The brief uprising in Russia by members of the Wagner Group private security force this past weekend was a warning. It was a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin about how potentially fragile his regime is. It was also a warning to western nations and the rest of the world about how Russia can spin dangerously out of control.
Essentially a mercenary army, the Wagner Group has been involved over the years in Russian military operations in Ukraine, both in 2014 and during the current Russian invasion. The Wagner Group’s chief, the ex-con businessman Yuri Prigozhin, has been publicly and harshly critical of the Russian military establishment’s conduct of the invasion—notable behavior in Russia, where dissent is frequently repressed.
Prigozhin’s criticism took a far more dramatic turn on Friday, June 23, when he claimed that regular Russian military forces had violently attacked Wagner Group forces. He also made a furious denunciation of the Ukraine war more generally: Prigozhin attacked the Russian Defense Ministry for its ineffective prosecution of the war and the major Russian losses in Ukraine, declaring “Someone should answer for the lives of those soldiers."
The Wagner Group followed these words with actions on Saturday, June 24, by seizing control of the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. Prigozhin declared the intention to march on Moscow. Some low-level fighting with Russian state forces may have occurred. The crisis was defused at least partly through the intervention of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The Wagner Group stopped their uprising, the Russian government offered a general amnesty to Wagner forces, and Prigozhin agreed to go into exile in Belarus.
As of this writing, Prigozhin’s near-rebellion has not led to other uprisings against the government. Nevertheless, the incident demonstrates that Putin’s regime is vulnerable to internal challenges.
The primary reason for the uprising is Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. Precise losses are unknown, but the Russians have likely suffered tens of thousands of troops killed and wounded since the war began in February 2022. Russia has little to show for these losses, having failed to conquer Ukraine and occupying only a relatively small portion of Ukrainian territory that Russian forces are struggling to hold onto.
Defeat and humiliation in war often leads to the downfall of authoritarian rulers, especially in Russia. Military disasters in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and in World War I led to massive upheaval in Russia and ultimately to the tsarist regime’s collapse. Putin implicitly acknowledged this precedent in his comments on the Wagner Group uprising.
To many in the west, and certainly to Ukrainians, Putin’s downfall may seem like a positive outcome to the current war. However, the reality of regime change in Russia may well be very different from what opponents of Putin hope for.
Regime change has a mixed historical record. Such a change by violent external intervention, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, has led to years of war, instability, and human suffering. Even internal, largely nonviolent political change, as in Egypt or Sudan, can lead to new repressive regimes or to violent conflict. Russia’s own history of regime change is hardly encouraging: the collapse of the tsarist regime led to civil war and eventually repressive Communist rule; the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a decade of instability and Putin’s eventual rise.
Putin’s overthrow, whether by Prigozhin or anyone else, is unlikely to lead to stable, humane, democratic government in Russia. Regime change is far more likely to lead either to a new repressive regime or to instability, even civil war.
Instability in Russia would likely be a disaster. At best, instability could spark a new refugee crisis and further disruptions to the world food supply. At worst, instability could lead to tremendous violence and a loss of centralized control over Russia’s massive nuclear weapons arsenal. None of these outcomes would be good for the Russian people or the world.
What could help avert such dangerous upheaval is a goal that was worth pursuing even before Prigozhin’s uprising: seeking a ceasefire in the Ukraine war. Having faced a serious threat to his power because of the war, Putin may now be more willing to negotiate and accept some face-saving settlement. Ukraine, as well as its western supporters such as the United States, would do well to seek such a settlement. Even if a settlement means freezing the current battle lines and leaving Russian forces in control of part of Ukraine, that would be a potentially less destructive option than internal turmoil in Russia.
The parties to the Ukraine war should seek peace before war turns into chaos.