Launching an aggressive war is perhaps the greatest gamble that a political leader can make. Over a year into Russia’s grueling invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now beginning to taste the consequences of betting poorly.
On Friday, armed paramilitaries under the leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin — a former caterer turned commander of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization —launched what looked like a coup against Putin’s regime. At the height of the action over the past 24 hours, troops under Prigozhin’s command captured the strategic city of Rostov-on-Don and barreled toward Moscow. Prigozhin reportedly turned his troops around late on Saturday following a negotiated settlement, but it was the first major crack in Putin’s armor. Putin, who has positioned himself as an inheritor of past Russian imperial glory, may ultimately suffer the fate of many czars before him: a military uprising against his own rule, fueled by the blowback of a failing war.
“It’s a stab in the back of our country and our people. Exactly this strike was dealt in 1917 when the country was in World War I, but its victory was stolen,” Putin said in an address Friday night, comparing the insurrection to the uprising that destroyed czarist Russia during the First World War. “Intrigues and arguments behind the army’s back turned out to be the greatest catastrophe: destruction of the army and the state, loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war.”
The extreme-right Wagner Group has little in common with the left-wing Bolsheviks who took power in the revolution that overthrew Czar Nicholas II and founded the Soviet Union. But the background circumstances of the insurrection that threatened Putin’s regime — particularly the unhappiness brought by a failing war — nonetheless resemble those that sparked the uprising more than a century ago.
Though the czar’s opponents were heavily motivated by the ideology of revolutionary communism, the revolution could not have occurred without the incredible carnage of World War I; the suffering during the war provided the fuel that fired the revolt.
Russians, tired of being thrown into the meat grinder of trench warfare for reasons that had little to do with their own lives or interests, eventually turned on the czar, backing whichever movement seemed most capable of putting a quick end to the conflict. The war ultimately fed mass disillusionment against czarist rule, breathing life into the mix of angry populist movements that eventually destroyed Nicholas II’s regime, while convincing ordinary Russians that they had little to gain from defending their last monarch.
“Russia was more unstable and had more serious internal dilemmas than many other great powers, and so the degree to which the shock of war resulted in chaos was correspondingly more intense,” Steven Miner, an expert on Russian history at Ohio University, observed in an analysis on the influence of World War I on Russian society — words that could easily describe contemporary Russia. “Collapse minus war was possible, but in my view not certain. Involvement in the cataclysm of war made it nearly inevitable.”
Putin’s dictatorship, too, is characterized by a mixture of incompetence, corruption, and indifference to the suffering of its own population. Russian society has been rapidly immiserated by the invasion of Ukraine, launched in early 2022. While well-off Russians have left the country for places like Turkey and Dubai, tens of thousands, and perhaps far more, have been sent to die on the bleak battlefields of war-torn eastern Ukraine, including thousands of former prison convicts recruited as fighters for the Wagner Group. Just as World War I was launched in the interest of monarchs with little concern for the lives of those fighting it, the purpose of these deaths in Ukraine remains unclear to many Russians, while an end to the conflict remains nowhere on the horizon.
Prigozhin, who claims to command at least 25,000 troops at present, emerged to capitalize on this unhappy situation. He has made no secret about the influence of the mismanaged war in Ukraine on his thinking. The catastrophic sacrifices of life over small scraps of territory that the past year has seen in Ukraine are eerily similar to the futile battles and trench warfare of World War I. In places like Bakhmut, cities have been reduced to rubble at the cost of thousands of dead on all sides. The Wagner Group leader has accused Russian military leadership of hiding the true toll of the war with false casualty numbers, as well as exaggerating the threat that Ukraine and NATO posed to Russia before the war began.
“Huge numbers of our fighters, of our combat comrades, have been killed,” Prigozhin said in an audio message posted to Telegram. “The evil that the military leadership of the country bears must be stopped. They neglect the lives of soldiers. They forget the word ‘justice.’”
Prigozhin described his insurrection as a “march of justice” rather than a coup, vowing to confront Russia’s military leadership. Though details are still unclear, some reports indicate that the Wagner chief won concessions in exchange for withdrawing his troops, including a change in military personnel leading the war. The mercenary commander has been a vocal critic of Russian military brass since the war began, particularly its Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Russian military put up a limited resistance to his offensive, declining to fight the Wagner Group in Rostov-on-Don. The Russian government nonetheless treated his insurrection as a mortal threat, filing criminal charges against Prigozhin for “inciting an armed uprising,” and deploying military troops and police across Moscow in anticipation of the Wagner troops’ arrival.
Should he ever succeed in taking power, Prigozhin would not inaugurate a more liberal or progressive Russia. Given the hideous track record of his organization, the opposite is more likely. Nor is there any indication that he would end the war in Ukraine if given the chance. Yet the Wagner Group chief has now emerged as the most serious threat to Putin’s rule since he took power over two decades ago. For this opportunity, which likely won’t be the last, Prigozhin has a failing war and its impact on an autocratic ruling regime to thank.
“The war placed Russian society in a state of extreme tension,” Vladimir Lenin observed with satisfaction a century ago, reflecting on the impact of World War I on his czarist enemies. “The revolution drew its first breath from the war.”