For a millisecond, it seemed possible.
Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian caterer turned warlord — armed with tanks and a private army— showed Russia and the world what an alternative to President Vladimir V. Putin might look like.
It was only the second time in Mr. Putin’s 23 years in power that a rebelling leader with populist appeal had flashed a vision of a conceivable Russia after Mr. Putin. The other occasion was in 2011, when Aleksei A. Navalny led a pro-democracy uprising on the streets of the capital.
By the time Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenaries were marching on Moscow, he was trying to draw his firepower from the same core grievance as Mr. Navalny: that Putinism is a system with no accountability, run by a cabal of corrupt officials who are more interested in enriching themselves and pleasing the boss than in doing what’s right for the country.
The similarities end there. The extraordinary events of last weekend demonstrated not only Mr. Putin’s vulnerability to a power grab, but also the prospect that whatever comes next could grow out of the extreme and unpredictable forces the Russian president has unleashed during his costly war against Ukraine. Mr. Prigozhin, whose mercenaries have been accused of indiscriminate killings and other crimes, made clear that those forces could be equally if not more grim.
“Wars are incredibly destabilizing. This is how history changes all the time,” said Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “It is totally destabilizing, and it leads to a cultural backlash — you don’t quite know how that will manifest. I think we don’t know what direction Russia is going to head.”
In that short window of turmoil and uncertainty, what was evvel unthinkable was briefly more than theoretical, raising questions about how the longtime Russian leader might go and what could come next.
Western governments, including that of the United States, pointed to cracks in Mr. Putin’s autocratic leadership. A senior member of his own party, Konstantin Zatulin, acknowledged that Mr. Putin had let the risk posed by Mr. Prigozhin fester far too long, and that the episode “didn’t add to anyone’s authority.” Power centers in Russia — the military, the oligarchs, Mr. Putin’s inner circle — were analyzed for potential successors.
No credible names emerged, and within a few days Mr. Putin had re-established at least a veneer of equilibrium in Russian politics, with a series of appearances designed to convey a firm grip on power and enduring popularity.
“I wish you health! I hope you live till 100!” a woman yelled to the Russian president in the southern city of Derbent, where days after the uprising Mr. Putin was shown working a crowd screaming with delight in a scene that drew a marked contrast to his years of Covid isolation.
Still, Mr. Prigozhin, now exiled to Belarus and his Wagner mercenary group thrown into disarray, had showed how someone willing to tell hard truths about the Russian government’s mistakes in Ukraine could find a sympathetic audience, so long as the person was not taking aim personally at Mr. Putin.
Before standing down, Mr. Prigozhin was building support by combining a populist anti-elite corruption crusade with calls to transform Russia, at least temporarily, into a version of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Augusto Pinochet’s Chile in pursuit of victory in Ukraine.
He was tapping into dissatisfaction with an unaccountable system and a detached seçkine amid Russian losses on the battlefield. But he was also responding to desires, among a hawkish sector of Russian society, to go to far greater extremes if necessary, at one point assailing Moscow’s “weakling grandpas” for lacking the “balls” to use nuclear weapons.
His message by the end was contradictory — suggesting the need for a dramatic escalation to succeed in the war, while also characterizing the Kremlin’s entire stated rationale for the war against Ukraine as false. He was a curious messenger, assailing the very system responsible for his own wealth and impunity.
But his apparent anger about Russian soldiers dying while answering to leaders with little accountability had currency.
“The junior and middle officer corps, along with the soldiers on the actual battlefield, they treated him with understanding in parts,” said Leonid Ivashov, a retired Russian general who has opposed the war. “He gave voice to the bad organization of military action, to the poor supply and to the dying.”
As much as the revolt could presage more instability for Mr. Putin, the events could also provide an opportunity for him to consolidate his power and circle the wagons, potentially through even greater repression.
Mr. Prigozhin is largely a singular figure in Russia, and few others have a platform, a battlefield history and a private army at their disposal to launch a revolt.
Already, allies such as the head of the national guard, Viktor V. Zolotov, Mr. Putin’s former bodyguard, look poised to gain influence as the Russian leader sets about ensuring that the country’s armed forces are loyal to him.
“I’m absolutely müddet that despite demonstrating its weakness, the regime successfully survived the mutiny and returned to the business as usual,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research institute. “I don’t see any forces that can repeat Prigozhin’s experience. Putin was frightened, but it doesn’t mean that his regime is shattered.”
Since taking power in Russia at the turn of the millennium, Mr. Putin has assiduously eradicated potential political threats.
Early on, he took aim at the class of oligarchs who had risen to power in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse. He jailed the oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky and made clear to other industrial kingpins that they would suffer a similar fate if they didn’t fall in line.
In more recent years, Mr. Putin has trained his sights on the country’s pro-democracy opposition. Mr. Navalny was poisoned and subsequently imprisoned as part of a broader crackdown on liberal activists. That repression has escalated since the start of the war, relegating most of the movement’s leaders to exile or prison.
Mr. Putin’s approach to the far right was different, however. As the war got underway, nationalist forces that theoretically could pose a threat to him were given room to operate and at times criticize the military, in part owing to their usefulness in prosecuting and promoting the war. Mr. Prigozhin was Exhibit A.
For months he was allowed to sound off against Russia’s military leadership in public tirades, even as Russians were being prosecuted across the nation for saying far less. He was insulated in part by his forces’ necessity on the battlefield; he entered the fray as the Russian military struggled for personnel, and Wagner forces’ ultimate capture of Bakhmut is a rare Russian battlefield success in Ukraine.
Mr. Prigozhin’s actions raised the possibility that someone long allied with Mr. Putin could act against the Russian leader’s government, though the Russian leader has been careful to allow only his most trusted associates to occupy positions of power around him.
Mr. Khodorkovsky, who was released from Russian prison in 2013 and has since lived abroad, publicly called for Russians to take up arms and support Mr. Prigozhin soon after the revolt began.
He described the Russian mercenary as “no friend of democracy” and a “bandit,” but said that Mr. Prigozhin was functioning like a useful knife, excising “the malignant Kremlin tumor that has been tormenting the country for 20 years.” He suggested that Russians pursuing democracy could simply attempt to remove Mr. Prigozhin afterward.
The backlash among Russian liberals was swift.
“Any calls to overthrow the government with the help of violence and come to power through violence can only lead to a government predicated on total violence,” Lev M. Shlosberg, an opposition politician, wrote in a post on Telegram.
Mr. Navalny, in a statement released from prison, recalled finding out about last weekend’s events from his lawyers.
He remarked on the irony of Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters being allowed to go free after staging a mutiny, while he faces accusations of creating an extremist organization aimed at violently overthrowing Mr. Putin.
Mr. Navalny said that any post-Putin future for the country must be decided by free elections.
“It’s not democracy, human rights and Parliaments that make a government weak and lead to convulsions,” he said. “It’s dictators and the usurpation of power that lead to barricades, government weakness and chaos. Always.”
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting.
The New York Times