June 26, 2023 - 7:00am

The aborted Prigozhin Putsch has rocked Russia, though it was called off before an alleged 25,000 soldiers from the Wagner Group could complete their march on Moscow. What this portends for Russia’s future — or even that of its immediate protagonists — remains unclear. Never before has Winston Churchill’s quote — “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won” — appeared so prescient. 

The crisis was without precedent in Vladimir Putin’s rule. But a comparison can be found in the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That attempt similarly saw the rapid launch of fighting in urban areas and a battle for control of key cities. Yet Putin and Erdogan’s responses were remarkably different. The latter rapidly released a video calling for Turks to oppose the coup and the security forces that remained loyal to him refused to stand-down. At least 265 people were killed

Erdogan showed that he was willing to fight to retain a monopoly on the use of force, and rapidly named his alleged opponents. Putin did not even mention Prigozhin in his belated response on the morning of 24th June. On the other hand, Erdogan made clear that he saw the movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen as responsible for the coup against him, even though Gülen had once been his close ally just as Prigozhin had been Putin’s. 

Erdogan used it to justify a major crackdown and to further erode Turkey’s democratic norms, helping him retain power to the present day. Putin long ago eliminated or jailed Russia’s democratic opposition, and what remained has largely fled abroad over the last year, but his meek initial response bodes poorly for the system that he has established. Prigozhin has proven that the Kremlin can be put under threat and that Putin’s promise of stability and prosperity for Russia after the tumult of the 1990s is rapidly evaporating. 

Prigozhin’s threatened march prompted a level of panic amongst Muscovites and St. Petersburgers that the war against Ukraine had failed to cause: despite its wider horrors, they have thus far been immune to its impacts other than a handful of largely symbolic drone attacks. Most remarkable is that their fears were not eliminated by decisive action from Putin himself or the Russian security services with which he is so closely associated, but — instead — ostensibly by mediation from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Why Prigozhin agreed to stand down remains unknown. He had, after all, been increasingly brazen in his challenges to Putin’s authority. On 23rd June the Wagner chief dismissed Russia’s casus belli for the full-scale of invasion of Ukraine and even acknowledged that the Kremlin’s allegations that enemy forces threatened genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine were factually incorrect and poor propaganda. Though he said the war remained worth fighting, he alleged it was engineered by the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, as well as the siloviki oligarchs who wanted to pillage Ukraine’s national wealth as they had in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. 

Prigozhin is ostensibly bound for Belarus itself – though Minsk has its own history of bad blood with Prigozhin’s forces. The Wagner boss was filmed smiling and in a celebratory mood as he left Rostov. His press service has announced that he will have more to say in due course. But Putin’s meek response has shattered his image of strength in Russia, just as his failing invasion of Ukraine has shattered his image of strength abroad.

Maximilian Hess is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.