Putin's Biggest Mistakes in the Wagner Uprising

Russian President Vladimir Putin is damaged goods. He may have survived this weekend’s mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group of mercenaries. In reacting as he did, though, Putin not only made himself even weaker but planted the idea of his impotence in the minds of Russians and the world.

Of course, Putin had to show himself and say something to the nation as Prigozhin’s mercenaries seized the southern Russian city of Rostov and started driving north toward Moscow. But what exactly? The mutineers were “betraying” the nation in its fight against “neo-Nazis” and the West, Putin asserted limply. That much was expected. The mistakes came next.

The first one was comparing Prigozhin’s coup attempt to the mutiny of Russian soldiers in early 1917. That planted three parallels in Russian minds that’ll be hard to erase. First, there’s a weak and unpopular Tsar — Nicholas II, later executed with his family, then, Putin today. Second, there’s a war going on that Russia is losing — World War I then, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now. Third, there’ll soon be the revolution and civil war, so start thinking about which side to be on.

The second mistake was even graver. Putin promised his response “will be harsh.” The mutineers will “inevitably be punished,” he said. The traitors “will be held to account.”

With this macho talk, he was channeling his old strongman persona, forgetting to pause and think whether he still had the power to make good on his bluster. Apparently, it occurred to him only later that he didn’t, for he decided to take a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko instead. It lets Prigozhin, and presumably some of his mercenaries, move to Belarus, while Russia formally drops all charges against him. Harsh punishment looks different.

The cognitive dissonance of Lukashenko making the phone call made Putin’s climbdown even more humiliating. In recent years, it’s been the dictator in Moscow who’s had to rescue the one in Minsk from the revolutionary energies of their subjects. In their meetings, Putin was always careful to display a silverback body language that made the physically towering Lukashenko look like a minion of the Kremlin. Now the roles have reversed.