Putin's back is against the wall after failed Wagner mutiny - how he might respond is of enormous concern

26 June 2023, 17:55

Vladimir Putin's back is against the wall, Megan Gittoes says
Vladimir Putin's back is against the wall, Megan Gittoes says. Picture: Alamy

By Megan Gittoes

Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin may have abandoned his mission to Moscow, but he leaves a visible stain on the Russian regime.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

He has exposed the weakness of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial rule to the world. Let’s be under no illusion as to the scale of Putin’s humiliation.

Prigozhin and his men walked into the Southern Military Command last week - a critical HQ feeding the war - without a bullet fired. Russian soldiers clearly didn’t feel that Wagner or Prigozhin was the enemy.

In the face of mutiny, a once globally feared dictator didn’t know what to do – he simply watched, wrongfooted, as his army sat on their hands and rebels got within two hours of the Russian capital.

And though the rebels retreated, and Putin narrowly avoided civil war, what happens next may not be of his own choosing. We hear today that Prigozhin will take 8,000 of his fighters to Belarus.

Read more: Wagner marched on Moscow in protest because Kremlin was about to axe private army, Yevgeny Prigozhin says

Read more: Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin should 'be careful around open windows' after failed coup, warns former CIA boss

This will not be the end of the matter – and the West must be prepared for that. Russian morale in the field will have taken a battering. Why die for a collapsing regime? The chaos from the weekend has provided Ukraine with a much-needed boost as its offensive continues. Throughout Russia’s history, the power of a narrow elite and a paucity of political rights for everyone else has been secured by military strength.

Collapse on the battlefield has led to reform or collapse of the state: after the Crimean War, World War One and the Afghan War, to name but three. Russia may be headed for military collapse.

As it stands, the world is looking at a confused and weak regime. Putin’s back is now well and truly against the wall – how he might respond should be of enormous concern not just for Ukraine but its allies as well. He is a vulnerable leader with the knowledge he neither has the weaponry nor the loyalty to stop a mutiny. But this does not mean he will be ousted tomorrow.

The question now is: will Putin punish those in his command who did not stand in Prigozhin’s way, or will he try to demonstrate strength by retaliating against the Western world who watched as he was publicly belittled by a monster of his own making?

Megan Gittoes is Director of Communications at the Henry Jackson Society