Russia is a declining power, and the Ukraine war is gradually sapping its energy. It would be wise of the US and NATO powers to let Russia gradually decline as a great power and simply follow a gradualist policy. Since it is also the world’s second greatest nuclear power, after the US, it should be treated with great caution as its complete and sudden defeat would pose even more problems and risks.
On June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group conducted a short-lived rebellion marching toward Moscow before turning around ultimately. Abruptly Prigozhin said he wanted to “avoid bloodshed”. Putin called it treason, mutiny, “a stab in the back,” and promised to hold the insurgents “accountable”. Then Belarusian President Lukashenko brokered a deal with Prigozhin and the revolt quickly ended. Meanwhile, US Secretary Blinken argued on America’s June 25, that while the US was not involved in the rebellion, it showed cracks in Putin’s power.
Russia announced on June 27, that the criminal case against Prigozhin had been dropped. The failed rebellion was seen as the most overt challenge to Putin’s power that at the end of the day weakened him. Now that the dust has settled, Putin is attempting to project an image of authority and complete control. Previously, he became “extremely isolated” during the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to Putin surrounding himself with a small circle of aides who fed him false information tailored to suit his prejudices”.
The continuing aftershocks of the mutiny are now being examined carefully. The question is being asked: How will Putin reassert his authority? How did the incident change the nature of power in Russia, if at all?
Indeed, the incident shall change the nature of power in Russia, which was mostly dependent upon the depoliticization of the country’s population. Today, Putin is simply biding time before he decides on how and when to punish Prigozhin. But, during this delay, doubts are rising in Russia.
The American media covered the incident in minute detail. The New York Times reported that the U.S. had suspected Prigozhin was “preparing to take action against Russia” and this information was “considered both solid and alarming.”
There was speculation on what had led to the standoff between Russia and Prigozhin. After all, he was only Putin’s partner who was “always willing to do the dirty work”.
The New York Times on June 24 maintained that the “short-lived mutiny in Russia represented the country’s most dramatic power struggle in decades”. The incident and its true meaning are being debated intensely in the US now. Why did Putin choose to leave Wagner mercenaries unpunished? What will Putin do next? Such questions are being asked in the American media.
Analysts believed that although the Wagner group had been seen as launching a direct challenge to Putin. Still, it is unlikely that the group will be dissolved only because it is “too significant for Russia’s greater geostrategic aims and economic strength.”
With Wagner’s future in doubt, it is unclear if it will still be a fighting force in Ukraine. It is just one of several known Russian private military companies that have operated abroad in the recent past. But Wagner is unique in its scope and scale. It is often called “the tip of the Russian spear in power projection abroad.” Most importantly, the Wagner Group is a “significant source of income for the Kremlin, enabling the Russian government to quietly and securely overtake lucrative mining and extraction sites for a significant profit”.
While the Wagner group has served Putin’s aims at times in terms of plausible deniability, it was a disastrous venture.
Prigozhin had staged a “power play” with a march on Moscow only because his numerous profitable ventures were at risk. This was an “example of brinkmanship to counter a long-term business threat posed by Russia’s military leadership.”
Russia’s next steps will be calculated and may include an overhaul of the Wagner Group with the replacement of Prigozhin. More importantly, the Wagner Group’s 50,000 troops formed a sizable proportion of Russia’s ground forces in the war in early 2023. Therefore, the Wagner Group’s withdrawal from Ukraine could have “significant implications for Russia’s ability to effectively fight a ground war there.”
Today, Ukraine can also take advantage of the chaos in Moscow as Kyiv continues its counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion. The incident will affect the Russian troop’s morale in the Ukraine war, which is something that Moscow does have to be concerned about.
Meanwhile, Belarusian President Lukashenko warned on June 27, that the immediate aftermath of the rebellion is only the beginning of turbulent times for Russia.
In Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Wagner rebellion exposed Russia’s fragility. The incident will have aftershocks, especially among neighboring countries. Even before the Wagner revolt, Putin’s “strategically catastrophic war in Ukraine had forced some measure of reevaluation of Russian intentions and strength in the region”.
Putin, who is strangely giving himself credit for neutralizing the revolt “will not rewind the tape; the damage is already done.”
American experts now believe that the rebellion is likely to become a threat to Putin’s ability to hold control in Russia.
Even though the US denied its role in the rebellion President Biden is making the most of it politically. There is a lot of speculation about why it happened. One argument is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led Biden to guarantee its survival. American backing has not only empowered Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion, “but it has also helped turn the war into a quagmire that spiked political pressure on Putin and created battlefield conditions that helped lead the Wagner revolt.”
