Russia Looks Increasingly Medieval After the Coup That Wasn't

Feudal-style squabbling with the control of nuclear weapons at stake.


If you're trying to make sense of events in Russia, it might be best to frame it in medieval terms. Think of the mutiny by Prigozhin and the Wagner Group less as an attempted coup by mercenaries and more as a violent effort to extract a better deal by a warlord who was betrayed by his liege. That the feudal squabbling takes place not amidst a Game of Thrones setting of horses and swords, but with the control of nuclear weapons at stake, means that the resulting destabilization could have global repercussions.

The revolt was certainly a shock to Russian authorities, with convict-turned-caterer-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group troops reportedly making it to within 200 kilometers of Moscow before halting. They shot down aircraft from the armed forces on the way and seem to have picked up a few defecting military units. The precipitating factor was that, after months of feuding between Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry, Russia's President Vladimir Putin decided to end Wagner's independence.

A Betrayal with Big Repercussions

"A key trigger for Prigozhin, officials said, was a June 10 Russian Defense Ministry order that all volunteer detachments would have to sign contracts with the government," The Washington Post reported. "Though the order did not mention Wagner Group by name, the implication was clear: a takeover of Prigozhin's mercenary troops, who have proved essential to Russia's military campaign in Ukraine and have helped secure some of its most notable tactical victories."

Prigozhin more or less confirmed this take in a statement after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko negotiated an end to the march on Moscow.

"The aim of the march was to avoid the destruction of Wagner," Prigozhin claimed on Telegram after accusing regular military units of opening fire on Wagner formations in the days before the revolt.

But aside from leading mutineers shockingly close to the Russian capital, what was Prigozhin doing? Wagner was obviously up to the job of punching through defenses and threatening the seat of government. But taking and holding the entire country seemed desperate and unlikely. But that's not necessarily what he intended.

Severance-Package Negotiations Through Mutiny

"The coup, if it wasn't going to be serious, which turns out it wasn't, was always about Prigozhin honestly just getting the best retirement package that he could," suggests geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan. That is, if the warlord was going to be kicked to the curb by Putin, he'd march his elite troops on Moscow and demand to be paid off before going away. Zeihan has doubts that Prigozhin will enjoy a long and peaceful retirement, but he expects that Putin and company have plenty of worries of their own.

"We now have the bulk of Wagner who have joined Prigozhin on an attempted coup. Even if Prigozhin never expected it to succeed, the soldiers followed him, and at least one unit of the air defense system within the Russian military joined him," adds Zeihan. "That means if you are Putin, not only is the most effective fighting force you have of questionable loyalty, there's a lot of folks in the rank and file that you don't know if you can trust anymore."

Russia's reliance on Wagner is clear from Putin's offer to the mutineers "to continue your service to Russia by signing a contract with the Defence Ministry or other law enforcement or security agency or return home. Those who want to are free to go to Belarus" with Prigozhin. That's not a generous offer from a victor, but a desperate one from a man with a shaky grip on the throne.

A Weakened Grip on the Throne

"Strong leaders are not usually the targets of coup attempts," notes Edward Lucas, writing for the Center for European Policy Analysis. "It was also telling that so few heavyweights rallied to Putin's side. Many regime insiders and other bigwigs seem to have thought that the coup had a chance of succeeding, and waited to see what would happen…. The outlook for Russia is now grim. Prigozhin's march on Moscow may have failed, but the conditions that fostered it remain. Others will be mulling their chances."

"Things remain together, just, but only so long as everyone fears Putin most," agrees Francisco Toro, at Persuasion. "And that's why last weekend's bizarre mini-crisis in Russia has destabilized the Putin system as consequentially as it has. For one fleeting moment, just one mad-cap afternoon, Vladimir Putin was not the man Russians feared most."

The result is that Yevgeny Prigozhin has an uncertain refuge in Belarus under the "protection," such as it is, of Lukashenko. Putin has an equally uncertain grip on power in Moscow. The result is almost certain to be instability in Russia as the previously unchallengeable ruler looks unexpectedly vulnerable a year and a half after setting out to expand his empire with the invasion of Ukraine.

"Russia's next civil war has already started," claims Lucas. "As it deepens, Russia's civil war is unlikely to be a territorial conflict, as in the fighting that followed the Bolshevik revolution…. This one is between gangsters: feuding clans eager to hold on to their own wealth and perhaps gain assets from their rivals."

"For Vladimir Putin to survive in power he will need to patch up the holes in his now badly tattered aura of menace," writes Toro. "I can't tell you exactly how he'll do that. But I can tell you this: it's going to be ugly."

Big Stakes for the World

This increased uncertainty has enormous implications beyond Russia, given that the country has the world's largest nuclear forces and a diminished, but still substantial, international presence. The country is the world's largest exporter of wheat and a major source of petroleum and other resources. That means chaos in Russia is likely to contribute even more pain to a world already disrupted by the invasion of Ukraine and the economic sanctions imposed by the West in response. Worse than a medieval power struggle in the age of swords and castles, a similar conflict now implicates control over vast wealth and destructive power.

There is one party that likely finds comfort in Prigozhin's power play and the resulting turmoil: Ukrainians. While Ukraine has punched above its weight in resisting invasion, the country suffers terribly from the war. The withdrawal of Wagner troops from the fighting and the mutineers' seizure of the Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don have boosted Ukraine's military operations.

"Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced on at least two sectors of the front as of June 26," according to the Institute for the Study of War. "The UK [Ministry of Defense] indicated on June 26 that Russian forces likely lack operational-level reserves that could reinforce against simultaneous Ukrainian threats on multiple areas of the front hundreds of kilometers from each other, chiefly Bakhmut and southern Ukraine."

In chaos there is opportunity. That opportunity is clear for besieged defenders in Ukraine. But it's also an opportunity for the return of a more uncertain and overtly brutal world in which old-style warlords gamble with very high stakes.