Vladimir Putin’s short-term Special Military Operation to bring Kyiv to heel has escalated into a two-front war with his control slipping away. He was having enough trouble on the Ukrainian front, with an enemy that refused to buckle, backed by unexpectedly obdurate allies. His own army has been exposed to the world as a rotting façade rendered inadequate by decades of complacency and corruption.
Prigozhin’s abortive coup d’etat has now opened up a home front that has similarly exposed the regime’s weakness and the vulnerability of the country’s internal security. Prigozhin was able to seize and hold Moscow’s command centre for the entire Ukraine war without a shot being fired. His heavily armed mercenaries could then advance hundreds of miles towards Moscow, largely unmolested, and with reports of Russian soldiers surrendering in their path. On the way to Moscow, Wagner forces reportedly shot down seven helicopters and a transport plane – if true, one of the deadliest days for the Russian air force since the war in Ukraine began.
As with the recent incursions from Ukraine into Belgorod, the Kremlin lacked forces to secure even key targets inside Russia. They had to depend on another private militia, Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechens, who apparently sent 3,000 men from Ukraine to confront Wagner. Moscow’s critical vulnerability will not be fixed without withdrawing already stretched forces from the front line.
As we have seen so often in Ukraine, Russian forces are unable to respond to unexpected crises without orders from above. This helps explain why Prigozhin’s men could get as far as they did. That those stop orders were not forthcoming exposes Putin’s weakness. His desperation to avoid violent clashes between Russian soldiers and Wagner mercenaries led to paralysis in the Kremlin accompanied by a frantic search for a way to shut Prigozhin down without bloodshed, eventually pressing Belarus’s Lukashenko into action. It’s not likely Putin cared about casualties on either side, but he did care about the potential disintegration at the front line caused by violent insurrection on the streets of Moscow or the roads leading to it. His address to the nation comparing this uprising to the collapse at the front in 1917 revealed his inner fears. Putin brought all this upon himself, most significantly by his ill-judged invasion and an inability to take effective action when it all started to go wrong. But also by his Machiavellian divide-and-rule policy that allowed the convicted criminal Prigozhin to build a powerful private army.
The Wagner leader has for months raged with impunity against government ministers and military commanders responsible for fighting the war. He went further and further without being checked, and the events of the past few days were the inevitable consequence of the failure to bring him under control or get rid of him. Putin’s ill-judgment can surely only be explained by the psychological toll of an unwinnable war taken on a man hitherto thought of by many as a political and strategic genius.
That aura has now vanished. Along with it, the reputation of an iron leader who cannot be crossed has gone, as he pardons the Wagner insurrectionists and, for the time being at least, allows their humiliated leader to scurry off into exile in Belarus. The many Kremlin watchers who until now believed Putin was beyond any internal challenge have been proved wrong. Prigozhin may have left the stage, but his actions have exposed Putin as a mere mortal. The Moscow elites, who have for decades depended on strong leadership, are now watching a regime falling to pieces. Calculations of self-preservation will have taken over from fear and respect for an infallible leader who brought them stability. Some have been hedging their bets with their own private armies. All of this throws the sharpest spotlight on the other front. A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive, that may have greater chances as a result of the turmoil inside Russia, could edge us closer to Putin’s downfall, which in turn might lead to the collapse of the Russian army.