AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The events of the past weekend have rammed home a basic truth about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, revealed by the Ukraine War, but which has been the case since its foundation: It is weak.
Inheriting a Russia that was seen as deeply troubled from Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin faced a daunting task in reversing its decline, restoring somewhat more honest government, and making it a world power once again. He opted to not even try, rather embracing a “smoke and mirrors” approach of trying to convince Russians and the entire world that he was making Russia strong again.
With the Russian army bogged down in Ukraine, Putin’s only hope now is that he can keep up the act long enough to convince Western voters to give up. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow makes that hard, if not impossible, as it exposes how vulnerable Putin truly is.
Putin’s system has always run on illusions rather than underlying realities. The first of these illusions was Putin himself. Putin liked to portray himself as an elite member of an elite order. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB launched a branding exercise to portray itself not as the thuggish arm of a corrupt system, but rather as the one competent element, filled with dedicated individuals who did their duty even if it was distasteful.
Forgotten was the hash the KGB made of the August 1991 coup. Even more forgotten was Vladimir Putin’s actual role in those events.
Contrary to the myth that he was a member of the elite, Putin’s own admission to the KGB academy appears to have been the result of affirmative action for the children of the working class and peasants. His posting in East Germany, aiding the Stasi in suppressing what was seen as harmless if not imaginary domestic opponents, was a far cry from diplomatically relevant postings in the West, or helping run proxy wars in Africa.
Putin spent the 1991 coup with his boss, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, incommunicado, ignoring calls from both their nominal bosses, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, until it was clear who would win.
The success that oligarch-controlled media had in selling Vladimir Putin as some sort of patriotic paragon of a Knights Templar-esque KGB led Putin and his advisers to embrace media manipulation as a form of governing. Americans with limited exposure discuss Russian “disinformation.” They ignore, however, that the entire Russian system has operated on the assumption that by controlling narratives one can influence if not control reality.
Putin’s image was at the core of these fantasies. It was the image of a man who fought oligarchs, met with world leaders, and made Russia a world power again. It did not matter if economic growth was a consequence of commodity prices, or if Russia underperformed virtually every other developing economy when the 1990s were taken into account.
Russia’s economic boom, underlined by ostentatious displays of wealth, gave the impression of success. This was at the root of Putin’s alliance with the oligarchs. The intuitive assumption among Westerners was that the oligarchs made Russia look corrupt. But the reality was that the presence of rich and connected Russians in the haunts of the global elites, owning major sports teams, yachts, and businesses, sent the message that “only a wealthy and powerful country could produce such wealthy and powerful people.”
The image of power is how Putin managed to compensate ordinary Russians whose living standards stopped rising after 2011 regardless of the performance of commodity prices. That Russian oligarchs were getting richer meant Russia was. The ownership of international icons such as the Chelsea football club by Russians meant Russia owned them.
This prestige was sold abroad with Russia’s interventions in Syria and Africa. It was also why whatever resources were put into Russian influence operations in the West, were dwarfed by misinformation efforts aimed at promoting the conspiracy theories that Russia was responsible for Trump and Brexit.
Putin was more interested in foreigners believing he was powerful enough to influence foreign elections than he was in any possible blowback. Those spreading Russiagate conspiracy theories did more to advance Putin’s prestige and global influence than anything his agents attempted.
Which brings us to Ukraine and Wagner. It is an error to blame the war on the prospect of NATO expansion. There was no near-term prospect with Hungarian and Turkish vetoes. Ukraine did not pose an existential threat to Russia.
However, a failure to subjugate Ukraine politically posed an existential threat to the myths that underpinned Putin’s rule. What mattered was not what Putin got or didn’t get in terms of terms and conditions. What mattered was that, as with his invasion of Georgia in 2008 or intervention in Syria, Russia had to be seen to “win,” which increasingly meant the West either had to concede a loss or Putin did. The latter was not an acceptable option.
The Russian battle plan for the invasion of Ukraine made no real-world military sense. It was based on a dash to Kyiv, including landing 200 of Russia’s most elite airborne forces outside of Kyiv’s main airport.
But it was not senseless. The rationale was to create the impression of an overwhelming Russian success by getting some Russian forces into Kyiv in the expectation that if Russian forces were seen in the capital, even if they were aimlessly firing into the air, it would cause the government to flee and Ukrainian units to surrender.
This explains Russian disinformation efforts to suggest that Zelensky had fled to Poland. If Russia could convince Ukraine and the world it had won in 36 hours, it would have. And the evidence is it even (briefly) fooled U.S. intelligence, which was suggesting Kyiv would fall within 72 hours even two days into the war.
With the campaign for Ukraine bogged down, Russia suffering under sanctions, and no clear military aims, much less a political exit strategy, Putin’s regime has resorted to the same sort of maskirovka, or deception practiced at home and abroad. The regime created dramas including developments which did not occur (the Ukrainian commander-in-chief has mysteriously died in a German hospital several times) and encouraged a competitive atmosphere where military bloggers such as Igor Strelkov attack or praise various generals. It allows for the illusion of real politics and a debate over the war without discussing genuine questions.
There were various characters featured in this drama. Former President Dmitry Medvedev appears to have played a possibly intoxicated nuclear warmonger. Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya cosplayed Genghis Khan. But the most unexpected figure to rise to prominence was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the CEO of the Wagner mercenary group.
