Vladimir Putin must be thanking his stars now, perhaps prematurely. The coup threat by Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have receded. Mr Putin seems to have survived a major threat to his autocratic reign. But, will he be able to ward off coup threats for ever? Can he remain immune to future attempts to overthrow him? The emphatic answer to these questions is no. As Mr Prigozhin began pulling back on June 24th abruptly, perceptions of threat to Mr Putin have only magnified.

It all began on June 24th. The events on that day unfolded quickly. In a dramatic development, Mr Prigozhin launched his armed uprising against Mr Putin in the morning. By evening, the Wagner chief surprised many by calling off his subversive march. The march, which had all the marks of an organised coup, was aborted by Mr Prigozhin with the same suddenness that had marked its launch. His battle-hardened forces looked a tad disappointed with his inscrutable about-turn. https://nypost.com/2023/06/24/wagner-groups-coup-was-short- lived-but-the-end-is-near-for-putin/

The Quickie’s Aims and Achievements

For good reason. Mr Prigozhin had dispatched his columns on a 1,000km march to Moscow. His forces had almost hit Moscow – they were a mere 200km away – when Mr Prigozhin ordered his forces to retreat. The reason he doled out was odd for a mercenary: he did not like to see the shedding of Russian blood. Such a reason coming from a battle-hardened mercenary was ludicrous. Yet, Mr Prigozhin said that and therein lies some mystery for war scribes to unravel.

Much seemed to have happened between the launch of Mr Prigozhin-led coup attempt and its withdrawal. This is evident in his decision to move his forces towards Belarus. Sure, Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus and ideological pal of Mr Putin, could successfully convince Mr Prigozhin to smoke the peace pipe, turn back and move towards Belarus. Thus, dictator Lukashenko brokered the peace deal, both in Mr Putin’s and his own interests. At the end of it all, Russologists were left wondering what Mr Prigozhin had aimed to accomplish and what he really achieved with his quickie. https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine- shoots-down-russian-cruise-missile-barrage-9d9da03a

Video Courtesy: YouTube/The Wall Street Journal

Losing his Grip on War Generals

One view is that the former hot-dog chef and Mr Putin’s palate-tickler wanted to created divisions in the Russian army and thereby weaken Russia’s defences in Ukraine. Quite possible that Mr Prigozhin had extracted some sort of passive backing from the Russian army. This theory explains why there was so little resistance to Mr Prigozhin and his mercenaries as they rolled on with confidence and ease towards Moscow.

Despite questions over the soundness of this theory, Mr Prigozhin’s success in taking over the Russian military infrastructure in the strategic city of Rosotov-on-Don in Southern Russia proves one important thing. Mr Putin is losing his grip on his war generals and signs of discontent are emerging fast within their ranks. Mr Prigozhin’s march has considerably weakened Mr Putin. Thus, his offences in Ukraine in the coming days will suffer as a result. Analysts predict an era of instability in store for Mr Putin and his autocracy now. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jun/24/rostov-on-don- why-russian-city-targeted-wagner-group

Threat Exists in the Backyard

Many of them had sensed the growing rift between the Russian army and the Wagner forces. The Russian army was very unhappy about the growing popularity of Mr Prigozhin among nationalist Russians. Making matters worse, the Wagner men had accused the Russian army, on quite a few occasions, for launching unwarranted attacks on them. Upset, the Wagner forces had even staged a mini revolt on June 23rd over this issue. The ease with which Mr Prigozhin and his forces took over Russia’s Southern military headquarters in Rostov tells a lot about the growing rift between the Russian army and the Wagner forces.

These fissures will remain Mr Putin’s major headache for long in the coming days. More so as Mr Prigozhin seems to be working to a plan. Taking over the military centre in Rostov, Russia’s command and logistical hub for its war in Ukraine, proves this. Later Mr Prigozhin triggered armed fighting in Veronov too and shot down many Russian military aircrafts. Clearly, such calculated offences by Wagner should make Mr Putin nervous. For once, he should be realising graver threats to his autocratic reign exist in his own backyard. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/23/europe/wagner-prigozhin- criminal-case-explainer-intl/index.html

Cracks within the Russian Army

Little surprising that Mr Putin declared the attempted coup was back-stabbing. Though he vowed severe punishment to the traitors, an unfazed Prigozhin went on to assert that his men, in fact, were patriots fighting for Russia’s future. Even as Mr Putin maintained a stoic countenance, he was jittery within. How else to explain his departure from Moscow towards the North soon after Mr Prigozhin’s aborted coup attempt had inflicted cracks in Russia’s armed forces.

These cracks are bound to widen in future. A large section of the Russian army seem to have major issues over deployment of Wagner forces in Russia’s war in Ukraine. The disgruntled Russian armymen contend that the Wagners were originally meant only for military operations in Africa – in Central African Republic, Libya, Madagaskar, Mozambique and Sudan. They argue using the Wagners in the war in Ukraine means casting serious doubts over the ability, integrity and loyalty of the dedicated and patriotic Russian army. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/wagnergroup russia-insurrection-middle-east-africa

The Megalomaniacal Special Operation

Yet, there was no denying of the fact that the former-convicts hired by Mr Prigozhin proved to be better militarists against demoralised Russian forces. It is common knowledge that Russian forces have been sapped of their spirits by corrupt and incompetent defence ministers and top military generals. Mr Prigozhin had even talked openly about the calculated non-supply of arms and ammunition to his forces by these partisan generals. These fissures and differences will now have serious long-term consequences for a self-obsessed Mr Putin’s durability at the helm.

