In a surprise move, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin halted the advance of his forces on Moscow and announced an end to hostilities in an apparent deal with President Putin brokered by Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko. In return for cessation of hostilities and movement of Wagner forces back to their bases in Russia and Ukraine, Putin agreed not to prosecute Prigozhin, dropping all charges, and allowing him to effectively retire in Belarus. The deal also grants some level of amnesty for Wagner forces, who will now have the option to sign contracts directly with the Ministry of Defense. It is likely that Prigozhin was motivated by his own survival and his putsch was an attempt to preserve Wagner's independence and freedom of action. The status of Wagner's operations abroad remains unknown.
Intense speculation continues as to why Prigozhin suddenly halted Wagner movements when he appeared to have the upper hand. In his Telegram announcement, he said he wanted to avoid "bloodshed". Ultimately, the specifics, outcomes, and timeline of the deal are largely unknown. So too are the real circumstances under which it happened. Prigozhin may have realized that his forces were vulnerable to air strikes and would have been annihilated from above, as they possess neither aircraft nor sophisticated missile defense systems owned and operated by the Russian military. Or perhaps Prigozhin was able to achieve his goals without the need to descend the country into civil war.
ANALYSIS & IMPLICATIONS
- The fact that Prigozhin's army was able to travel hundreds of miles without being stopped demonstrates that the Kremlin does not have the power to suppress a popular armed rebellion, especially when its elite troops are fighting in Ukraine.
- The rebellion will have a dire impact on Russian morale in Ukraine, complexifying the paramount question: "Why are we fighting?" But it is still unclear how this shock will impact Ukraine's current counteroffensive in the near term.
- President Putin's monopoly on violence in Russia is over. Putin's power was derived from the fact that he could control or, at least, effectively preside over the "underbosses" of Russia. In the last few months, culminating in his comments on 23 June, Progozhin effectively discredited Putin's "Consigliere" – his top advisors including Shoigu.
- Several pillars upon which Putin's Russia was built have now been effectively removed. Top bureaucrats, senior military and intelligence officials, and Russia's economic elite woke up this morning in a new country, a place where they are no longer safe, even if they follow Putin's rules.
- There is no coming back from here. It is unclear how far along we are in the chapter but what is clear is that we are now witnessing the final act of Putin's reign, and possibly even that of the modern Russian state. That said, it is still far too soon to predict Putin's imminent fall.
- With a politically weakened Ministry of Defense (and Putin to a lesser extent), the victors of this episode are Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader – who is another vocal opponent of Sergei Shoigu – and Prigozhin. Both these men continue to lead loyal armed factions and both are much more extreme in rhetoric and action than Putin.
- When the time comes, Putin's initial successor will likely be a staunch nationalist with a higher risk tolerance.
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