Who fears a weak Russia?

That Vladimir Putin has been weakened has cheered Kyiv, but some of Ukraine’s allies fear an increasingly insecure Russia.

Little more than a week has passed since the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led his forces in an apparent mutiny against Russia’s defence ministry.  

While we learn more each day about the supposed insurrection, the opacity of the Russian state means key questions related to the reason for the rebellion and what it will mean in the long-term for Russian President Vladimir Putin remain unanswered.  

Initial speculation suggested that the mutiny could have been orchestrated by Putin himself. Analysts theorised the mutiny could have been designed to send a message to Western powers that further pressure on him could result in Russia’s nuclear arsenal falling partially under the control of a rogue, non-state actor like the Wagner Group.

Others have focused on the possibility of discord amongst Russian elites—Putin could have tacitly permitted the coup attempt, which he himself compared to 1917 and the start of the Russian Civil War, to suggest to factions of oligarchs or officials critical of his governing that chaos could befall the country if his grasp on power was further threatened. 

There remains little available evidence to directly support these theories. Western intelligence agencies say they discovered Prigozhin’s plan in advance from intercepted communications and satellite imagery. Western intel officials said they believe his original plan—capturing defence minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, during their planned visit to a southern region of Russia bordering Ukraine—would have worked had the Federal Security Service (FSB) not found out about the plans two days before they were to be executed and forced Prigozhin to improvise an alternative. 

Fallout for Wagner and implications for Ukraine 

Prigozhin’s mutiny was ultimately aborted only after the Wagner Group had taken control of Rostov-on-Don and had begun marching (almost unopposed) on Moscow. Putin has responded to the most severe threat to his legitimacy during his decades in power by moving to take control of Prigozhin’s private empire and consolidate power. 

Documents obtained by the Russian investigative Dossier Centre show the head of the Russian Aerospace Forces, General Sergei Surovikin, and 30 other senior Russian military and intelligence officials were secret members of the Wagner Group. Surovikin has not been seen since the mutiny, and reports indicate there is an ongoing reshuffling of Russian security forces as those viewed as sympathetic to the Wagner Group are purged while loyalists are promoted

The Prigozhin-owned Patriot Media, which includes troll-farms linked to interference in United States elections, will close and Prigozhin-controlled newspaper Nevskiye Novosti in St Petersburg will discontinue publication.  

Per the deal that ended the mutiny (allegedly brokered by Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus) and avoided further escalation, Prigozhin has decamped to Belarus—where satellite imagery shows a military base is being constructed, believed to be for use by the Wagner Group.  

Shortly after the mutiny had ended, Putin stated publicly for the first time that the Wagner Group has been “fully funded” by the Russian government. This, legal experts say, could make it easier to try Putin for war crimes committed by the group. Wagner is active in Syria—where it has allegedly been used to hide the full scale of Russian casualties—as well as in Mali, Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. On June 27, the US Treasury Department sanctioned gold and diamond mines connected to the Wagner Group in Mali and the Central African Republic. 

While the Wagner Group’s future in Africa remains unclear, Russian officials have said that Wagner mercenaries will stop fighting in Ukraine. Wagner mercenaries have played a key role in the war, but military analysts suggest the mutiny will mean little in the short-term for Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive. 

The war “continues to be a very long hard, difficult and bloody fight,” said retired US Marine Corps Colonel Steve Ganyard. “It’s important to take what was going on with Prigozhin and with Putin and put that into a Russia context, because that’s something that’s going on behind the scenes in Russia. As of now, it’s not going to have any significant effect on the battlefield. The battlefield remains what it was.” 

The months before the start of Ukraine’s current counteroffensive allowed Russian troops to dig themselves into their positions, pre-empt a Ukrainian push towards the Sea of Avoz, and learn from its failures by adapting to Ukrainian tactics. Moscow has also mobilised over 300,000 men since last September to make up for losses during Ukraine’s successful counteroffensives in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions last year. 

Speaking on June 30, Col Ganyard said, “Even today, where there’s some quote-unquote breakthroughs going on, we’ve seen the Ukrainians making advances of less than a mile per day.” 

European leaders weigh in 

At an EU summit in Brussels, many EU leaders shared starkly different analyses of the mutiny and what they believed it meant for the war in Ukraine.  

“A weaker Putin is a greater danger,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on June 29. “Putin has lost the monopoly of force,” Borrell continued, adding that he expected that Putin “will be in cleaning mode internally, and a more assertive mode” following the threat to his power. “Now we have to look at Russia as a risk because of the internal instability.” 

Others disagreed. 

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said that while Borrell and some others imply, “that a strong Putin is less dangerous than a weak Putin. I don’t agree with that. We have to move forward and be decisive because now is a crucial moment of history.” 

“We are seeing their weakness, which we so badly need,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “The weaker Russia is, and the more its bosses fear mutinies and uprisings, the more they will fear to irritate us. Russia’s weakness will make it safe for others, and its defeat will solve the problem of this war.”

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