Prigozhin’s Belarus getaway after mutiny may trigger more anti-Putin actions: Experts

By Sunday, Russian state troops had retreated from Moscow, and the rebelling mercenary soldiers who had seized other cities had also vanished. However, this short-lived insurrection has weakened President Vladimir Putin at a critical time when his forces confront an intense counter-offensive in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin called off his Wagner forces’ march on Moscow after agreeing to a deal, mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which will see the Wagner chief exiled in Belarus without any legal action taken against him in Russia.

Prigozhin’s rebellion marked the climax of his ongoing public feud with top Russian military brass – namely, defense minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov – over the conduct of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, most recently, over the ministry’s mandate that all volunteering forces sign contracts with it to acquire the legal status required to operate in Ukraine.

The proposed contract system, which Prigozhin vehemently rejected, would have more tightly incorporated him and his group into the defense ministry’s structure. This would have prevented Prigozhin from expanding his own political and military sway, an endeavor he had been pursuing for months.

Prigozhin may have secured himself a safe getaway after calling off this brief revolt, but the mutiny had a resounding impact within Russia and internationally as well.

How does the Wagner mutiny reflect on Putin?

The general consensus in the global political sphere is that this is the weakest Putin has ever appeared in recent memory. Analysts argue that the fact of Prigozhin escaping Russia unscathed would only entice more challenges to Putin.

Mark N. Katz, Russian foreign policy expert and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al Arabiya English: “Conflict among subordinates, with one of them sending forces to march on the capital, does not look good for any dictator. I anticipate that there may now be other, more orchestrated, moves against Putin from inside the regular forces.”

He added: “It is extraordinary that someone could do what Prigozhin has done and then be allowed to go off to Belarus without any more serious consequence.

Others in the security services might be encouraged to try to act forcefully against Moscow if they perceive that the consequences for failing might not be all that costly.”

As for the impact of the aborted uprising on the war in Ukraine, Kyiv welcomed any problems in the backyard of their enemy, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told his US counterpart Joe Biden that the Wagner mutiny exposed the “weakness” of Putin’s regime.

Russian troops fighting in Ukraine might see in Prigozhin’s getaway an example to follow. Katz said: “Prigozhin’s actions have raised the possibility that other commanders and units can also withdraw from the conflict and perhaps go retire to Belarus as well. It’s not good for Moscow’s war effort at all.”

Additionally, Ivan Fomin, Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told Al Arabiya English: “This is an extremely acute crisis that demonstrates that Putin’s war against Ukraine threatens the existence of the Russian state. The use of private armies like the Wagner Group essentially dilutes the state monopoly of violence… The Kremlin is aware of this threat. But, as we can see, it is no longer able to deal with it effectively.”

Lukashenko’s intervention

The optics of Lukashenko’s key role in ending an armed uprising and march towards Moscow was a source of embarrassment for Putin, while it may have won the Belarusian President some bargaining power in the future.

Katz said: “By negotiating a quick resolution to the crisis, Lukashenko has made himself useful to Putin—and perhaps even made Putin beholden to him.”

As for Prigozhin’s future in repressive Belarus, Katz added: “Prigozhin may only be able to do what Lukashenko allows him to do. But if Putin does anything Lukashenko doesn’t like, Lukashenko may give Prigozhin more freedom of action. In short, Lukashenko may now have some leverage over Putin that the Belarusian leader did not have before—assuming, of course, that Prigozhin survives in exile.”

Washington-based think tank Institute of Study of War (ISW) said in an assessment that Lukashenko is likely to capitalize on the successful resolution of the rebellion to further his objectives, such as delaying the formalization of the Russia-Belarus Union State or preventing Putin from employing Belarusian forces in Ukraine.

What was Prigozhin’s gamble with this revolt?

It’s difficult to ascertain what provoked Prigozhin to take such extreme measures, but Fomin posits a few likely scenarios which could have influenced him to incite the revolt.

One perspective is that Prigozhin felt cornered, possibly seeing the rebellion as his final opportunity to ensure his political and physical survival. The Wagner group could have grown problematic for the Kremlin to the point where discussions about disbanding this private army were underway. With the potential loss of his army, Prigozhin may have faced the threat of losing his influence. Additionally, there could have been a risk that the Kremlin would eliminate him due to his high-profile status and the complications that he was creating.

Alternatively, Prigozhin might have initiated this revolt not out of desperation but out of a belief that he could enhance his standing through this rebellion. In this scenario, he may have anticipated support from some members of Putin’s elite who would back the Wagner group and join them in challenging the defense minister. This theory assumes that Prigozhin was banking on the support of those in power who supported the idea of fully mobilizing Russian society, militarizing the economy, and implementing Stalin-style purges at the top.

Another scenario suggests that Prigozhin believed Putin would ally with him. As inferred from Prigozhin’s video message released just prior to the revolt, it appears he was offering Putin an opportunity to attribute the failure of the war against Ukraine to the leadership of the Ministry of Defense. In other words, he may have set the stage for Putin to support him in his conflict with Defense Minister Shoigu.

Lastly, it’s conceivable that Prigozhin anticipated that portions of the Russian military would defect to his side. As per Prigozhin’s own admission, such a shift did occur, although the extent of the military’s involvement in the rebellion remains uncertain.

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