This paper is a strawman intended to generate discussion and thinking. Many commentators and experts may disagree with all or at least parts of the strawman; however, its purpose is not to foretell the future but outline some factors that led to the failure, why it almost succeeded and potential implications.
Why did the rebellion fail?
Prigozhin needed either direct support or a policy of non-intervention from enough of the Russian Security Forces between Rostov on Don and the Kremlin for the rebellion to succeed. It is likely that Prigozhin expected to gain the allegiance of senior Russian officers and military personnel and it is conceivable that he received plenty of indications of support from senior leaders for his narrative about failed leadership of the Ukraine War. However, this expectation received a major blow when the Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin condemned Prigozhin’s call for an armed rebellion. Furthermore, Putin’s public statement was a show of strength and may have been enough to draw people back to him. And Putin comparing Prigozhin’s rebellion to the 1917 Russian Revolution, warning of a repeat of such events, may also have deterred vacillating officers. So, it is likely that, despite probable support from within the Kremlin for Prigozhin’s building narrative, he miscalculated how much of this support would transfer into support for the armed rebellion. As a result, he failed to gain enough support to ensure his force would reach the Kremlin unmolested.
Why did it almost succeed?
Prigozhin met little initial resistance for the distance he advanced. This advance highlighted Russia’s lack of capability to promptly deploy forces to counter threats. This lack of capability is likely to be a combination of poor decision making which could indicate that some decision-makers wavered in whom to support and the degradation of Russian reserve units that are held back in Russia. It should also be noted that even though Russian authorities mobilised the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) they were highly ineffective. The Rosgvardia, whose sole purpose is to protect against internal security threats, failed to resist the armed rebellion allowing Wagner to capture critical military infrastructure in Rostov-on-Don and march towards Moscow. This will likely pose a significant worry to Putin should there be any future incidents.
What are the implications?
There are several significant implications:
It will be most concerning for Putin that the Kremlin was surprised by this rebellion. It is evidence that Russian Intelligence Services, despite Prigozhin’s rhetoric becoming increasingly strident, were not monitoring the potential for such a rebellion. As a result, Putin’s response is likely to be a form of violent purge. Russia’s history is replete with violent purges to address perceived threats so agents of the Kremlin will be seeking out any person who has a link to Wagner, Prigozhin and his supporters. We are likely to see changes amongst the current ‘siloviki’ who hold much of the Kremlin’s power.
Weakened Russian Army in Ukraine.
Regardless of the quick outcome of this rebellion, the Russian Army’s leadership in Ukraine is highly likely to be weaker; when officers should be leading, they will be looking at their backs to see whether the purge is coming their way. Moreover, the practical undermining of Wagner’s role will leave several holes in the defensive lines that will need plugging quickly. The combination will be more severe damage to the morale of the Russian Army which will provide opportunity for the Ukrainian attacking forces.
Prigozhin’s armed rebellion combined with Putin fleeing to St Petersburg will be interpreted as a sign of substantial weakness; as a result, Putin will no longer be considered the apex predator that he once was. It follows that life after Putin is much closer than anyone would have considered in February 2022. Individuals and groups from the current siloviki, and oligarchs, will be calculating if and when to challenge the current status quo using their positions of power and wealth to construct potential allies for a future attempt to overthrow Putin.
The Russian People.
The implications for Putin will lead to a climate of fear for the population of Russia. An increase in visible security presence, including checkpoints where papers will be studied, is highly likely. People perceived to be aligned to Prigozhin, or other potential competitors, will be arrested and interrogated. And the performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine is likely to be worse resulting in even greater casualties. It is possible that this rebellion gives Putin more reason to call for a general mobilisation of people and the economy for the war. And it is possible that people connected to the West will be targeted to build a narrative that ‘Western interference’ was to blame for the rebellion – a false narrative often used by despots and dictators when there is trouble at home.
Russia’s Autonomous Republics.
The Russian Federation is, in effect, an empire made up of 22 nominally autonomous republics that are home to specific ethnicities. Those that border China, may start to look towards Beijing for support which would be an extremely dangerous scenario for the Russian Federation. In theory, these Republics have rights to hold a referendum on whether they remain in the Federation; in practice, this is a massive step but given the current fracturing of Putin’s power, combined with an enfeebled military, it cannot be ruled out.
Ukraine will have a weaker army to fight; however, expelling the invading Russians completely will remain a very daunting task. Politically, some of the nations who are supporting Putin may switch their allegiance or, at the very least, become more neutral. There may be a window of opportunity for Ukraine’s diplomats to engage with these countries and persuade them to switch sides.
The West will be incredibly careful to avoid any action that can be perceived or portrayed as interfering in the internal affairs of Russia. Owing to the risks falling out from an unstable Russian Federation, ranging from unsecured nuclear weapons to regional conflict, any potential diplomatic, or other response options, will be kept under constant review.
The Big One - Collapse of the Russian Federation.
Empires fall when crisis hits and the Emperor is unable to respond. The population in the centre of the empire, in this case Russia itself, become more interested in wealth and power whereas the fringes become more restive. As outlined above, Putin and his Kremlin are severely weakened; their security forces are reduced and committed in Ukraine, so the centrifugal forces holding the vastness of the Russian Federation together are weaker than ever. As a result, although unlikely, this scenario merits consideration and contingency planning.