Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has, as wars often do, come home. A rebellion broke out last week led by the rightwing and authoritarian Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Russian Wagner Group, who sent his little army from the war in Ukraine to take over the Russian city of Rostov. Then he launched them on a northward march to threaten Moscow and perhaps overthrow Putin. Just 120 miles from the Russian capital, Prigozhin stopped and turned his army around, perhaps because he had not received the support he hoped for from insiders.
The authoritarian leader of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, an ally of Putin, negotiated a deal between Putin and Prigozhin that provided that Prigozhin would retire to Belarus and all charges would be dropped against him and his soldiers, who would return to fighting against Ukraine.
There is little chance that Prigozhin’s little army of a few thousand could have taken power, but the rebellion has repercussions that Putin may find it hard to overcome. The attempted coup has shattered Putin’s image as the imperturbable dictator of an impervious regime who manages the elite and presides over a quiescent Russian society, assassinating serious rivals and critics with impunity and imprisoning protestors. The Russian elite and the Russian people can see now that Putin is vulnerable. And Putin has lost the Wagner Group’s extensive contacts and contracts in Africa and the Middle East, which have been central to Russia’s imperialist expansion of mining, arms exports and military alliances.
The events have also altered the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko. The Belarusian strongman had become dependent on the Russian dictator, but the balance of forces has now changed, even been reversed. This time it was Putin who needed Lukashenko to help prevent the rebellion, not the way it was when Putin helped the Belarusian suppress a pro-democracy movement.
Prigozhin has presumably gone to Belarus, but he will not simply disappear—unless Putin assassinates him, which may be impossible now without Lukashenko’s tacit approval. Prigozhin has plenty of money and a loyal army, and he remains popular with many Russians who cheered him and his forces.
Prigozhin’s rebellion was too brief to offer the Ukrainians an attempt to break through on the Eastern Front and follow him to Rostov-on-Don and then on to Moscow. But the rebellion has nevertheless encouraged the Ukrainians and demoralized the Russians. These events may still present an opportunity for Ukrainians to regain territory while Russian forces are divided and distracted.
Two important questions remain. Can this struggle between Putin and Prigozhin open up space for the Russian people and particularly the Russian working class to act? Second, does the rebellion that arose out of Prigozhin’s criticism of the Russian generals “corruption and incompetence” weaken further the Russian Army and increase the chances of a Ukrainian victory in the war?
War has come home to Russia before on at least three occasions. After losing the war with Japan of 1904-95, a revolutionary movement developed among returning soldiers, workers, and peasants that threatened to overthrow Tsar Nicholas II.
The Tsar unleashed the army on the revolution and encouraged anti-Semitic pogroms throughout the empire, and succeeded in holding onto power.
Toward the end of World War I, as the armies of the Great Powers slaughtered millions of soldiers and civilians, the Russian Army collapsed and in early 1917 the soldiers mutinied and began to march home as peasants and workers rebelled as well. In February the revolution drove the Tsar from the throne and a liberal government was established. But when this new liberal government failed to end the war, distribute land to the peasants, or recognize the labor unions, the revolution deepened. The Bolshevik Party (later called the Communist Party).led a coup in October that thrust power into the hands of the workers’ councils or soviets, a short-lived experiment in democracy and workers’ power.
In 1941, however, when Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the result was altogether different. Communist dictator Joseph Stalin united the population in the Great Patriotic War and at the same time took advantage of the crisis to strengthen his stranglehold on the Soviet people. Stalin not only survived but after the war extended his rule and the Communist system to the Baltic States and Eastern Europe. The war did not come home to overthrow either Stalin or the bureaucratic Communist state.
Today, the circumstances are very different from those cases. Although Russia in 1917 had had 30 years of revolutionary organizing by anarchists and socialists who had constructed a base among the country’s working people, today in Russia the movement for reform has been intimidated and the revolutionary left is tiny. Every critical thinker or activist has either been imprisoned or fled the country. Few if any public demonstrations have yet taken place against Putin in the wake of this attempted coup. There is also a danger that a sector of the society, disgusted with Putin, might turn to the vile Prigozhin and his murderous Wagner mercenaries.
Unlike Stalin’s rule in 1941, Putin’s has not been preceded by 20 years of severe repression in which at least 100,000 died and hundreds of thousands of others went to the Gulags. Although suppressed, millions oppose Putin and hope for change. Perhaps the recent crisis will inspire the Russian liberal and leftist opposition, and activists of the many non-Russian nationalities of the Russian Federation, to take action.