Opinion | Prigozhin and the Long and Infamous History of Failed Russian Rebellions

Whatever Yevgeny Prigozhin intended his rebellion to achieve, it proved short and senseless. Less than 24 hours after he sent his tanks and troops trundling on the main highway toward Moscow, the mercenary chief was persuaded to turn them around and take refuge himself in Belarus. The question now is what will happen in the next act, particularly whether the failed mutiny will leave President Vladimir Putin weakened, strengthened or vindictive.

Mr. Putin initially went on television and vowed to crush the rebellion, which he branded as “treason,” “betrayal” and “mutiny.” Witnesses filmed Russian attack helicopters blasting the rebel convoy and ditches being dug on the road ahead to prevent their advance.

But in his brief address to the nation, Mr. Putin never named Mr. Prigozhin or his mercenary army, the infamous Wagner Group. (It is named, reportedly, after a neo-Nazi crony of Mr. Prigozhin’s whose nom de guerre was Wagner, after Richard Wagner, the 19th century composer idolized by Hitler). Instead of immediately trying to crush the Wagner rebels, and thus setting off a nasty internecine clash, Mr. Putin held back. He used Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator he effectively controls, to entice Mr. Prigozhin into abandoning his rash uprising with promises of amnesty.

What really happened, however, remains a mystery. American intelligence services saw signs of a brewing insurrection already last Wednesday, the Times reported.

Theories are already circulating on social media that the entire rebellion was a charade from the start, maybe even staged by Mr. Putin for some convoluted reason. It is impossible to know, and may remain so for a long time. Given the madness of invading Ukraine to begin with, and the incompetence of the Russian military, anything is possible.

But the explanation may well be the obvious one: that Mr. Prigozhin, a thug more adept at brute violence than political intrigue, finally decided to go after his bête noire, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Prigozhin has waged a long and public feud with Mr. Shoigu over the handling of the Ukraine war and has accused him of giving insufficient support to the Wagner Group.

Mr. Prigozhin is the epitome of a post-Soviet villain. He spent most of the 1980s in prison, made a fortune in the no-holds-barred gold rush of the first post-Soviet years, got close to Mr. Putin in part by catering his state dinners (which earned him the sarcastic sobriquet “Putin’s chef,” though he says he never cooked a meal.) Among many other evil deeds, Mr. Prigozhin built the Wagner Group, which first emerged in 2014 during Russia’s invasion of Crimea and has always been closely aligned to Mr. Putin. Since then, the mercenaries have fought missions in Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic, which the Kremlin encouraged but did not want to own.

Deployed to Ukraine soon after the invasion began, the Wagner Group suffered huge casualties, and Mr. Prigozhin began to recruit convicts with promises of freedom if they survived, which many did not. He also began to issue highly public, expletive-laced diatribes against Mr. Shoigu and other Russian commanders for not providing him with enough arms and ammunition and, more broadly and dangerously, for totally mucking up the war.

Last week, in a particularly furious rant, he accused Mr. Shoigu and others of starting the war for personal gain and of ordering a rocket strike on a Wagner base in Ukraine. In his fury, Mr. Prigozhin had his men take control of the southern command center in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, and ordered them to drive north to Moscow on a “march for justice” to meet with military commanders. They got 125 miles away from the capital before he ordered them to turn back on Saturday night.

How things will play out next is hard to predict. An open mutiny by a notorious and brutal militia, and Mr. Putin’s success in quelling it almost bloodlessly, are bound to cause serious political repercussions across Russia. None of the scenarios I have examined play out well for Russia or for Ukraine.

Mr. Putin, an autocrat obsessed with taking over Ukraine, will most likely seek to escalate hostilities there to demonstrate, to Ukrainians and to the West, that he has not been weakened. He may also want to prove that Mr. Prigozhin’s claims of a disorganized and incompetent army are incorrect, although Mr. Putin may need a few uniformed heads to roll to show that, as an all-knowing commander in chief, he is not blind to the failings of his generals.

In the hours after the attempted mutiny, Russia sent a swarm of missiles and drones against Ukraine. With a potent Ukrainian counteroffensive underway, Mr. Putin may also start issuing dark new threats. The week before Mr. Prigozhin’s move, a well-known expert on foreign and defense policy, Sergei Karaganov, published an article arguing that Russia needs to “make nuclear deterrence a convincing argument again by lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Putin may also look for some way to pin the rebellion on the United States, though Washington has been careful to avoid any suggestion that it had anything to do with Mr. Prigozhin. American intelligence agencies, for example, delayed revealing what it had overheard until after the episode was all over.

Curiously, the historical analogy Mr. Putin drew on in his speech was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which forced Russia into a humiliating peace with Germany. Never mind that the Bolsheviks overthrew the Romanov dynasty and were the progenitors of the Soviet Union, whose demise Mr. Putin has bemoaned. For this rhetorical scenario, Russia was a loser.

Having survived this apparent mutiny, Mr. Putin will have to reaffirm his primacy and power at home. Mr. Prigozhin never accused the president himself of any failures, drawing instead on the familiar tactic of accusing his rivals of failing the infallible leader, and Mr. Putin can take satisfaction in the fact that no Russian forces joined the Wagner march. Nevertheless, Mr. Prigozhin’s accusations that the war was going terribly and was launched for wrong reasons have delivered a blow to Mr. Putin, and he will need to find scapegoats.

Failed coups are also well-known tools by which dictators and strongmen go after real or imagined foes. After the “doctors’ plot” in the 1950s, Stalin began a purge of Communist Party leadership. In much more recent history, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved quickly to round up and arrest thousands of perceived enemies after an aborted coup attempt in 2016.

Mr. Putin has left the field for new repression in Russia wide open, and could similarly launch an even more vicious crackdown on anyone in the Russian elite or leadership who questions him. He did not name Mr. Prigozhin in his speech, while warning, “Anyone who consciously went on the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny, went on the path of blackmail and terrorist actions, will be punished inevitably.” That could include anyone he wants to purge.

Which raises the question of Mr. Prigozhin’s fate, and Wagner’s. Russia’s history is rich with stories of uprisings and pretenders, and few of them end well for the rebels. Cossacks who followed Ivan Mazepa in switching sides from Peter the Great to the Swedes in a key battle in 1709 were subsequently lured into surrendering with promises of amnesty. Their heads eventually landed on spikes and were sent floating down the Dnieper River.

The more germane story for Mr. Prigozhin may be that of Emelian Pugachev, a Cossack who led a huge rebellion against Catherine the Great in the 1770s by claiming to be her murdered husband, Peter III. The rebellion, prompted by, not least, peasant fury at corrupt Russian military leadership, is universally known to Russians through Alexander Pushkin’s novel, “The Captain’s Daughter.”

At one point in the story, the Russian bard issues a celebrated warning: “God forbid that we should see a Russian rebellion, senseless and merciless. Those who plot impossible coups in our country are either young and do not know our people, or hardhearted people for whom someone else’s head is worth half a halfpenny, and their own, for that matter, but a kopek.”

Pugachev was captured and publicly beheaded and quartered in Moscow. His legend gave rise to the noun “pugachevshchina” to denote the Russian proclivity for senseless, doomed rebellion.

It is hard to imagine that Mr. Putin will allow Mr. Prigozhin to go scot-free — no matter what he may have promised. Even if Mr. Putin never accused Mr. Prigozhin by name, he will have to justify his pledge to the Russian people that “Those who organized and prepared the military mutiny, who turned weapons against their comrades-in-arms, have betrayed Russia, and will be held accountable for that.” And as Mr. Prigozhin knows, the leader of Belarus, where he is apparently headed, is utterly beholden to Mr. Putin, so that is hardly a safe haven.

As for the Wagner Group, Mr. Putin is likely to be more lenient. He needs this mercenary force, in Ukraine and elsewhere, and may bring it far more closely under Kremlin control.

Whatever his fate, Mr. Prigozhin is unlikely to be forgotten. His outbursts have served to publicly reveal the true and enormous Russian casualties in the war and the many setbacks Russia has suffered through bad leadership and bad information. These questions may persist as the war enters its second summer. When the mercenaries pulled back from Rostov-on-Don, people cheered, “Wagner! Wagner!” The history of Russian rebellions tends to treat rebels as heroes, however they fared. Centuries earlier, False Dmitri, the pretender celebrated in the opera “Boris Godunov,” actually became czar of Russia in the “time of troubles” — although admittedly, not for long.

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Serge Schmemann joined The Times in 1980 and worked as the bureau chief in Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem and at the United Nations. He was editorial page editor of The International Herald Tribune in Paris from 2003 to 2013.

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