The writer is principal counsellor at Earendel Associates and a former adviser to Nato on Russia

When news of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s insurrection broke, the first question was, is this theatre or is it real? It has turned out to be both. Despite a degree of theatre, this was not a play scripted by Vladimir Putin. It was a real threat to the Russian president and, though some may believe he has prevailed, domestically (where it matters) his image as an omnipotent Tsar has been gravely damaged.

With hindsight, it appears that the trigger for Prigozhin’s boldly executed insurrection was not only nationalist fervour and righteous anger, but money. In a democracy, money can bring you power. But in Russia’s feudal mafia system, only power can bring you money. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s order that Wagner soldiers must sign up as army troops was in effect a massive cut in Prigozhin’s income.

Prigozhin’s move to reassert his power was a risk, but a justified one: having worked closely with the military for months, he was aware of the widespread dissatisfaction with the army leadership. He also understood the fragility of Putin’s position. These assessments proved correct. When Wagner forces occupied the southern Russian city of Rostov, they met no significant army opposition; in the march on Moscow, neither the military, the FSB security service nor Rosgvardia, Putin’s “praetorian guard”, took any effective measures to stop them.

On the other hand, Prigozhin had only about 4,500 men with him — not enough to seize and hold a city if any troops had rallied to defend Putin. Nor were there any evident demonstrations of popular support for Prigozhin until he withdrew, although this could have been because events simply moved too quickly. The instinctive reaction seems to have been, let’s watch and wait.

As the crisis came to a stand-off, it was rumoured that Putin had fled Moscow. Prigozhin faced an uncertain situation with an inadequate force. In the end, both men worked out what benefit they could salvage. The ultimate indignity for Putin must have been having to rely on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to negotiate a deal. Prigozhin, it would appear, was bought off with an amnesty, a massive financial settlement and a soft landing in Belarus.

What next? Putin will find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to rebuild his image in the eyes of the Russian people. How quickly will the state degrade, and will anyone be able to prop it up? Two decades of his rule have hollowed out Russia’s institutions; the system cannot function without a strong hand at the wheel, and Putin’s hand is no longer strong. If, as is now rumoured, he replaces Shoigu with the governor of Tula, Alexei Dyumin, and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov with Sergei Surovikin, it may be weakened further.

Moreover, Prigozhin’s coup attempt will have seriously damaged Russia’s war effort. The general staff had begun to improve the army’s performance but they were unable to improve the morale of the Russian soldiers. As their high command is shown to be incompetent and their political leadership weak, that morale is certain to drop ever lower.

Putin’s main problem is that he has no obvious successor. Prigozhin has disqualified himself. If Putin cannot reestablish a firm grip on power, which seems unlikely, Putin will have to find a strong person who will guarantee his safe retirement. In 1999 he provided Boris Yeltsin with that guarantee. In Georgia’s Rose revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili did the same for Eduard Shevardnadze. Who will do it now for Putin? 

Meanwhile, the army faces more problems in Ukraine. Prigozhin in Belarus may not remain passive. Putin may cling to power at all costs, perhaps resorting to more extreme atrocities in Ukraine. Russia now faces a period of considerable uncertainty. Prigozhin’s insurrection may be over, but the drama is just beginning.

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