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The Rebellion by Russian Warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin: Uncertainty and Questions About Putin’s Hold on Power and the War in Ukraine

The recent rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian warlord, has caused uncertainty and speculation about the future of Russian politics and the war in Ukraine. The rebellion, which was apparently called off after negotiations with Belarusian strongman Lukashenka, has created questions about the strength of the Russian state and Putin's hold on power. Authoritarian regimes like Putin's rely on creating a sense of invulnerability, and challenges from warlords like Prigozhin call that myth into question.[0]

The rebellion has raised concerns about the divisions within the Russian elite, with hawks who want the conquest of Kyiv and kleptocrats who want to go back to the pre-February 24, 2022 world.[0] Neither of these things will occur, resulting in no one being satisfied.[0] The hawks pose a greater threat to the regime and wield more power than the other faction.[0] This has put Putin in a very precarious position regardless of how Prigozhin's rebellion is resolved.

The aftermath of the rebellion and its impact on Putin's hold on power and the war in Ukraine are still unknown. The general assumption is that the Russian state is stronger than Prigozhin and his (supposed) 25,000 troops, and that the state will crush the rebellion and prevail.[1] However, it is possible that Russian troops share Prigozhin's assessment that they were simply being led to the slaughter, and choose to join him.[1]

Prigozhin's rebellion needs to be viewed in several contexts.[0] Third, Prigozhin's kryshas in this informal system appear to be abandoning him.[0] He has already been disavowed by General Sergei Surovikin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.[0] It is difficult to conceive of Rosgvardia leader Viktor Zolotov, who is also purportedly an ally, choosing Prigozhin over Putin.[2] This probably accounts for Prigozhin's tactical retreat.[0] Even if the present dilemma is resolved, the fundamental reason behind it will persist and further weaken the regime.[0]

It's difficult to feel sympathetic towards Prigozhin himself.[3] It is important to note that he is not to be mistaken for renowned Putin adversaries like the incarcerated opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, or the murdered politician, Boris Nemtsov.[3] Prigozhin is a violent criminal who has personally authorized the brutal killing of individuals whom he believed had betrayed him, using a sledgehammer as the weapon of choice.[3] A longtime Putin crony who started as the Russian leader's personal chef and turned his friendship with Putin into a lucrative business empire, Prigozhin's Wagner Group is Russia's most infamous private mercenary organization and has some of Russia's most battle-tested fighters.[3] Prigozhin has also been under U.S. sanctions for years due in part to his financing of “troll farms” to interfere in U.S. elections.[3]

On June 24, Putin reiterated the Kremlin's primary storyline regarding their conflict with Ukraine in his speech.[4] He characterized the groups headed by Prigozhin as disloyal elements that are sabotaging Russia during a critical period, restating his baseless assertion that the incursion was not a hostile action but an essential measure to counteract the West's attempt to utilize Ukraine to disintegrate Russia or, at the very least, to attain its “strategic defeat.”[4]

The rebellion has shown just how weak the Putin regime is and how the Russian president's own “chef” could potentially put nuclear-armed Russia into the hands of a fragile and extremely dangerous dictatorship of former KGB officers and hardened criminals—Vory v Zakone.[0] By shielding Putin from his outbursts, Prigozhin has raised doubts about the President's leadership abilities and suggested that he cannot effectively manage his key deputies or may be easily deceived.[5]

Overall, Prigozhin's rebellion has created uncertainty about the future of Russian politics and the war in Ukraine, and has weakened Putin's hold on power. It remains to be seen how Putin and his elites will rally to reassert dominance after an open challenge and what comes next.[0]

0. “Experts react: What Russia's Wagner Group rebellion means for Putin, Ukraine, China, and more” Atlantic Council, 24 Jun. 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react/prigozhin-rebellion

1. “The Beginning of the End of Russia's War on Ukraine” Center for European Policy Analysis, 24 Jun. 2023, https://cepa.org/article/the-beginning-of-the-end-of-russias-war-on-ukraine

2. “Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? – POLITICO” POLITICO, 24 Jun. 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/06/23/yevgeny-prigozhin-russia-ukraine-00103521

3. “Russia Wagner Group Mutiny: Prigozhin Has Pierced Putin's Armor” Foreign Policy, 24 Jun. 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/06/24/russia-wagner-group-mutiny-prigozhin-coup-putin-rostov/

4. “Prigozhin's ‘Mutiny' And The Challenge To Putin” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 24 Jun. 2023, https://www.rferl.org/a/prigozhin-mutiny-russia-challenge-putin/32473845.html

5. “How Prigozhin's Baby Coup Weakened Everyone in Russia” Defense One, 25 Jun. 2023, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2023/06/how-prigozhins-baby-coup-weakened-everyone-russia/387888