Today, there is widespread agreement that the rebellion represented the most serious challenge to Putin’s grip on power and could even be “a crack that spells the beginning of the end of his authority. Biden is dealing with Putin’s endgame, and the prospect of instability rocking Russia could have global implications.”
The Biden administration sensibly desired at avoiding escalation during the rebellion. They made it clear that the eventually aborted showdown between Putin and Prigozhin was an internal Russian affair. On June 26, Biden said the US was not involved in the Russian rebellion. The Americans believe in their president’s categorical denial statement. They believe that notwithstanding conspiracy theories circulating the globe, the US certainly had no hand in the rebellion.
As expected, the public posture of the Biden administration is and was extremely cautious.
The US had “warned of Prigozhin’s intentions in advance but only shared it selectively. The revelation was the latest indication that the US is getting high-grade, accurate intelligence from inside Russia, as it appears to have done for the last year. This must be deeply irksome to Putin and may deepen his bunker mentality.”
Biden’s statements also “reflected the odd dichotomy of his strategy toward Putin. While sending Ukrainian President Zelensky billions of dollars in armaments to fight for his country’s survival, Biden has simultaneously insisted that the US is not involved in a showdown with Russia, doing everything he can to avoid a direct clash between NATO and Russian forces that could risk a world war-style escalation.”
It is argued that “the red lines” have been constantly expanding. The armaments that have been flowing into Ukraine would have been considered unthinkable when Putin ordered his troops over the border last February. Still, Biden’s insistence that there was no US involvement in the rebellion is certainly a statement of fact.
As expected, the American response is now evolving. “While the US took care not to show triumphalism while Prigozhin’s rebellion was taking place, it is now seeking to capitalize on it politically, The US is trying to build pressure on Putin inside Russia.”
But it is far too soon to write off Putin, though it is agreeable that Putin’s military position has undeniably weakened.
It is argued that “Putin has shown no sign that outside heat from Moscow’s foes will force him to retreat and bring his troops home. Indeed, his position may be so vulnerable that doing so without gains he could pass off publicly as a victory could pose an existential threat to his leadership.”
Inside Russia, Putin’s “personality cult of an all-powerful autocrat impervious to the challenge was punctured by Prigozhin. Unless the Russian leader can reestablish his authority, Biden may end up outmaneuvering Putin.”
Today, there is a strong consensus that the rebellion has weakened Putin’s authority. First, it was thought that the rebellion was a reaction against the Russian military chiefs for not supplying the desperately needed ammunition for the Wagner militia in its fight against Ukraine. The rebellion was not aimed at President Putin himself. The Wagner militia is not as disciplined as the Russian military itself. Therefore, such outbursts can be expected. It was certainly good for President Putin that the rebellion ended swiftly when it did. Otherwise, it would have been an embarrassment to him. Given Russia’s military might, there was never a doubt in the American mind that Putin would have crushed the rebellion by force. A closer examination of the events has now revealed a much more complicated picture of the events in Russia. The debate is ongoing inside the American foreign policy and defense establishment.
At first, the turmoil in Russia would have caused much glee in the US but it never happened for a good reason. A successful revolt against Putin may bring into power elements, even more, nationalist, unpredictable, and antagonistic to the US. As expected, There is now intense speculation on how the incident will affect the Ukraine war.
The Russian episode also appears to have moved the Ukraine war closer to an endgame. The events also bring a new urgency to NATO’s July 11-12 summit, which will try to resolve the question of Western assurances of Ukraine’s security, current and future”.
Analysts argue that the most likely outcome is a ceasefire and armistice and that the U.S. should develop a vision for how the war ends. Meanwhile, there are escalation risks as Russia faces more losses.
Nonetheless, there appears a sensible argument that the US needs to move beyond the current ad hoc support for Ukraine to a firmer, long-term security commitment. Security is foundational and such assurances would facilitate a much-needed parallel economic reconstruction effort. At a recent pledging conference for Ukraine’s economic reconstruction, US Secretary Blinken underscored this very point.
One option that is gaining currency is a kind of formalizing of current military and economic aid, intelligence, training, and supplies for the long term. The concept, that emerged at the NATO summit, involves commitments by a “European Quad” — the U.S., UK., France, and Germany. The goal is to help Ukraine build a “porcupine defense” without provoking Russia by institutionalizing a NATO defense obligation. It would be less than a formal treaty, yet an ongoing, clear commitment.
This brings us to the larger “whither Russia?” problem that remains the elephant in the room of security discussions. Putin has defined Russia as apart from, and in opposition to, the West.
Undoubtedly, the incident has emboldened critics of Russia. The unprecedented turmoil in Russia has emboldened the American hawks in a way not seen before for a long time. Many analysts argue that Russia must pay a price for its savagery. It is argued that today that there is scant reason to expect that Putin’s regime would change its trajectory anytime soon.
The debate rages on.
The American media is extremely critical of Putin and his Ukraine war. This was to be expected. The Wall Street Journal on June 27, 2023, in a front-page heading “Russian Turmoil Shows a Forever War Hurts Putin” says it all. “The Russian president bet he had more staying power than the West, but his Ukrainian quagmire now poses clear risks for Russia’s political stability.”
The New York Times also ran a front-page article by Mark Landler “After Mutiny Against Putin, Russia’s Friends Have Reason to Hedge Bets” on June 27, 2023, in which analyzed also criticized Putin. It says that: As rattled as they may have been by an armed insurrection in a nuclear weapons state, Russia’s friends and business partners are unlikely to abandon Mr Putin, according to diplomats and analysts. The more likely scenario, they say, is for them to hedge their bets against further Russian instability. The rebellion presented Ukraine and its allies with a fresh chance to persuade foreign leaders, from Beijing to Brasília, that backing Russia or staying neutral, was the wrong bet. China, Putin’s most important patron, views Russia as a linchpin in its campaign to blunt the global ambitions of the US. On June 26, the Chinese foreign ministry reaffirmed its support for Russia, calling it a “friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era. Xi’s worst-case scenario is weak that is Putin loses the war and gets ousted. A weak Russia denies China an ally in its competition with the U.S. and, worse, leaves Xi isolated globally and under pressure from democracies.
The same mix of public support and private doubt is evident in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have overlooked Russia’s war on Ukraine because they increasingly view Putin as an alternative source of security in a volatile region where the US is viewed as pulling back.
Several Gulf leaders called Putin in recent days, from the emir of Qatar and the president of the UAE to MBS of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leader on June 27 expressed support for the “steps made by Russia to defend the constitutional order.” The Saudi support was seen as a predictable reaction by another dictator to his fellow ruler, but it also hides tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia. “The bottom line is that they thought they could balance an unreliable US with a more reliable Russia. And now they face an even more unreliable and potentially unstable Russia.”
How Putin deals with the Wagner Group will have global consequences “There is a real paradox for Putin. Where Wagner has been extremely important in allowing Russia to project influence around the world. If Putin does not have that, his ability to look influential is diminished.”
As expected, Middle Easter leaders from Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among others, have expressed their support for Putin. But concerns may linger.
Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina in their article entitled “After Putin speech on the deal with mercenaries, Russia confronts divisions” which appeared on the front page on June 27, 2023, stated that “The Russian president tried to present his military and his country as united. But questions swirled about his decision to leave Wagner mercenaries unpunished.”
Putin’s actions are now being scrutinized as never before. After the incident, Putin said the Wagner Group mercenaries had been “fully funded” by Russian authorities. In the year to May 2023 alone, the Wagner Group had received over a billion dollars, he added.
Today, legal experts maintain that the admission that Russia paid over a billion dollars to Prigozhin’s mercenaries this year is “potentially significant.” Putin’s efforts to the rebellion by the Wagner group “may have made it easier for an international court to prosecute him, and the Russian state, for war crimes committed by the mercenary fighters, according to experts in international law.”
What does it all mean for the US? What should be the US policy toward handling Putin? The Biden administration is being prudent in being extremely cautious about Putin only because he is gradually losing the authority that comes from success. Russia is a declining power, and the Ukraine war is gradually sapping its energy. It would be wise of the US and NATO powers to let Russia gradually decline as a great power and simply follow a gradualist policy. The Russian population is decreasing, and its economy is also gradually declining. Therefore, Russia will not be the fearsome great power that it once was. Since it is also the world’s second greatest nuclear power, after the US, it should be treated with great caution as its complete and sudden defeat would pose even more problems and risks. A weakened Russia will not pose such risks and that is what the West should aim at. Nothing more is advisable.
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About the author
Sohail Mahmood is an independent global affairs analyst and the author of several books, monographs, and research articles on the Middle East and South Asian politics, governance, and development issues. He has taught for about 30 years in various universities of Pakistan and the US and has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, CIDA, SDC, IUCN, and UNDP. Sohail lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States.