However, as recently in May, matters turned uglier. This happened after Mr Prigozhin and his Wagner force declared that they had taken over Bakhmut. Feeling insulted, the Russian army tried to control the Wagners and force them out of the frontlines in Bakhmut. Yet, Mr Prigozhin and his men drew admiration from one and all, except the Russian military, for their exemplary show of courage and valiance in Bakhmut. Pepped up by the adulation, Mr Prigozhin went on to question the legitimacy of Mr Putin’s special-military operation in Ukraine, launched for megalomaniacal reasons. https://www.bbc.com/news/worldeurope-65705733

Evoking Bolshevik Memories

Mr Prigozhin had hinted about the coup then. He had vowed his forces would reply to Mr Putin’s evil acts. He had even promised to launch a “march of justice” against Russian forces soon. All throughout, he has been careful not to describe his promised corrective actions as a military coup. This has helped him to occupy the moral high ground and has led European analysts to wonder whether Mr Prigozhin is vying for Mr Putin’s presidential chair. Perhaps Mr Putin smelt a rat then in Mr Prigozhin’s moves.

Losing no time, Mr Putin went on to evoke memories of the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war that happened later. Staying focused, Mr Putin began to project himself as Russia’s saviour, someone determined to protect the nation from slipping into a chaotic and bloody hellhole. Yet, this did not stop the West from worrying. For the simple fact that Russia’s nuclear pile is under the direct control of Mr Putin and his corrupt ministers and generals. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/prigozhin-rebellion-putin- fate-russia-future-stephen-kotkin

Wagner Settled for Such Crumbs

It was then the Putin-loyal Chechen rebels stepped in, but it was not of much consequence. The Chechens were followed by the Belarusian president, who was worried more about his own political fate if Mr Putin is overthrown. In a tearing hurry, Mr Lukashenko hammered out a peace deal as a power-broker with an eye on resolving the crisis facing Mr Putin and him. Of late, Wagner has been given acceptable options, which a smart Mr Prigozin could not refuse.

The Wagner fighters too were taken care of, as they were assured of security guarantees. Surprising that Wagner, determined to destroy the evil forces in Russia, settled for such crumbs. This is why the theory that Mr Prigozhin has bought time for a bigger assault later on Mr Putin is fast gaining ground. Mr Prigozhin and his spunky Wagner forces may have vanished from the scene for the time being now. But, the insidious threats they pose to an insecure Mr Putin are very much alive under the feel-good Russian presidential chair. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/06/26/world/belarus- public-relations-victory/

Wagner is Sedated for Now

Though Mr Putin had vowed harsh punishment to traitors, he had to settle down quickly for lenience and magnanimity. Mr Lukashenko has something to do with this generous act of Mr Putin. Criminal charges against Mr Prigozhin have been dropped. Plus, he has been provided unconditional shelter, perhaps asylum, in Belarus. The Wagner fighters who were not part of the coup attempt have been inducted into the Russian army. Sounds fine, but warrants caution. This magananimous induction may turn out to be a replay of the Trojan Horse syndrome. So, Mr Putin has not eliminated the threats, but has only ensured they have been sedated for the time being. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66006860

By default, Mr Prigozhin seems to have succeeded on a different level. His aborted coup will certainly cause more cracks in Russian army’s operations in the Ukraine war theatre. As the Wagner men had demonstrated their firepower in Bakhmut and even claimed victory, a temporarily subdued Wagner and its chief will be a potential threat to Mr Putin’s survival. Even now in this coup attempt, Wagner did take over the militarily-strategic Rostov-on-Don, and had decent successes in Voronezh. If Mr Putin thinks the threat is gone for good, he is doing so at his own peril.

A Shot in the Arm for Ukraine

Ukrainians must be rejoicing over these developments in Russia. They are sure to hope that Mr Prigozhin returns with greater vengeance and firepower. They must be wishing a good number of Russian forces fighting the Ukrainians on the frontlines are diverted to handle the Wagner crisis Mr Putin is facing at home. Even if that does not happen, Ukraine should still feel happy about l’affaire Wagner as it has weakened the Russian forces and has broken Mr Putin’s total concentration on Ukraine.

Moreover, if Wagner forces are allowed to return to fight the war in Ukraine, it will further deepen the fissures between them and the Russian army. This does not augur well for Mr Putin and his obsession with victory in Ukraine. Anyway, Russia will now stand to lose many tens of thousands of its soldiers, and it will be hard to replace them. Ukraine’s counter-offensive, which is turning weak of late, will get a shot in the arm. So much so that Ukraine may even retake Bakhmut. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/newatlanticist/experts react/prigozhin-rebellion/

In Conclusion

In this drama, the most worried will be Mr Putin’s generals. They are sure to bother much about their own future than Russia’s prospects in the war in Ukraine. All the trickle effects will hamper Mr Putin’s war in Ukraine to a great extent. Mr Putin may turn his attention to rebuilding his forces post-Wagner, which will take his eyes off the war in Ukraine, at least to some extent. The overriding message from Mr Prigozhin-created storm in the Vodka shot glass is this: it is high time Mr Putin realised his war in Ukraine is unwinnable. In many ways, Mr Prigozhin is the Frankenstein Monster in Mr Putin’s Ukraine laboratory.