The coup attempt has been brewing for some time, particularly after Putin and Shoigu ordered PWC Wagner to come under the control of the Ministry of Defense by the end of June. This directive from the top effectively aimed to strip Prigozhin, a key player in the power struggle for Putin's legacy, of his sole advantage.
PWC Wagner, funded by Russian oligarchs and the defense ministry's budget, naturally grew into a formidable force during the military operations in Ukraine. The rivalry between Prigozhin and Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov created insurmountable problems in managing offensive and defensive operations. No army could withstand the complications arising from dual subordination and command issues.
Like corruption, which was Putin's most successful export commodity abroad, it has now returned to haunt him and significantly undermined the economic and financial foundation of his grip on power. Notably, it has also hampered his ability to sustain weapons and munitions production at a rate sufficient to support ongoing operations in Ukraine. Private armies initially designed for covert operations, evading restrictions on official Russian troops, have become a nightmare threatening their creator.
What are Prigozhin's chances?
He has already succeeded by dealing a devastating psychological blow to Putin, from which the latter will be unable to recover. It's worth noting that this blow didn't come from the "liberal opposition" or the imprisoned Navalny but from a "war hero" who captured the attention of ordinary Russians and the patriotic elite, albeit at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties among Wagnerites. Today, pro-Kremlin propagandists argue that these casualties were criminals, but that label did not hinder their deaths in Putin's name during operations in Bakhmut.
Can Prigozhin succeed despite being outnumbered by hundreds of thousands?
It's not solely a matter of numerical balance but rather a comparison of motivation, determination, and who holds the initiative, including control over the media. Prigozhin and his followers express the discontent those fighting in Ukraine felt due to the widespread corruption, abuses, and a complete breakdown in operational management. Yes, Putin can mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters in Moscow, but there are factors to consider:
- Putin will inevitably face challenges when using force against his people on home soil. There remains some degree of public tolerance, and any semblance of a civil war in Russia will tarnish his power status and be seen as an admission of failure.
- The loyalty of the FSB (Federal Security Service) and Rosguard (National Guard) is questionable; their allegiance, like any bodyguard, may shift with changes in power. The FSB alone cannot control the military.
- Prigozhin is a 'turbo' patriot, and his coup offers the Russian elite an opportunity to escape the impasse in Ukraine, which is unlikely under Putin's leadership. There is a growing weariness among Russians, as many yearn for victory but even more so for an end to the conflict.
It is essential to monitor the situation closely. If Prigozhin advances after Voronezh, Putin will have to negotiate with him, resulting in the downfall of Shoigu and Gerasimov. Putin may then assume a role similar to Gorbachev after the Yeltsin putsch.