By Harsh V. Pant
Wars reveal a nation’s vulnerabilities in ways that are often striking as well as surprising. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation” against Ukraine in February last year, he has exposed the strategic weakness of Russia as a nation, step by step. His strategic, operational and tactical miscalculations in launching frontal aggression against Ukraine will haunt Russia for years to come. But even he couldn’t foresee that the greatest challenge to his authority since coming to power more than two decades ago would come from one of his closest associates – the Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Though the mutiny by Prigozhin was contained in 24 hours, the shock of what happened continues to reverberate in the corridors of power in Kremlin and far beyond. In his address to Russians after the mutiny broke out, Putin had suggested that the organisers of the march to Moscow would be “brought to justice,” terming Prigozhin’s actions as stabbing Russia in the back. But when it came to the resolution of the crisis, a pact was negotiated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin is in Belarus as part of that deal that has given him security assurance as well as the dropping of a criminal case against him, while his fighters have been asked to get absorbed in the Russian army or go to Belarus. This has unnerved regional states like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Putin may have managed to contain the crisis for the time being, but the entire episode raises questions about the functioning of Russian state institutions and Putin’s own control over the state apparatus. He laid the foundation of this crisis long back when he allowed mercenaries like the Wagner group to conduct military campaigns on Russia’s behalf.
Some of the biggest successes on the Ukrainian battlefield belong to the forces of Prigozhin while the regular Russian forces have been performing in a shambolic manner. Prigozhin has been targeting the Russian defence leadership directly for some time, and as the Russian Defence Ministry moved ahead with plans to absorb Prigozhin’s mercenaries, he decided to strike back in a manner that underlined his powers to the nation and the leadership. The fact that Prigozhin is safely ensconced in Belarus speaks to the leverage he has when it comes to dealing with Putin. For all his disdain for treason, Putin is having to bear Prigozhin even after being directly humiliated, at least for now.
But this means that Putin will now need something else to resurrect his dwindling authority. An escalation vis-a-vis Ukraine is the most likely outcome. Missile strikes on various Ukrainian cities have already started, with reports of Russia hitting multiple civilian targets across Ukraine. Russia is making it clear that domestic turbulence notwithstanding, the war against Ukraine will go on with all the ferociousness at Russia’s disposal. The Russian military will try to project a sense of normalcy by going on the offensive.
While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the Wagner insurrection has exposed “real cracks” in Putin’s authority and was a “direct challenge” to the Kremlin, China has termed the incident as “Russia’s internal affair”. Underlining close ties between the two authoritarian nations, the statement from Beijing remarked that “as a friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner in the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability.” But concerns must be rising in China about the long-term economic and political ties with a nation that seems to be precariously poised on the edge of a precipice. Chinese investors are much more likely to hold off engaging Russia. Even before this mutiny, there were signs that China was becoming cautious about the future of its economic ties with Russia.
India too will be watching carefully how the events unfold in Russia. New Delhi has struggled to maintain a semblance of balance in its ties with Moscow and the West ever since the war started in Ukraine. While India has strong reasons to cultivate Russia, the choices that Vladimir Putin has been making do not bode well for the future of this relationship. Political instability in Russia is the last thing India needs when it is trying to cope with a menacing China on its borders and beyond.
Already, Russia’s war against Ukraine has scuttled the supply of critical weaponry to India, challenging New Delhi’s operational readiness at a time when there is volatility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This has accelerated the process of defence diversification that New Delhi started long back.
But beyond defence ties, India needs a stable, viable Russia for a stable balance of power in Eurasia. That likelihood is becoming remote by the day as Putin’s decision-making continues to expose Russian vulnerabilities. Putin may not go anywhere in a hurry but the turbulence he has generated will have long-term consequences, not only for Russia but also for its friends and foes alike.
About the author: Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at King’s College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.