The last tumultuous days bring to mind an old Russian anecdote: What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist knows that however bad things are in Russia, they can always get worse. Soon after the news broke, a Russian friend e-mailed me, “What I’m most concerned about is Russia in chaos with nukes, and someone worse than Putin coming to power.”
The timeline of the attempted coup—mutiny, putsch, armed uprising; it has been called all of these—is by now well-known. Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, launched a “march of justice”: Driven by allegations that Russia’s army had attacked a Wagner encampment, his forces sliced through Russia’s south to Rostov, heading toward Moscow. With his ragtag private army (the majority recruited from the country’s prisons), and his furious attack on Russia’s war-fighting ability and the corruption of its elites, Prigozhin seemed to be positioning himself for a succession struggle, going so far as publicly refusing to meet the July 1 deadline for private militias to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry in order be fully integrated into Russia’s regular forces.
Prigozhin has long been critical of Russia’s military leadership, publicly lashing out at its incompetence and corruption, and contrasting its purported passivity to what he touts as Wagner’s patriotism and bravery in defending the “motherland’s” interests in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond. But in a May interview on the Internet channel Telegram, Prigozhin expanded his attack to include the conduct of war in Ukraine. He called the results to date to a disastrous failure.
More recently, Prigozhin lambasted the elite’s children as “shaking their tails on beaches” while the children of ordinary Russian families are dying. “You sons of bitches,” he continued, “gather your kids, send them to war, and when you go to their funerals, then people will say, now everything is fair.” His fury both stokes and is fueled by widespread anger—especially among the families whose boys have been engaged in World War I trench warfare with 21st-century weapons, whose towns have been emptied by conscription, and whose cemeteries seek more gravediggers. (Putin’s decision to avoid a second official mobilization has also empowered Wagner.) Yet the beleaguered families of Russia’s soldiers would be enraged if they knew that, according to the Discord leaks, Prigozhin offered to give Russian troop locations to Ukraine if it pulled its own forces back from the city of Bakhmut.
It would be reckless to dismiss the possibility that the regime’s internal troubles may be deeper than they appear. Though the quickly negotiated agreement with Aleksandr Lukashenko, president of Belarus and a staunch Putin ally, to disarm Prigozhin may hold, it is also possible that Putin still faces serious internal turmoil. He has long suppressed alternatives to his reign; Prigozhin may be neutered (though it was remarkable to see crowds cheering for the Wagner troops as they departed from the streets of Rostov), but Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov isn’t—nor are the others in the wings.
It is clear from (obsessively) following tweets and toxic TV appearances in the last days—with a bipartisan lot cheering for a quasi-fascist strongman—that many here and in the West would welcome such a development. But we should also be aware of the severe risks and danger that would come from the Russian state’s disintegration. There is the terrifying possibility of Russian loss of control of its nuclear weapons. There is the humanitarian catastrophe of a new refugee crisis. There is also a real possibility, as Russian friends warn, of new waves of repression: shutting down Internet access, imposing more censorship, adding new groups to foreign enemies’ list.
The aftermath of the showdown leaves President Biden and NATO with both opportunity—and danger. Caution should be the watchword—and guiding policy principle. Washington would be wise to avoid fueling the deeply held Russian suspicion (not without considerable cause) that the US or NATO will seek to exploit the current turmoil. This makes it all the more important to try to prevent overreaction in Moscow, to make a genuine effort to stabilize relations with Russia—and to use this moment to seek a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine war.
Even if Putin prevails in the immediate battle against Wagner, he is a weakened leader. It would be a grave mistake, however, to try to turn Russia’s distraction to immediate advantage. Instead, the fact that Russia is weakened in its military effort in Ukraine offers a rare and dramatic opportunity when smart and tough diplomacy could engage and positively advance two major issues: command and control over nuclear weapons and the humane resolution of a war.