Russia’s 72-hour “Special Military Operation” is now in its 16th month, and there are signs that Putin’s war of conquest may be about to devour him instead of Ukraine. The repercussions of a Russian military collapse would be earth-shaking.
Despite his best efforts to project strength, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the weakest and most precarious position of his career. The uncontested autocrat, who has ruled from the Kremlin for 23 years, may now be gazing into the abyss.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has shaken the Kremlin to its foundations. In the coming days, Putin must gingerly move forward with a purge to sort out loyalists from rebels; and he does so “blindfolded” – with no real idea how deep the Wagner conspiracy might go.
Building tensions at the top
For all his many sins, Prigozhin spoke truth to power. He told his Telegram channel that Russian troops were badly equipped and badly led. He said that leadership was corrupt, generals were inept, and brave Russian soldiers were dying because of half-baked battle plans, ammunition shortages and logistical snafus. All these faults he laid at the feet of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Though it is a felony in Russia to criticize the military, Prigozhin was allowed not only to vent, but escalate his war of words. There were no strongly worded rebuttals from the Kremlin. How could there be? The proof of what Prigozhin said could be read in the daily casualty records. Putin’s Ukrainian adventure was going off the rails.
What finally made Prigozhin snap?
Likely the strains of command and the Pyrrhic “victory” won by Wagner in Bakhmut contributed. Wagner forces were told they were fighting a “key battle” that would lay open a path to Kyiv. Prigozhin may have finally seen that he was being fed a lie.
Bakhmut is not now, and never was, a place of tactical or military significance. A victory by Russia or a loss by Ukraine at Bakhmut was essentially irrelevant. Yet Bakhmut became Russia’s military center of gravity in the east. Why?
Russia fought for the place because Putin demanded a victory. Ukraine fought at Bakhmut because it saw an opportunity to kill Russians. Luring Russian (and by extension Wagner) troops into a deadly three-dimensional urban battle, Ukrainian commanders made Russia pay a steep price for the privilege of grasping a chimeral victory.
And Wagner troops and Russian soldiers died in the tens of thousands. Prigozhin, never a patient or forgiving man, became irate.
Fostering a deadly grudge
Prigozhin spent weeks saying that Shoigu was depriving his soldiers of munitions – costing Russian lives. A competent commander-in-chief would have made certain his soldiers had the weapons and ammunition they needed. A strong president would have made his subordinates work together for the greater good – but Putin did nothing. Sphinx-like, he allowed the in-fighting between Prigozhin and Shoigu to escalate to dangerous levels.
It now appears that Shoigu executed a deliberate strategy to starve Wagner units of materiel, fuel, and ammunition. The entire charade was an attempt to extinguish Wagner’s combat power. Again, incredibly, this vile machination did not arouse concern from Putin – he may have even condoned it.
The fact that Shoigu was thereby killing Russian soldiers, and risking defeat, seemed not to matter. Feeding Wagner troops into a senseless meatgrinder was part of an internal Kremlin game between Shoigu and Prigozhin.
Possibly hoping to make his own position stronger by pitting subordinates against one another, Putin allowed his commanders to play a dangerous game – and the blowback we see today is epic.
The Prigozhin coup attempt
Not many military or intelligence analysts could have predicted that Prigozhin would launch an armed mutiny. Fewer could have imagined that after seizing a regional military command center Prigozhin would then order his troops on a 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) “raid” on Moscow.
And no one, anywhere, could have imagined that instead of crushing the Wagner columns as they closed in on the Kremlin, Putin would blink. True, the Russian strongman blustered about traitors – but then he folded, and offered amnesty to the rebels, and a precarious exile to the man who led them.
For better or worse, Wagner had evolved into the Russian military’s most effective force. As the war dragged on, Wagner spearheaded the few successful Russian operations and provided a backbone to Russian units whose morale was in free fall. And now, that spear is broken.
By exiling Prigozhin, and putting Wagner’s rank and file in limbo, Putin has lost 15,000 of what were arguably his best fighters. With Prigozhin gone, and Wagner evaporating, who will fight Putin’s war? And importantly, who will now lead the increasingly demoralized “loyal” troops?
By a process of elimination, Shoigu has become Putin’s principal support. And no one can say that the Defense Minister has been an effective wartime leader. Rather the opposite.
With Wagner out of the fight, Putin will need to rely exclusively on his regular troops, including conscripted ones. During Putin’s recent “mobilization” hundreds of thousands of conscripts were delivered to Ukraine – and did little to move the needle. Undertrained and poorly equipped, they fared badly – and Shoigu’s Defense Ministry is squarely to blame.
Nor is there an endless supply of poor and minorities for Putin to draft into Ukraine. Increasingly, Russia will need to gather fresh recruits from the Western part of the country, from cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow – a dire necessity that could make the consequences of the war ever more visible as Moscow mothers and fathers publicly mourn the deaths of their sons in Putin’s endless war.