Prigozhin is an unusual target for public adulation. A former career criminal, his bald head and short stature do not indicate charisma. He is half-Jewish. His background was that of Putin’s cook and the manager of grocery and gambling chains before being made the CEO of Wagner, a front man for the actual special operations veterans who ran the company on a day-to-day basis.
The closest parallel with Prigozhin is Putin himself, which may be why the two are having a falling out. Much as Putin rewrote history to turn the KGB into the only competent and patriotic body within a corrupt and failing system, Prigozhin did the same with Wagner.
In Prigozhin’s favored version of events, while the forces of the Ministry of Defense retreated in the face of Ukrainians, Wagner fought and took Bakhmut. While Russian politicians like Medvedev tweet, Prigozhin is on the front-line with his men. In effect, Prigozhin sold the narrative that Wagner is the only element of the Russian military or state which is patriotic, honest, and effective, and that Yevgeny Prigozhin is the man who made it so.
Nominally, this messaging is not political. Prigozhin is attacking the mismanagement of the war by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, not Putin himself.
Yet Putin cannot have helped but see this messaging as political, not least because it was precisely the messaging Putin himself used. If Wagner is the only effectively run institution in Russia, and Prigozhin is the only effective manager, then the implication is that Putin presides over a system where nothing else runs.
In turn, this logic suggests that if the Russian military was run like Wagner, then the war would be won. This is a very short step from suggesting that if Russia were run by the CEO of Wagner, it would be much more effectively run.
Debate over whether Prigozhin turned on Putin last weekend is beside the point. His own image, and the message he was promoting, was seditious. Worse, it was striking a chord with disgruntled Russians.
That was why Putin, not the Ministry of Defense, ordered that all private military forces operating for Russia in Ukraine be forced to sign contracts by July 1. It was not merely or perhaps even primarily about removing Prigozhin’s command. It was about removing the ability of Wagner to embarrass the Kremlin and provide Prigozhin a platform for suggesting he could run the military, and implicitly Russia, better than Putin.
Prigozhin was already trapped before he launched his “revolt.” The question was whether he would quietly allow his enemies to close in or bid for a stronger negotiating position.
It seems unlikely Prigozhin wanted to challenge Putin – not out of personal loyalty, but because even he suspected he could not win. He may well have wanted out of the Ukraine theater which for Wagner was a loss-leader – great for the reputation and brand in Africa and the Middle East, but costly in manpower and negative in profits. The gains to his reputation were beginning to be outweighed by the enemies he was making. He would likely have been happy to retire out of Russia if he could maintain his lucrative Africa operations.
That is more or less the deal he got. The manner in which it was agreed, however, was probably not what he or Putin intended.
Prigozhin’s march on Moscow was met with near total panic among the Russian elite, and a reluctance of the Russian military to use force to stop him. No Russian general, especially not Shoigu, wanted to give the order to slaughter the heroes of Bakhmut, and thereby set himself up for blame if the war was lost.
Prigozhin probably could have counted on a delay in the use of force. What may have disturbed him and the Kremlin was the popular reaction. Russians mobbed Wagner tanks in Rostov-on-Don, treating the mercenaries, many of whom were hardened former criminals, as liberators.
At best, the popular reaction to the prospect of the Kremlin falling was that things “couldn’t get much worse.” It is doubtful if Putin or most of his subordinates believe they are popular. But the total absence of support must have been disturbing.
That reaction may also have pushed both sides to negotiations. The question was never why Prigozhin abandoned his march, but what would have happened if he reached Moscow. He lacked the troops to control the capital, and no basis on which to claim legitimacy. He would have had to turn to the Russian people, the West, or both.
Here, the limited nature of what transpired becomes apparent. Prigozhin is not a liberal, and not even really a populist. He is a creation of the Putin system, and even if he genuinely has turned on Putin, someone like him never could have existed in another system, especially a democratic one.
Wagner’s criticisms of corrupt officials such as Shoigu only resonated in a strictly curtailed political sphere where how people managed things was open to griping, but not what sort of things they should be trying to accomplish.
Within the system, the idea that the Russian people should be able to do something about Shoigu was inconceivable. They needed someone like Prigozhin to do it for them. His popularity was because he promised to hang the generals and ministers, not because people liked him.
Prigozhin could not risk becoming a revolutionary because he could not prosper in it. He could not reconcile Western support with his brand appeal either. Wagner’s operations in Africa counted more to him than how Russia was governed, and Wagner could not exist after a revolution.
If Prigozhin needed Putinism to survive for Wagner to do so, Putin needed to stop Wagner himself, as his system had proven unable to do so. The march had revealed that the entire edifice rests on the elite’s universal fear of the alternative to Putin. That is real, and for the first time in twenty-three years, Putin made a deal with reality.
Prigozhin’s revolt has without a doubt shaken up Putin’s inner circle. The immediate impacts on the war in Ukraine are limited, though in the longer run Wagner’s role is over and morale is likely to take a major hit.
The true impact is that the wall of myth surrounding Putin’s regime is broken. Russia is not some sort of alternative model of an Orthodox civilizational state. It is a Potemkin village built on top of an unstable feudal mafia. The African leaders Putin cultivated may take his calls, but it is Prigozhin’s services they will seek.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.