After Prigozhin’s Mutiny: Russia’s Elites Wait For The Fallout – Analysis


By Robert Coalson

(RFE/RL) — Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has reportedly entered exile in Belarus following an aborted mutiny that challenged Russia’s military command, and rattled the Kremlin.

But, despite the efforts of President Vladimir Putin and his administration to project an air of confidence and stability, the fallout from the Wagner rebellion is likely only just beginning, experts say.

The murky deal that defused the immediate crisis and sent Prigozhin to Belarus was only the climactic scene “before the intermission” in a still unfolding drama, Ruben Megrabyan, Yerevan-based political scientist, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Analysts have assumed Prigozhin would not have carried out his mutiny unless he expected active support from key military and intelligence officials, many of whom reportedly share his disdain for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s General Staff.

The relatively ease with which Wagner forces seized Rostov-on-Don, a city close to the Ukrainian border that is home to Russia’s southern military command, and their unhindered movement north toward Moscow are seen as circumstantial indications of possible support.

“The Wagner mercenary group boss was counting on solidarity from senior army officers,” Russian political analyst Mikhail Komin wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “and since he came close to reaching Moscow without encountering any particular resistance, he might not have been completely mistaken.”

Prigozhin has called in the past, Komin said, for Shoigu, a longtime Putin loyalist, to be replaced by Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev. A hard-nosed commander, Mizintsev was dubbed the “Butcher of Mariupol” for his conduct of the devastating, but ultimately successful, siege of the Azov Sea port city in early 2022.

‘Crash Test Of Loyalty’

Further, Prigozhin has suggested that General Sergei Surovikin, who was until January the overall commander of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, replace Gerasimov.

Surovikin coordinated closely with Prigozhin during Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, which began in 2015.

Surovikin, who has commanded Russia’s aerospace forces, also may have had “had advance knowledge of Prigozhin’s plans,” The New York Times quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying on June 28.

In the early hours of the uprising, a video of Surovikin was published on Telegram calling on Wagner troops in Ukraine not to join the mutiny and urging them to stop.

The New York Times story also noted that “American officials have an interest in pushing out information that undermines the standing of General Surovikin, whom they view as more competent and more ruthless than other members of his command.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report as just one of many examples of “speculation” about the mutiny.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, citing unnamed Western intelligence sources, reported that Prigozhin originally intended to abduct Shoigu and Gerasimov “during a visit to a southern region that borders Ukraine.” That trip was canceled after the Federal Security Service got wind of the plot, the paper said.

The uprising was a “crash test of loyalty” in the Defense Ministry that “has become the pretext for mass purges in the armed forces,” the war-focused Telegram channel Rybar wrote on June 28.

The channel, which is linked to a former Defense Ministry official and which has published detailed reports from inside the Russian military along with accurate maps of the Ukraine invasion, asserted that Russian officers were already being removed for purported failures of supply and mobilization, but “the formal excuse was their support of [Wagner].”

Rybar also claimed that airborne forces commander General Mikhail Teplinsky had de facto taken over command of operations in Ukraine, although Gerasimov retained the position formally.

‘Near-Death Experience’

In the days following the failed mutiny, Putin and his administration tried to convey an impression of unity, confidence, and stability. On June 27, Putin met with security officials and with troops that purportedly helped suppress the revolt.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a former Russian journalist who is now an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, said such a show of bravado, however, had the opposite effect.

“It was a mistake for the Kremlin to create such a show of his gratitude because, by doing so, Putin demonstrated his weakness and his fear,” Kolesnikov told RFE/RL. Putin “is showing that Prigozhin really frightened him.”

Under such circumstances, the past personal loyalty of Shoigu, Gerasimov, and others might be the deciding factor, some analysts said.

“I think [Prigozhin] actually expected something would be done about Shoigu and Gerasimov, that Putin would rule in his favor,” wrote Michael Kofman, a veteran observer of Russia’s military, on Twitter. “Instead, his mutiny may have ensured their continued tenure, despite being universally recognized as incompetent, and widely detested in the [Russian] armed forces.”

Rob Lee, a military analyst and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, agreed.

“Political loyalty trumps competence, even during a war critical to [Putin’s] political survival,” he said in a post to Twitter.

That analysis was bolstered by statements made on June 27 by Viktor Zolotov, a former Putin bodyguard who now commands the 300,000-strong National Guard.

After meeting with Putin, he said his forces would soon be given heavy weaponry, including tanks, to help ensure government security.

Zolotov “emerged…as one of the few apparent winners in the regime’s near-death experience,” Simon Shuster, a Time magazine correspondent, wrote in an analysis.

Putin has created a sort of “political Twister,” referring to the popular game in which players must maintain their balance while taking up increasingly awkward positions, journalist Galina Sidorova wrote in an essay.

“The last one standing wins,” she wrote. “Putin, who has unleashed his own personal political Twister, has now played too much, moving his minions around. And the whole country is now reaping the fruits of his games.”

‘Hard Times’ Ahead

Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, however, may feel they are among the losers, experts said.

The Russian military is facing an accelerating Ukrainian counteroffensive, and its already shaky morale could suffer further if doubts grow about commanders’ loyalties.

“The bottom line is that the morale and motivation of Russian troops, I am sure, has been shaken,” Ukrainian military expert Mykhailo Samus told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “And this process will accelerate as the war goes on. I think that Putin’s statements…have only added to the doubts about what is happening in Russia. I think hard times are just beginning for Russia’s officers and soldiers.”

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Rykovtseva and Current Time correspondent Igor Sevryugin contributed to this report.

  • Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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