Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived “coup” attempt — if we indeed witnessed one — has left many understandably confused.
One thing should be clear, however.
This is the beginning of the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine — and likely also of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
First, here is what we know about the odd events of the past two days.
After almost a year of Wagner Group owner Prigozhin’s near-constant and escalating verbal attacks against Russia’s Ministry of Defense, he commanded his mercenaries to march into Russia.
The “Wagnerites” took over two major Russian cities, Rostov and Voronezh, and appeared intent on continuing to Moscow, where Prigozhin wanted to settle accounts with Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, respectively Russia’s defense minister and chief of the general staff, whom he blamed for bombing a Wagner Group camp earlier in the week.
By doing so, Prigozhin defied an arrest warrant from Russia’s security service, the FSB, as well as unambiguous threats from Putin, who called the insurrection a criminal enterprise and promised its perpetrators harsh consequences.
Then in an extraordinary turn of events Saturday night, Prigozhin suddenly declared the Wagner Group’s march over.
A deal was reportedly struck between Putin and Prigozhin giving the latter security guarantees and ensuring changes in the Russian military leadership.
That is hardly a satisfying climax.
If one strikes at the king, one better not miss.
Hence the wild implausibility of the idea Prigozhin can not only walk away from his brazenly provocative stunt unharmed but extract material concessions from the Kremlin.
Barring the possibility the whole insurrection was a strange maskirovka, a deceptive charade meant to confuse and distract Russia’s enemies, the outcome suggests Putin is highly vulnerable.
There are precedents.
Mikhail Gorbachev survived Soviet hardliners’ 1991 coup attempt, but the drama made it obvious his departure was only a matter of time.
The only way for Putin to recoup his dictatorial bona fides is to make an example of those who defied him.
If he lacks the strength to inflict harsh punishments on Prigozhin and his allies, he is inviting further challenges to his power.
The main reason a maskirovka scenario seems unlikely has to do with the fact recent events are bound to be highly detrimental for the morale and organization of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
And if we are indeed witnessing a genuine conflict between factions within Russian defense and security services, it is inevitable that the integrity of its chain of command, planning and logistics have all become extremely fragile.
After all, Rostov, the city the Wagner Group took initially, served as a major logistical hub and headquarters for much of the Russian military effort in Ukraine’s east.
Chaos and infighting among the Russians provide an opportunity for the Ukrainians to turn their fledgling counteroffensive into a decisive blow that will end the war.
Military defeats, like financial crises, come slowly and then all at once.
Add Ukraine’s NATO-grade equipment to the mix of Russian chaos and it becomes clear that Russia is bound to lose as long as the West keeps up its military and economic support and retains the sanctions in place.
In the same vein, dictatorships always appear stable — until, suddenly, they come crashing down.
If Prigozhin emerges unscathed or even strengthened from recent events, it is clear that Putin’s departure from the Kremlin, dead or alive, is only a matter of time.
With him, the political system that he built around himself will come down in flames.
What emerges out of the ashes is an open question.
But it is one the West should not be approaching with fear but rather as an opportunity.
Even if a free and democratic Russia is out of reach for now, a free and democratic Belarus might not be — and a free, secure and victorious Ukraine certainly isn’t.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆: nypost.com
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁 firstname.lastname@example.org