Beware a Weakened Putin

”The worse, the better." During the short-lived coup attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries over the weekend, it seemed that much of the US commentariat had adopted this old Leninist creed, aimed originally at undermining Tsarist rule and hastening the triumph of Bolshevism. The more trouble Putin faced at home, many American media influencers reasoned, the better off America and the world would be.

In fairness, this belief wasn’t wholly misplaced. It is true that if the Russian military were forced to divert its attention and resources to deal with unrest at home, Ukraine’s chances of breaking through Russia’s depleted defenses and compelling Putin to sue for peace would rise significantly. Fear of this possibility was almost certainly a key factor prompting Putin to seek a quick compromise with Prigozhin and his not-so-merry band of fighters.

But this brief enthusiasm for the attempted coup resulted in a curious alignment of American and Russian hawks. Prigozhin, after all, has been a bitter critic of the go-slow strategy that Putin and the Russian military have adopted in the wake of their failure to capture Kyiv early in the war. Rather than attempting to defeat the high-tech wizardry of America’s real-time intelligence and precision-guided munitions through direct attacks and flanking maneuvers, Putin has tried to turn the fight in Ukraine into a grinding war of attrition. He is betting that Russia’s much larger population base, more resilient economy, and greater capacity to manufacture low-tech but abundant artillery shells and missiles will eventually outlast Western patience and erode Ukraine’s ability to field and equip its own army. This would allow Russia to triumph in Ukraine while minimizing the risks of direct confrontation with the United States and NATO.

Prigozhin and other hardline Russian nationalists have ridiculed Putin’s approach. They argue that Russia should have dealt Ukraine a decisive blow much earlier in the war. The initial invasion, they say, was poorly planned and vastly under-resourced; Putin should long ago have put the country on a true war footing, conscripted and fielded a much larger army, and used much more of its considerable military firepower to win the war immediately, betting that the United States and NATO would not intervene in response. Did America’s laptop warriors realize this was who they were cheering for during the abortive Wagner mutiny?

Aside from this odd-bedfellows quality, mainstream commentary was and remains short-sighted about the broader dangers to America if Russia were indeed to descend into internal crisis. Yes, a collapse at home might force Russia out of the war in Ukraine, just as the German transport of Lenin back to Imperial Russia hastened the demise of the Tsar and ended Russian involvement in World War I. But Berlin’s myopic focus on that war had obscured the problems that revolution in Russia would eventually pose for Germany and the world. If anything, such dangers would loom even larger in an era of nuclear weapons and digital interconnectivity.

One of the United States’ biggest concerns in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution was the security of the Soviet nuclear force. We worried that extremists might get their hands on a nuclear weapon or pay a jobless scientist to help them build a bomb. An internal crisis in Russia would resurrect those dangers. Our success in averting those outcomes in the 1990s flowed from broader cooperation between the US and Russian governments in tightening controls over nuclear materials and providing employment for scientists and engineers. Such cooperation is difficult to envision today, given the virtual state of war that now exists between Washington and Moscow.

A second concern was the potential for the Soviet breakup to descend into a Yugoslav-type inter-ethnic bloodbath. A power vacuum in Russia today would almost certainly translate into a greater risk of instability in neighboring states. It was no coincidence that Azerbaijan decided to settle scores with Armenia over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh just as the Russian military, which had played a critical peacekeeping role there for some thirty years, mired itself in Ukraine. Many other ex-Soviet republics are host to so-called “frozen conflicts” or subject to potential new bouts of inter-ethnic instability. The eruption of such conflicts would present Washington with an unappetizing menu of policy choices while raising the prospect of greater Chinese and Turkish involvement in the region.

The Wagner affair has almost certainly wounded Putin politically, even though he has avoided the worst-case scenarios that might have flowed from Prigozhin’s challenge. The extent of the damage is at present impossible to ascertain, but many Russians must be wondering how their president, to whom they look above all to safeguard the nation’s stability, could have allowed factional fighting between Prigozhin and the military to spin so dangerously out of control.

“A wounded Putin is quite likely to be a more dangerous Putin.”

To judge from the headlines, Americans seem to regard this wounding as an unalloyed good. But a wounded Putin is quite likely to be a more dangerous Putin. He has already accused the United States of backing Prigozhin, conflating media sympathy for the rebellion with operational government support. He will not only be more likely to crack down on dissent at home, but also less likely to show patience in the war in Ukraine. Russian nationalists have complained that Putin has tolerated US and NATO supplies of ever more threatening weapons systems to Ukraine, such as Leopard and Abrams tanks, longer-range artillery and missile systems, and F-16 fighter aircraft, arguing that his restraint has only encouraged bolder American support and put the Russian homeland at risk. He is far less likely to show such restraint now.

All this points to a mounting crisis between the United States and Russia. America has grown more confident that it can safely challenge Russia’s red lines at the very time that Putin is under immense pressure to show he is willing and able to defend them. And the depth of animosity and mistrust between the two governments means it will be enormously difficult to contain the aftermath of any direct clashes between our respective militaries.

It was only two summers ago that Biden’s newly appointed foreign-policy team was proclaiming its intentions to pursue a “foreign policy for the middle class” in which relations with Russia would be “stable and predictable.” What a different reality we now face.

George Beebe is director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and former head of Russian analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency.