Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization, has broken with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Wagner group has been an important element in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As a formally non-state actor, it has operated with less legal constraint than the Russian army. It has used harsh tactics against Ukrainian citizens. It has also been harsh on its own operators. Wagner’s reputation globally – as a force for hire in the Middle East and Africa particularly – is unsurprisingly vicious.
Wagner has played a valuable role in the Ukraine War. It has given the Russian government plausible deniability of atrocities against civilians. It has allowed the Russian government to recruit from inaccessible elements of Russian society. Wagner takes its mercenaries from prisons and from ex-soldiers.
Yet Prigozhin has also emerged as a tough critic of Putin. He has repeatedly spoken on social media of the poor planning and logistics behind the war. He has claimed that his own forces have been used as cannon fodder and lack proper supplies of ammunition and food. For reasons yet unclear, this anger seems to have boiled over in the last 48 hours. Prigozhin appears to have revolted, not just against the military leadership of the war he has criticized, but against Putin and the Russian state itself.
Coups are Hard to Do
While he has since backed down, it is unclear whether Prigozhin seriously expected to overthrow the Russian power-nexus which Putin has carefully constructed over two decades.
Putin has long since eliminated opposition within the ruling Russian elite in Moscow. The war has created fissures, but Prigozhin still faces a fairly monolithic opponent in the military, security services, and Kremlin. This does not appear like a civil war.
Coups are hard. They frequently fail. They require significant elite division to succeed. Romantic notions of a revolution by the people on the streets are usually wrong. Coups succeed not with protests on the street but with elite backing. Elites split, and those which can mobilize the most powerful elements of the security services, police, military, and so on usually win.
Prigozhin did not appear to have this. He is a calculating bureaucratic player. He was close to Putin for many years. It would be out of character for him to launch a major action like this – including threats to march on Moscow – unless he had wider backing. We will learn that in the next few days.
This is How Ukraine Will Win the War
This coup – or perhaps more accurately, insurrection – will impact the war in Ukraine.
Much Western commentary has looked for big battlefield victories in that conflict. Last year, Ukraine took back large swaths of territory around Kharkiv and Kherson. This has feed hope that Ukraine’s current offensive might liberate similarly large areas.
But this is likely the wrong metric. Russia is a large country with the ability to fight for a long time. It is clear that Russia cannot win the war anymore. It cannot take Kyiv. It cannot even take Ukraine east of the Dnipro River. So Ukraine will survive in some form.
But Russia also can fight on for a long time to stave off defeat. Much like the US in the Vietnam War, Russia has the strength to prevent defeat even if it cannot win. In other words, the Ukraine war is similar to an insurgency. Ukraine probably cannot beat the Russian military outright. But it can win by hanging on. It can force the Russians to expend resources for months and years in a fruitless effort to win a definitive victory which is no longer possible.
In time, this approach will exhaust Russia. It can prevent defeat only by fighting on and on. The war is a quagmire, and at some point, the costs of fighting endlessly just make it easier and cheaper to give up and go home. In other words, Ukraine probably will not win so much as Russia will lose, and Russia will choose to lose because it is cheaper.
This is familiar. This is a typical insurgent strategy and has been used to win many otherwise unbalanced conflicts – the American Revolution, France’ wars in Algeria and Vietnam, the US wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
This Insurrection is Another Cost of the War to Putin
Putin will withdraw from Ukraine – will give up and go home – when the war’s costs dramatically exceed its benefits. The war is already balance-negative and only getting worse. This insurrection adds to that. This is how Ukraine will win, and perhaps it is coming sooner than we thought.