Centre for Defence Strategies

Wagner putsch is symptomatic of Russia’s ongoing imperial decline

Richard Cashman is an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Defense Strategies

Lesia Ogryzko is a Head of Analytics and Strategic Advocacy in the Center for Defense Strategies

The attempted putsch by Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his Wagner troops in late June is perhaps best understood as a symptom of Russia’s ongoing imperial decline. Much like the invasion of Ukraine itself, it is part of a broader historical process that can be traced back to 1989 and the fall of the Soviet incarnation of the Russian Empire in Central and Eastern Europe.

Anyone looking to make sense of recent events in Russia should begin by noting that Prigozhin’s dramatic actions were not aimed at ending the war in Ukraine or steering Russia away from its increasingly totalitarian course. On the contrary, he sought to correct mistakes in the conduct of the invasion by effecting changes in the country’s military leadership.

This should come as no surprise. The vast majority of Prigozhin’s public statements about the invasion of Ukraine align him with prominent ultranationalists, which in the Russian context translates into imperial reactionaries. This group is demanding a fuller commitment to the war against Ukraine which, with Belarus, it sees as the core of Russia’s imperial heartlands. Ideally, this group wants to see full mobilization of Russia’s citizens and the country’s productive capacity for the war effort.

Prigozhin is not generally regarded as a member of Putin’s inner circle, but he is believed to have supporters within the Kremlin elite, some of whom may have backed or sympathized with his uprising. This support reflects widespread demands among members of the Russian establishment for national leadership that can arrest and reverse the process of imperial retreat which began in 1989.

It is also clear that Prigozhin enjoyed significant backing from ordinary Russians and, probably, ordinary soldiers. Support for Prigozhin amongst the Russian public is rooted in anger over the mismanagement of the invasion and endemic state corruption along with dissatisfaction over the prospect of increasing costs without identifiable gains in Ukraine.

The scale of public sympathy for the putsch could be seen in videos of Rostov-on-Don residents congratulating Wagner troops on capturing the city while bringing them food and water. It was also striking that Rostov-on-Don and its Southern Military District headquarters were seized without a fight, while Wagner troops were able to advance to within two hundred kilometers of Moscow virtually unopposed, despite passing close to numerous Russian army bases. Prigozhin’s tough rhetoric and hawkish attacks on Russia’s military leadership clearly resonate widely among large numbers of ordinary Russians.

Prigozhin’s abruptly abandoned putsch reinforces the lesson that coups are relatively common in Russia, whereas genuine revolutions are not. Vladimir Putin and the clan which took control of Russia at the turn of the millennium in many ways see themselves as the heirs to the 1991 coup plotters who attempted but failed to prevent the unravelling of the USSR. Their own vulnerability to being overthrown in similar fashion has now been laid bare before the Russian public and the wider world.

The course of the war to date, including cross-border incursions by Ukrainian-backed Russian militias into Russia’s Belgorod and Bryansk regions, had already fractured the facade of monolithic strength so carefully projected by the Kremlin throughout Putin’s twenty-three-year reign. Prigozhin’s putsch has further exposed the brittleness of the regime and of the Russian state. It has highlighted the very real possibility of turmoil and transformation within the country, which so many observers previously thought impossible.

Policymakers around the world must now prepare for a range of dramatic scenarios in Putin’s Russia. This planning should involve studying the more than 100 nationalities within the Russian Federation, their cultures and political aspirations, as well as possible fracture lines between regional and business interests.

More specifically, governments must begin to plan for a post-Putin Russia. Putin’s elderly clan represents the last of the Soviet-era elites and their distinct embrace of Russia’s imperial consciousness. That imperial identity will not disappear overnight, but Putin’s obvious overreach in Ukraine and events like Prigozhin’s putsch are likely to engender a less certain sense of imperial destiny.

Putin has emerged from the Wagner putsch a significantly weakened figure, especially among members of the Russian establishment who once saw him as a guarantor of stability. He has also been embarrassed internationally and now looks a far less reliable partner for countries such as China, India, and Brazil that have so far sought to remain neutral over the invasion of Ukraine.

Moving forward, there will be considerable paranoia within the Russian establishment as suspicion swirls regarding potentially shifting loyalties. Rumors continue to circulate regarding measures targeting military and security service personnel who failed to oppose the Wagner uprising. The invasion of Ukraine has already seriously eroded trust within Russian society; Prigozhin’s actions and Putin’s timid response will intensify this negative trend.

Ukraine’s partners cannot control the processes set in train by the Wagner episode, but they can surge military support for Ukraine and embrace bolder policies that reflect the revealed weakness of the Putin regime. The fact that Putin was apparently prepared to strike a deal with Prigozhin further demonstrates that the Russian dictator is inclined to back down rather than escalate when confronted by a resolute opponent or faced with the prospect of possible defeat.

Prigozhin’s putsch was a brief but revealing event in modern Russian history. It hinted at deep-seated dissatisfaction among both the elite and the Russian public over the country’s inability to reclaim what it perceives as its imperial heartlands, and served as a reminder that the imperial Russian state is still collapsing.

The Russian decline that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall is ongoing, with Putin and his clan seeking but failing to reverse the settlement of 1991. This path has led to a war based on imperial fantasies that may now hasten the real end of empire. The Wagner putsch did not bring down Putin’s regime which seeks to maintain empire, but it may come to be seen as the beginning of its end.

Source: Atlantic Council