Yevgeny Prigozhin is a dead man walking. But so is Vladimir Putin.
In an insane series of events over the weekend, Russian mercenary leader Prigozhin launched what appeared to be a coup against Putin’s regime, marching his Wagner Group mercenaries from their positions in Ukraine, where they had been fighting alongside the Russian military, into Russia. They seized control of Rostov-on-Don, a key military hub, before marching north to Moscow. Prigozhin and his troops met little resistance from the Russian military; he seemed poised to enter the capital and seize power. Nothing would stop him, he said, vowing that “we will go to the end.”
But his bravado didn’t last long. Just as Wagner forces were closing in on Moscow Saturday, Prigozhin suddenly reversed himself. He cut a deal with the Russian president, brokered by Alexander Lukashenko — Belarus’s autocratic leader and a close Putin ally — and announced that his troops would turn back. Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia and go into a sort of exile in Belarus, while Putin agreed to drop a charge of armed rebellion against Prigozhin and grant immunity to his men in connection with the rebellion. Some Wagner forces seem likely to be integrated into the Russian army.
It is still not certain what Saturday’s deal really means and whether it represents an end to the crisis or merely a short-term tactical shift in an ongoing duel between Prigozhin and Putin. But one thing is clear: Prigozhin lost his nerve on Saturday. He had a golden opportunity to seize power at a moment when Putin was surprised and vulnerable. The Russian military had many of its resources in Ukraine rather than Russia, and Wagner’s heavily armed forces had at least the potential to outgun the remaining Russian security services guarding Moscow.
But Prigozhin’s moment was fleeting. Now the odds are good that Putin will have his rival murdered. The Russian leader has had opponents thrown out of windows for far less. To think that Lukashenko, a Putin stooge, will protect Prigozhin in Belarus is madness. Moscow has a long reach; Putin has had plenty of opponents assassinated in the West, and Minsk, the capital of Belarus, might as well be a suburb of Moscow.
If Prigozhin believes Putin will abide by their deal, he isn’t thinking straight — which may be why he launched the coup attempt in the first place.
But Putin is a dead man walking, too, because his tenuous hold on power has now been exposed to the world. Prigozhin’s rebellion has revealed that Putin’s regime is a hollow shell and doesn’t really have a monopoly on violence in Russia.
On Saturday, Putin gave an angry national address, calling Prigozhin’s rebellion treasonous and “a stab in the back of our country and our people.” But just a few hours later, he negotiated the settlement with Prigozhin. Putin’s actions showed the Russian people and the rest of the world that when confronted by a powerful adversary, he will blink. That is certainly the lesson now being absorbed by leaders in Ukraine and at NATO.
Putin’s only play to remain in power may be to have Prigozhin murdered once he settles into exile in Belarus. Prigozhin, meanwhile, may be condemned to await his assassin, even as he wonders what might have been.