Putin, far away in a bunker, seems to be unaware of how his actions are being perceived by others, in Russia and abroad. And ignorance is not bliss; it can be lethal.
The cancer of cronyism
Choosing people who are unqualified, corrupt, and incompetent has triggered an ever-expanding crisis in Russia’s national security sphere.
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a specialist on Russian affairs, spoke of Shoigu: “I don’t know why he [Putin] hangs on to him… [Shoigu] is kind of stupid… he has no military experience whatsoever. Nobody respects him… My Russian friends would say he must know something that Putin doesn’t want to get out.” Hardly the resume or qualifications of an inspiring commander.
Putin’s cronyism is quickly catching up with him – especially in the security sphere. Russia’s vaunted “hypersonic missiles” had been claimed to be “unstoppable” – yet Ukraine is stopping them – by the dozens. In a case of Stalinist déjà vu, Russian news reports say that the creators of the Kinzhal missile have since been jailed for treason.
In the last weeks, Russia’s deteriorating security situation has been remarkable. Ukrainian drones continue to strike targets across Russia, including the Kremlin itself. Prigozhin’s mutineers were able to waltz into Russia and across its military districts with impunity – much as the armed Russian dissident groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps, had done in their recent campaign against Belgorod.
In both cases, Shoigu’s Defense Ministry seemed incapable of resisting. It appeared that Russian troops merely stood aside and let events take their course. Wagner Group forces were not halted by Russian Border Guards, local police, the Rosgvardiya (Russian National Guard), the Russian Army, the Russian Interior Ministry, the FSB, or the GRU (military intelligence). Even Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops stood back and made no attempt to prevent the coup.
Most worrying was the attitude of normal Russian citizens, who in many cases waved as Wagner columns passed through their cities. Once they had seized and occupied the building of the Southern Military Command Center, the citizens of Rostov-on-Don brought them food.
Throughout the coup, Russia’s top commanders remained silent. And the quietest was Putin himself. Russian news reports indicate that during these critical hours, Russia’s President could not be reached by anyone – and now seems to have only spoken to Belarus’s dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko – only to whine to his puppet that Prigozhin was “not picking up the phone.”
After the putsch fizzled, rather than punish his army for failing to prevent an armed uprising, Putin gave them more medals. Ironically, the only part of the Russian government that did try to stop Wagner’s invaders was the Russian Air Force, whose Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, has now vanished amid rumors that he is facing treason charges.
Russians are getting the message
Data shows that Russian civilians are increasingly concerned about the economy. In the past year, the ruble has lost about 75 percent of its value against both the euro and the British pound. Russia’s ability to use hard currency is becoming incredibly expensive. So how much longer can Russia continue to finance a protracted war?
One of the often-cited reasons for the collapse of the USSR was that Moscow could not afford to spend on defense at the same rate as the West – trying to keep up with NATO led to bankruptcy and collapse.
While Ukraine waits to get F-16s, the Russian Army continues to struggle with basic supply chain issues. In another bit of post-Soviet déjà vu, Putin’s soldiers in Ukraine see that their Ukrainian opponents are becoming better equipped – even as Russian tank crews see 69-year-old T-54s shipped to them to replace more modern tanks lost in battle.
How it plays out from here
There are many signs that the Russian population’s patience is running thin. On Russian television, pro-war propaganda programs once dominated their time slots – their viewership is now declining steadily. Russian social media shows that pages supporting Prigozhin and Wagner are hot – those supporting Putin are stagnating.
Telegram channels are a popular means of delivering news in both Russia and Ukraine. Some of the most popular Ukraine-based Telegram channels are written in Russian – which means that Russians are receiving the unfiltered truth about how badly the war is going.
In Russia, you cannot criticize Putin, but you can criticize those around him. Though polling typically shows Putin with popularity rate of more than 70 percent, the Kremlin should be alarmed that United Russia, Putin’s personal political party, only has a 37.9 percent level of support. And this was according to a Kremlin-friendly source, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTSIOM).
According to the OSINT (open source) intelligence group Molfar, Russia has 37 private military companies (PMCs). What this means is that Putin has relinquished the state’s “monopoly on violence” – an indicator of the very basis of statehood. Control of military force is the key measure of a dictatorial regime’s grasp on power.
The Wagner coup has demonstrated that it is not Putin who controls the actions of these PMCs – but the oligarchs, a group of men whose financial interests and political leanings appear to be increasingly divergent from Putin’s.
Putin has allowed the creation of multiple private armies, over which he appears to have only nominal control. If fighting should break out among the oligarchs, using their private armies, Putin and Russia may have no ready means to enforce the peace. The threat to Putin, and to Russia itself would be dire.
A devastating multi-polar civil war, once unthinkable, is now a possibility. Imagine, if you will, a Lebanese-style civil war tearing Russia apart. The thought is chilling.
Though there is no decisive collapse – yet – of either the Russian Army or Russian society, there are plenty of signs to indicate that we have good reasons to be concerned.
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