Mutiny on the Moskva

The mutiny in Russia shows: Putin's system of adhocracy is becoming dangerous for the regime itself; the president can be blackmailed by political entrepreneurs. Russia thus goes weakened into the offensive of the Ukrainians.

Putin's System

Putin's system worked on the principle of the political entrepreneur or «adhocrat» (Mark Galeotti): Putin formulates broad objectives, gives indications in which direction he wants to see progress. The «adhocrats» then interpret these vague objectives in a way they hope will please Putin.

According to this logic, Prigozhin's mutiny should be an endeavor that benefits Putin: the military leadership under Sergei Shoigu was publicly pilloried for the failed war of annihilation against Ukraine and humiliated in the form of Deputy Defense Minister Yevkurov («You're just senile clowns», Meduza publishes the transcript of the filmed exchange). Supporters and sympathizers of the mutiny have come out publicly, as have Putin's supporters; Putin would thus again know who is friend and who is foe. He could strengthen his position. This author, too, has expressed his opinion in this direction – and was wrong.

In fact, however, the mutiny weakened Putin massively: according to Western intelligence services, he knew at least 24 hours in advance, but did not prevent the march on Moscow. Whether this was because the presidential administration did not take Prigozhin's threats seriously enough or was unable to prevent the march remains currently unclear. In the first case, it showed another miscalculation, after the failed 3-day march to Kiev, of Russian special services. In the latter case, Putin would lack the de-facto ability to act in domestic crises.

Putin can be blackmailed

In any case, the inaction stands in stark contrast to Putin's speech on Saturday morning: there he indirectly called Prigozhin a traitor, his mutiny an act of terrorism, and threatened inescapable punishment. The Wagner group was classified as a «foreign agent», members were to be arrested by the FSB, the headquarters in Petersburg was searched, several passports in different names but with Prigozhin's picture, as well as cash, gold bars, and presumably drugs were confiscated. By Saturday evening, little was left of it: safe conduct for Prigozhin, the FSB criminal investigation dropped, Wagner not disbanded but transferred to Belarus. In the meantime, news spread that there would be personnel consequences in the leadership of the Ministry of Defense.

Prigozhin may not have achieved his stated goals of deposing and extraditing Shoigu and Gerasimov, but he did lead an uprising against the President of the Russian Federation, and not only survived, but probably received a nice settlement. The message is: the President of the Russian Federation can be blackmailed.

No good options

Prigozhin, if you look at the reactions in Rostov or on social media, is far more popular than Putin. That someone who just instigated a mutiny against the Kremlin, destroying six attack helicopters and an airplane, killing about 10 Russian soldiers, can leave Russia's 10th largest city amid cheers and «high fives» is a dangerous precedent for the Putin regime. The image of the uncompromising brute who fearlessly takes authority to task goes down well with the Russian population. And the fact that Prigozhin dares to start the mutiny, and that he manages to get within 200 km of Moscow unchallenged by Russian security forces, shows that he can also count on greater support than previously assumed in politics and the security apparatus. This is not good news for Putin.

In addition, the Russian war effort is now losing some 25,000 experienced soldiers and large military equipment. For whether the Wagner mercenaries will simply allow themselves to be integrated into the Russian army, as announced, seems questionable.

Putin can still carry out his threat of punishment. He can use the FSB to pressure the Wagner group and persecute its sympathizers. Perhaps he can even have Prigozhin assassinated. But the image of the anchor of stability who has everything under control is permanently scratched. Prigozhin's (later) assassination does not change this.

The same applies in reverse to the adherence to Defense Minister Shoigu, who has not been seen since the beginning of the mutiny. If he holds on to Shoigu after Prigozhin's public accusations, the loser smell of the unsuccessful army chief will be transferred to him. That would be the less unpleasant option; after all, Putin himself has intervened in the fighting against Ukraine on a tactical and operational level. British media speculate that Shoigu has already been dismissed. Thus, Putin would have fulfilled Prigozhin's demand. If this is true, Putin's situation is even more precarious than assumed: not only can he not make good on his announcements, he is even forced to respond to the demands of traitors.

Igor Girkin, alias Strelkov, who destabilized the Donbas on Moscow's behalf in 2014 and has been criticizing Russian policy from an ultra-nationalist perspective since the beginning of the war of extermination against Ukraine, summed up the situation thus: from now on there are two presidents: the real president, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, and the vice-president of imprisonment, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

At the same time, Prigozhin's march could strengthen the Putin system in the short term. Nothing unites rival gangs like an enemy attacking the common prey. After that, however, the intra-system rivalry would continue, with an aging Putin down for the count.