Russia expert Andreas Heinemann-Grüder has worked intensively with private military companies in Russia occupied, he assumes that Putin will put down the uprising. But it will be “a Pyrrhic victory” for Putin: “His maximalist position will prevail. But the question of whether it makes sense to fight to the death will continue to smoulder.” Heinemann-Grüder compares the Wagner uprising with the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944: “The uprising shows how much the Russians have their backs against the wall. Russia may have holed up, but there are doubts that this war is still turning in their favor, they are significant.”
ntv.de: Prigozchin’s criticism was actually only ever directed at the Defense Ministry and the army leadership, not at the President. How did it come about that Putin had to take sides so clearly in the power struggle?
Andreas Heinemann-Grüder: So far, Putin has played the Ministry of Defense off against the Wagner Group and vice versa. That was no longer possible – Putin could no longer manoeuvre, he had to make a decision. Prigozhin forced this decision. Ultimately, this situation provoked the Ministry of Defense with air raids on a Wagner camp. The decisive battle comes about because Prigozhin reacted to it. Putin must now restore the monopoly on the use of force.
Did Prigozhin misjudge his position?
Prigozhin certainly overdid it. He probably expected that there would be a split within the army – that parts of the army, which also fought closely together with Wagner, would not side with Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of Staff Gerasimov, but would recognize that Prigozhin has very legitimate arguments. Because behind the conflict is the question: How should the war continue? Prigozhin believes that Russia must end the war because a long war will not end in Russia’s favour. He says that all victory reports are just fake. Putin, on the other hand, believes that this war will last a very long time but must be continued.
What does the chaos in Russia mean for Ukraine?
For now, the Ukrainian army will have some tactical advantages because parts of the Russian armed forces are now otherwise occupied. But if the faction that’s going for a long war of attrition prevails, then strategically that tactical gain might mean a downgrade. Then Putin will certainly not make any more compromises.
Can Russia continue the war against Ukraine without Wagner as before?
The Russian army is already trying to use methods that Wagner used. The army is already recruiting from other private military companies, recruiting soldiers from prison camps like Prigozhin did for Wagner. So some of the advantages the army gained from using Wagner fighters are offset by the regular troops. That was basically Shoigu’s goal in this power struggle: to eliminate the competition by escalating the conflict.
How amazing is it that someone like Prigozhin, whose career is so closely tied to Putin, should now turn against the state?
Prigozhin sacrificed many of his people in this war. His Wagner group paid an extremely high price in blood. He did the dirty work. He literally walked over the corpses of his mercenaries – not even funerals could be held at home for the Wagner fighters. This has given Prigozhin prestige in Russia, especially among those who already criticize that there are too many stage generals in Russia anyway, too many of those fat oligarchs that Prigozhin has repeatedly attacked. This has given Prigozhin a certain reputation not only among the population, but also in the military. He must have thought that he had become so strong that Putin would not oppose him. But he has obviously over-excited his sheet. Under the pressure of escalation, Putin opted for Shoigu.
Prigozhin’s criticism of the army and the conduct of the war was also seen as an outlet for discontent that might exist among the Russian population. How could the current escalation affect the mood in Russia?
The state of anti-terrorist alert has already been declared in and around Moscow, and of course Muscovites also see the pictures from Rostov-on-Don, where Wagner fighters with armored vehicles and tanks control the city. This will have a significant demoralizing effect on the population because the image of national unity has been damaged. In any case, there are growing doubts among the population about the war. Now fights within your own troops – the demoralizing effect on the population will be enormous.
What does the process say about Putin’s position in the Russian power structure? Has the taboo that criticism should never be directed at the supreme leader now be broken? Or conversely, did he gain power by crushing this uprising?
I assume that Putin puts down the uprising. What we are witnessing here is the Russian version of July 20, 1944: it was also successfully crushed. At the same time it was the prelude to the end, because the predetermined breaking points have become clear. It will be a Pyrrhic victory for Putin. His maximalist position will prevail. But the question of whether fighting a fight to the death makes sense will continue to smolder. And in future he will lack the counterweight to Shoigu and Gerasimov in the event of military defeats – he can continue to make the two scapegoats, but then he will lack the hero to fill the gap. So Putin is becoming hostage to his own defense minister. In the Russian power structure, he will no longer be the boss who can publicly parade Shoigu and Gerasimov in the event of setbacks, as he has done repeatedly for the past year.
Could this be the start of a civil war?
No, I do not think so. It is a struggle within Russia’s security organs. It is an internal elite struggle.
After July 20, 1944, it was almost a year before Hitler’s Germany surrendered unconditionally. You probably wouldn’t draw the parallel that far?
There were many factors in the defeat of Nazi Germany – primarily military, from Stalingrad to the Normandy invasion. But the uprising of the Wagner group shows the tensions that exist within the Russian military, since Prigozhin certainly has allies within the regular Russian army. Two generals have spoken out against the uprising, while saying that Prigozhin has a point in criticizing the war. The uprising shows how much the Russians have their backs against the wall. Russia has holed up, but there are considerable doubts that this war can still be turned in their favor.
This is the parallel to July 20th.
July 20 was an attempt to get out of the threat of defeat on the Eastern Front and perhaps make a separate peace with the West. It was based on the acknowledgment that the war was unwinnable, that Germany would perish with Hitler. The July 20 insurgents wanted to find a way to avert total surrender.
Could the August putsch of 1991 against Gorbachev also be a historical parallel?
The August coup was an uprising against a weakened president. That may yet happen if parts of the security apparatus believe that Putin is so weakened as a result of the Wagner uprising that they must save the state from Putin. But we are not there yet.
The question has been asked time and again since the beginning of the war: who would be able to get rid of Putin?
Something like this can actually only be organized from within the ranks of the security apparatus. For me, only the foreign secret service would come into question. They also belong to the silovars that Prigozhin always criticizes, i.e. the connection between the security apparatus and the oligarchs. But they are not as rotten as the Russian army and parts of the FSB domestic intelligence agency. Above all, they have the possibility of isolated communication: They can talk to each other without the others being able to overhear them. That would be a prerequisite for organizing a takeover at all.
Hubertus Volmer spoke to Andreas Heinemann-Grüder