I have frequently noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not the Stalin or Hitler of today. He is not an irrational, radical, bloodthirsty dictator or imperialist. Nor is he a liberal, democratic republican. Rather, Putin is a moderate authoritarian leader, who will democratize or authoritarianize dependent on what is beneficial for social and political stability, state integrity, and preservation of his and his allies’ hold on power. He is a balancer, who weighs and counterbalances various political forces rather than crushing them. The latter choice is made only when there is no other way to protect the cardinal goals mentioned above. This is true for Putin’s conduct of both domestic and foreign affairs. Putin always tries to find the golden mean, a fair compromise in any dispute between Russia and other states, between himself and other forces comprising the Russian elite clans, and between competing groups. These orientations were on display in the way Putin dealt with Wagner chief Yevgenii Prigozhin’s armed revolt against the top military brass, in particular Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valerii Gerasimov.
Rather than crushing the rebellion immediately, which would have been relatively easy for the Russian army to accomplish, Putin hoped and sought to avoid ‘major bloodshed’ in a way similar to the way Mikhail Gorbachev rejected the January 1991 Baltic coups attempted by Soviet Party-state loyalists against the secessionist Baltic republics. This was one of the final straws that drove the Party-state to direct a coup against Gorbachev himself seven months later in Moscow—a coup Putin played no small in helping to quell in St. Petersburg. Putin’s political career in a reunifying Germany, a collapsing Soviet state, and the disorderly Yeltsin years of organized crime violence and the Chechen war familiarized Putin with the dangers of rebellion—a lesson he had long ago drawn from his reading of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the treasonous role played by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks during World War I.
Now Putin was facing a far more ticklish situation than that of January 1991 but not as global yet as that of the August coup, no less 1917. The situation can be described as the following. A long-time acquaintance and political ally had betrayed his direct subordinates in the military chain of command – the two top military officials in the Russian state, Shoigu and Gerasimov – and two key pillars of both Putin’s political power and the most important operation in Putin’s political lifetime. There was the risk that had Prigozhin’s march proceeded much longer or actual large-scale conflict exploded inside Russia that morale at the front would have plummeted, risking the success of the special military operation. Moreover, the ‘special military operation’ (SVO) or war in Ukraine provoked by NATO expansion will determine whether the new Russian state – one Putin has spent nearly three decades rebuilding – will survive in its present form and how Putin will go down in history.
In this high-tension situation laced with the sense of personal and political betrayal how did Putin respond? He did not panic, he did not overreact, he methodically employed a sound strategy to keep the crisis from escalating into massive domestic military battle with some, not great, but some potential to spread and even devolve into civil war, depending on his and others’ next steps after a major battle around Serpukhov. He deployed the stick and the carrot, he posed a threat and took the way out. He positioned forces both in Serpukhov and along the other main artery leading to Moscow from the south where some 5,000 Wagner forces were moving on the capitol. He then issued a televised address in which he designated Prigozhin a traitor threatening the Russian state’s stability in a time of war. In other words, Prigozhin could make no mistake in concluding that should he continue the rebellion, he (and his forces) would face certain death or lifetime imprisonment (there is no death penalty in Russia) and go down in history as a modern day Mazepa or Tsarevich Aleksei, both of whom betrayed Russia under Peter the Great by going over to the side of the Swedes and Hapsburgs, respectively. In this situation Prigozhin had little choice but to accept the exit Putin agreed to—his exile to Belarus rather than arrest, trial, and prison for he and his Wagner forces.
Putting aside the risks involved in allowing Prigozhin and Wagner to remain free and intact, albeit trapped abroad, we are told that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka phoned Putin and proposed this way out from the crisis. However, it cannot be excluded that it was Putin who phoned Lukashenka, who Putin knows is a friend of Prigozhin of even greater duration and who might be willing to help his friend Prigozhin out of the bind he got himself into. Remember Putin needed an off ramp as desperately as Prigozhin. If it was Lukashenka who phoned Putin and proposed the way out, Putin theoretically could have rejected it. Certainly, a less discerning and balanced leader might have. But Putin is not that leader, and this was not theory. The moderate, careful, and methodical Putin who seeks to avoid extremes in solutions and outcomes was the Russian leader in a very real situation.
Despite Putin’s balanced leadership in this crisis, there can be no doubt that in certain, mostly ultra-nationalist, hardline circles, he has lost some of his authority. Prigozhin was popular among them, and Putin did not allow him to reveal an even uglier side that surely would have come out if the crisis would have ever devolved into a wider rebellion or civil war and Prigozhin came to believe he should and could succeed in seizing power. For these radical circles and perhaps even among others, Prigozhin remains a hero. His survival and potential revival in Belarus, which has shown some ability to destabilize, remains something Putin (and Lukashenka) will have to keep an eye on, as his most recent statements are not repentant (https://t.me/Prigozhin_hat/3815). For the present, Putin emerges from the crisis somewhat tainted politically. Hardliners and less discerning Russians will ask why he did not crush Prigozhin or address Prigozhin’s complaints. Others will rightly say that Prigozhin and his revolt are a consequence of Putin’s ill-advised patronage and tolerance of Prigozhin.
Indeed, Putin tried yesterday and today to shore up solidarity between state and society and inside the state, convening and addressing an assembly of security forces as a show of unity and loyalty to him, the state, and the law. First, last night he gave a short address thanking the people and soldiers under arms for unity and support for the state and its president in the face of the potential instability posed by Prigozhin’s march (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71528). That the people’s support is his central concern at this point and more generally is reflected by the fact that this address remained first on the official Kremlin site of the Russian president even after subsequent address were made today (see below), breaking the usual chronological order of videos and news on the site (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71528). Should Putin’s popularity fall below 50 percent and with his aging, there might be some in his inner circle who would be willing to send him into retirement should such crises or debacles at the front become routine. Thus, Putin also checked in with the leaders of the seven main ‘siloviki’ (organs of coercion and law enforcement) departments the same day in a mostly closed meeting devote, according to Putin, to addressing issues related to the recent days’ events, including likely domestic political stability and implications for foreign affairs and the war (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71530). Present was Defense Minister Shoigu, who might be a little concerned reasonably about the recategorization of the criminal case opened against Prigozhin as an “intraelite conflict,” investigation of such a case could determine or be arranged to put forth a conclusion that Shoigu was perhaps in some way also responsible for the conflict, leading to his dismissal a few months down the road.
This morning Putin addressed briefly an assembly of units of the military, National Guard, FSB, MVD, and FSO troops and officers praising their unity and support of the state and social order during the revolt, “standing in the way of troubles (smuta) that inevitably would have led to chaos” and having “ defended the constitutional order, the life, security and freedom of our citizens, saved our homeland from disturbances, and actually stopped a civil war. After a minute of silence for the some 20 pilots killed in fighting the advancing Wagner rebels, he emphasized: “Your determination and courage, as well as the consolidation of the entire Russian society, played a huge, decisive role in stabilizing the situation.” (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71533). A few hours later he addressed a select group of what appeared to be young unit commanders, seemingly pilots, to thank them for their service. In the process, he underscored the state’s financing of both Wagner and Prigozhin’s catering company ‘Concord’, while implying that Prigozhin, whom he identified as “the owner” of Wagner and Concord, may have stolen some of those funds, which he said would now be investigated (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71535). Analysts and Russian citizens might ask themselves what Putin and other members of his government knew about Prigozhin’s misuse of funds earlier and when did they know it.
Despite the bad residue and stain on Putin’s authority left by the Wagner revolt, any objective analysis of his handling of it has to conclude that Putin managed the crisis capably, calmly, carefully, and conservatively. He made no rash moves, demonstrating a desire to save lives rather than exact revenge and found a moderate, peaceful solution to a conflict fraught with potential for great bloodshed. If only NATO had been as judicious and balanced from 1995-2023, then we might have seen the great bloodshed that has resulted in Ukraine since 2014.