June 29, Wagner offices across Russia were still actively recruiting fighters for service in Ukraine and elsewhere.
And Russian bloggers were commenting on St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka’s claim from internal sources that Russian authorities returned more than 10 billion rubles (roughly $111 million) in cash, five gold bars, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars in cash to Prigozhin on July 2 that authorities had seized from Prigozhin-affiliated facilities in St. Petersburg on June 24. That the FSB would likely have been the agency which effected the seizure, it might be telling of its role and relationship with Prigozhin in supporting the assets’ return.
If Prigozhin is in Belarus and stays there, he would be surrounded by loyal fighters who may be motivated because they understand their vulnerability to reprisals should they leave Wagner, regardless of ostensible assurances in Lukashenka’s “deal.” And time will tell if the Kremlin can secure greater control over Prigozhin’s global enterprises. FSB and Russian law enforcement agency raids against Wagner offices across Russia are seizing assets and securing evidence, and Kremlin officials have been dispatched to Africa to reassure counterterrorism client states there that Wagner forces, which depend heavily on the Russian government for weapons, supplies, and agreements to operate in those countries, will continue their work.
Wagner’s international presence has included deployments to Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Sudan. According to Western, Arab and African officials speaking with the Wall Street Journal, many of the lucrative deals Wagner-linked companies struck with these governments were informal, reliant on smuggling and illicit transfers and personally negotiated by Prigozhin himself, complicating Moscow’s desire to insert itself.
While Putin still appears focused on the symptoms rather than the self-inflicted wounds that threaten his rule, Prigozhin is unlikely to go away quietly. But should Prigozhin mysteriously fall out of a window or succumb to a suspiciously delivered nerve agent, the infection he seeded into Putin’s political body is likely to fester and encourage — rather than scare off — future provocateurs.