Embattled Ukraine and domestic enemies of Russian president Vladimir Putin said a brief revolt by the Wagner mercenary group showed the autocrat was losing control after 23 years in power, even as the Kremlin insisted the matter was closed and the crisis over.
The decision of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his fighters to turn away from Ukraine and embark on what he called a “march of justice” towards Moscow was the most brazen challenge that Putin’s regime and security system has faced.
No less stunning than the sight of Wagner troops seizing the centre of the southern city of Rostov and firing on Russian military helicopters was the weakness of the regime’s response: paralysis among the armed forces and then a deal approved by Putin to drop all charges against Prigozhin and allow the mutineers to join the army they had just attacked.
Just hours before Prigozhin ordered his forces to return to base, Putin said in an emergency broadcast that they had dealt Russia “a stab in the back” and committed the “gravest crime – armed mutiny”, were “pushing the country towards anarchy and fratricide,” and would face “inevitable punishment ... before the law and before our people”.
Yet that same evening, the Kremlin announced that Prigozhin would leave for neighbouring Belarus as a free man, and neither he nor his fighters would face trial for having mutinied and shot down several Russian military aircraft, reportedly killing at least 13 crew members.
“Today the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability. And it is happening on Russian territory, which is fully loaded with weapons,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, described the Wagner revolt as “the first stage of the dismantling of Putin’s system” and “the tip of the iceberg of the destabilisation process” in Russia.
“A group of the disaffected has formed in Russia – security forces, officials and oligarchic capital – which considers Putin’s actions to be deadly dangerous for their own interests and existence, and a threat to the Russian Federation,” he added.
“A real group of future Russian negotiators with Ukraine already exists, but for now it remains in the shadows; however, [Alexander] Lukashenko’s participation in this process is not excluded,” he said, referring to the Belarusian dictator who reportedly brokered an end to the crisis and – according to the Kremlin – will now host the exiled Prigozhin.
When Putin began his full invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago, Russians were told that this was a defensive operation to nullify supposed threats from pro-western Kyiv and its Nato allies, and they were led to believe that the “special operation” would end quickly with a Russian triumph and a boost to their state’s power, prestige, territory and security.
But Putin’s forces managed to seize only one of Ukraine’s regional capitals – Kherson, which they proceeded to lose last November – and the Kremlin was finding it impossible to insulate ordinary Russians from the impact of the war even before the Wagner revolt.
Drones presumably fired by Ukraine or sympathisers in Russia now regularly strike Russian cities and infrastructure sites – two drones hit the roof of the Kremlin last month – and Russian anti-Putin militants fighting on Kyiv’s side have launched cross-border raids into Russia at least twice in recent weeks.
The commander of one of those groups, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), said “a new ‘time of troubles’ has arrived,” – evoking an infamous period of turmoil in Russia 400 years ago.
“I call on all RDK supporters to take action! We all have a unique chance to determine our fate and the fate of our motherland!” Denis Kapustin wrote on social media.
Belarusians fighting for Kyiv also saw the Prigozhin revolt as a danger to Putin, and therefore also a threat to Lukashenko, whose 29-year rule is propped up by the Kremlin.
“Favourable conditions for the destruction of the dictatorship are rapidly approaching. This is the beginning of the end of the great tyranny,” a member of the unit said in an online address. “Soldiers, reservists, Belarusians – wait for our signal. The time of freedom is approaching.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the Belarusian pro-democracy movement, said her country now stood “at a historic crossroads”.
“On one road there is Europe, there is independence, prosperity and democracy. On the other road is the rule of infighting bandits, there is chaos, thievery and isolation. Our goals are clear: victory for Ukraine and freedom for Belarus,” she declared.
Franak Viacorka, her chief political adviser, weighed into the debate over what the Kremlin and Belarus may have offered Prigozhin to persuade him to end his revolt and move to Minsk.
He said two possibilities were that Prigozhin might “continue working for Wagner, and Belarus will be the headquarters for him and his mercenaries” or that “Prigozhin will lead Russian military operations against Ukraine from Belarus territory”.
It is not clear whether the Kremlin made any deal with Prigozhin over his demand that Putin sack defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov, whom the Wagner boss accuses of mishandling the war and starving his fighters of ammunition.
Putin always enjoyed playing off competing factions against each other, but the weekend’s events suggest he has lost the position of strength which made that possible.
“Now the country and the world know it’s possible to rebel against Putin without being put down, because Putin is weak,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian opposition figure who was his country’s top tycoon until the regime jailed him for a decade in 2003.
“This means regime change is getting closer,” he added. “And we all need to be ready for it.”