A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 26, 2023

The Wagner Mutiny Shows How Putin's Missteps Undermine His Leadership

The longer a leader remains in power, the more careful he or she has to be about exercising that authority which reinforce the image and reality of their leadership. 

It is a lesson Vladimir Putin failed to heed. His extreme isolation during the pandemic, combined with faulty intelligence provided by sycophantic underlings feeding his own messianic self-regard led to the failed invasion of Ukraine, a crisis he has been unable to turn around due to many of those same leadership characteristics. The momentarily aborted mutiny provides evidence of what happens when others sense a leader's weakness, whether in a nation state or a business. JL

Max Boot reports in the Washington Post:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is learning what  many tyrants have learned before: When you unleash the dogs of war, they can come back to bite you. Napoleon never imagined invading Russia would lead to his exile. Hitler never imagined invading Poland would lead to his suicide. Saddam Hussein never imagined invading Kuwait would lead to the overthrow of his regime and death. The Wagner crisis has revealed the hidden instability of Putin’s regime and shaken his aura of power. Are you paying attention, Xi Jinping?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is learning what so many tyrants have learned before him: When you unleash the dogs of war, they can come back to bite you. When the Russian strongman sent his troops marching to take Kyiv, he never imagined that 16 months later, mutinous Wagner mercenary group troops would march on Moscow.


But then Napoleon never imagined that invading Russia would lead to his exile and the restoration of monarchy in France. Hitler never imagined that invading Poland would lead to his suicide and the partition of Germany. Saddam Hussein never imagined that invading Kuwait would lead, eventually, to the overthrow of his regime and his death.

War is inherently an unpredictable and risky business, whose consequences can never be foreseen with clarity — and seldom managed with success. A dictator’s illusion of control can all too often collapse in the cauldron of combat — especially if the war turns into a prolonged, bloody conflict of attrition as has occurred in Ukraine.


Many analysts have assumed that time was on Putin’s side in this war, because Russia is so much larger than Ukraine and because Ukraine is so dependent on outside support from countries that might lack the patience to stay the course. But we are now seeing that time might be on Ukraine’s side after all, because its government was democratically elected and enjoys the near-unanimous support of its people to wage a war of territorial defense. Putin’s unelected, criminal regime, by contrast, intimidates the Russian people into acquiescence but does not command loyalty or love.

Opinion from May: I’ve never seen the Kremlin so rattled

Like many dictatorships, Putin’s regime turns out to be more brittle than it appears from the outside. He has always relied on his skill in managing competing power centers, pitting oligarchs (and various branches of the government) against each other, so that he would be the ultimate arbiter of decision-making. That model worked for two decades but is breaking down amid the pressure of a losing war that is grinding up and destroying the Russian military.


In February, U.S. intelligence estimated that Russia had suffered at least 35,000 soldiers killed in action and at least 154,000 wounded, while the Oryx open-source intelligence site estimates that Russia has lost more than 2,000 tanks and nearly 900 armored fighting vehicles. Russia has not seen these kinds of losses since World War II. The rapid attrition of Russian troops — and their obvious incompetence — forced Putin to lean more heavily on the Wagner Group, the private military company started by Yevgeniy Prigozhin.


A criminal who spent time in jail in the Soviet Union in the 1980s for armed robbery and other offenses, Prigozhin opened a hot dog stand after getting out and parlayed that into a successful catering business providing food to the Russian military. That led to a nickname he hates: “Putin’s Chef.” Soon, he was cooking up a lot of trouble: His Internet Research Agency became a tool of Russian disinformation, helping attack the 2016 U.S. election, and his Wagner Group became a tool for Putin to project power in Africa and the Middle East with a patina of implausible deniability. When Putin decided in 2014 to seize Crimea and foment an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Wagner — full of former special forces operatives from the Russian military — was one of the instruments he used.

Wagner was not initially at the forefront of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but the failures of the Russian military gave Prigozhin an opening to essentially grab market share from the Russian Ministry of Defense. Putin’s Chef cooked up a particularly ruthless and audacious scheme by recruiting convicts from Russian prisons to use in human-wave attacks. To keep the criminals in line, he circulated a film of a supposed deserter being executed with sledgehammer blows to the head.


Wagner’s attacks on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut became the main focus of Russia’s stalled winter offensive. Eventually, Prigozhin’s men took the city but only at a staggering cost: U.S. intelligence estimated that, just between December and May, more than 20,000 Russian troops were killed and 80,000 were wounded, primarily in Bakhmut.


As Prigozhin became more powerful, that power seemed to go to his head, and he began releasing videos in which he taunted Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, as cowards and criminals. He accused them of not providing enough artillery shells for his forces, ignoring the fact that the Russian military has limited stockpiles and understandably prioritizes its own forces. “Because of their whims, five times more guys than had been supposed to die have died,” Prigozhin said in a video filmed May 20 in Bakhmut. “They will be held responsible for their actions, which in Russian are called crimes.”

Putin did not seem to mind much; he probably imagined that a competition to make military progress in Ukraine would work out to his benefit. But in recent days, the rivalry between Wagner and the Ministry of Defense veered out of control. Earlier this month, Prigozhin’s forces captured a Russian officer he publicly accused of firing on a Wagner convoy. On Friday, Prigozhin accused the Russian military of attacking a Wagner camp, resulting in many casualties, and, referring to Shoigu, said, “This scum will be stopped!” Russia’s Federal Security Service responded late on Friday by issuing a warrant for Prigozhin’s arrest for “incitement to armed rebellion.”

Prigozhin did not wait to be arrested. Like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, his men marched on Rostov-on-Don on Saturday and seized the Russian military headquarters there without a fight. Later in the day, a Wagner convoy headed to Moscow amid reports of roads to the capital being barricaded.


“Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out,” noted the British Ministry of Defense. “This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”

In dealing with this unexpected threat, Putin went so far as to invoke the 1917 Russian Revolution, when, he said, “intrigues, squabbles, and politicking behind the backs of the army and the people resulted in a great shock, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state.” Of course, he was implicitly comparing himself to Tsar Nicholas II, who made the ill-fated decision to take part in World War I and who sparked a military mutiny with his failures on the battlefield.

On Saturday night, after mediation from President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Prigozhin called off his advance about 120 miles short of Moscow, so it appears Putin might survive this crisis. As part of this deal, criminal charges against Prigozhin will be dropped and he will go to Belarus. Members of the Wagner Group who did not take part in the revolt will sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, but the fate of the company remains unclear.


The Wagner crisis has nonetheless revealed the hidden instability of Putin’s regime and shaken his aura of power. It could still create opportunities for a Ukrainian counteroffensive that, so far, has been only inching along. If the Russians are distracted with infighting, Ukraine might have the opportunity to score more battlefield successes — and that in turn could further undermine Putin’s hold on power.

There is a lesson here for all future tyrants who might think of launching wars of aggression. Are you paying attention, Xi Jinping?


Post a Comment