Among the many lingering questions about the Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion is why Russia’s vast security apparatus was so poorly prepared for it.
The FSB, the Kremlin’s main internal security service, has long placed a heavy emphasis on “prevention” and taking aggressive steps to preempt any threats to the state before they occur.
The security agency even had informants within the Wagner organization. Yet it seems to have taken no action to stop the mutiny before it started or to warn the Kremlin about Prigozhin’s plans.
Then, as Wagner forces made their move, both the FSB and Russia’s National Guard, the main body assigned to maintain internal security and suppress unrest in Russia, failed as rapid response forces.
The National Guard made every effort to avoid a direct confrontation with Wagner; for its part, the FSB—which also has several elite special forces groups—did not appear to take any action at all. Instead, the most powerful security agency in the country issued a press release calling on Wagner’s rank and file to stay out of the uprising and to go arrest Prigozhin—on their own.
Equally startling was the reaction of Russia’s military intelligence, GRU, to the Wagner escapade. Consider that moment when Wagner forces marched into Rostov-on-Don, Russia’s main command center for the war in Ukraine.
As Prigozhin sat together with Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, deputy minister of defense, and Vladimir Alekseyev, first deputy head of the GRU, Alekseyev seemed to agree with Prigozhin that there was a problem with Russia’s military leadership.
When Prigozhin said he wanted to get Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russian forces in Ukraine, apparently to make them answer for their mistakes, Alekseyev laughed and replied, “You can have them!” Shortly after these comments were aired, a member of Russian special forces told us, “Alekseyev is right.”
In the wake of the Prigozhin crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a dilemma. It has become clear that the larger threat to his regime may not have been Prigozhin’s mutiny itself but the reaction of the military and the security services to that mutiny.
Now, he needs to find a way to deal with that intelligence and security failure without creating new uncertainty about his grip on power. And unlike in previous crises, he may no longer be able to rely on the security agencies he has long used to ensure political stability.
WHERE SYMPATHIES LIE
The threat posed by Prigozhin’s rebellion had little to do with the relative strength of Wagner forces. When Wagner forces declared victory in Bakhmut in May, Prigozhin touted it as a major triumph in a battle that had lasted for months, and it inflated his ambitions to a dangerous degree.
In reality, however, Bakhmut was little more than a local success, and its value was questionable. In the weeks since the Ukrainian counteroffensive began, that victory has become a distant memory.
Wagner has not had a significant role in deterring the counteroffensive, and Prigozhin’s mercenaries—despite their much-hyped capabilities—seem far less relevant to the war than they were in the spring.
In fact, the rebellion came precisely at a moment when Wagner’s influence was weakening and Russia’s military command was gaining renewed confidence. With the Ukrainian counteroffensive off to a slow start, there was a growing perception that Ukraine’s tanks and other advanced weapons supplied by the West were more vulnerable than anticipated, and Russian officers reported that army morale was growing. No longer were Wagner fighters seen as the only capable forces on the Russian side.
These shifting perceptions should not come as a surprise. Ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian army has existed in a state of continual and sudden mood swings. Enthusiasm at the start of the war, for example, was almost immediately followed by deep embarrassment from the abject failure of the initial campaign.
Then, in the summer of 2022, the army gained more confidence again in the east, only to be met with the shock of the first major Ukrainian counteroffensive and the loss of Kherson. Still later, there was renewed confidence as the army regrouped amid expectations of a big Russian offensive in the winter—only to meet with more disillusionment at no progress. This was followed by the drawn-out victory at Bakhmut, and then again, deep anxiety as Russia awaited the big Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The rebellion opened the door to criticism from within.
Even before Prigozhin’s mutiny, Russia’s seesawing fortunes in Ukraine had led to a growing mysticism among the army rank and file. Battalions have been named after saints; soldiers have increasingly shared icons and prayers on Telegram; and pro-war priests have gained growing popular followings. But the instability had also eroded trust in the military leadership.
In fact, this has been an age-old problem for the Russian army, which faced terrible morale toward the end of the Crimean War in 1856, in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–5, in World War I, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and more recently, in the Afghan and Chechen wars.
The significance of Prigozhin’s rebellion, then, was in opening the door to criticism of Russia’s military leadership. And as Prigozhin did it as head of Wagner, Alekseyev, as deputy head of military intelligence, showed that this criticism could come from within.
In fact, Alekseyev’s comments carry more than a little weight—and they show how complicated the Wagner situation is. Alekseyev is one of the most powerful generals in military intelligence. But he was also one of the founders of Wagner, and he has long experience supervising Russian special forces and is well respected by those units, as our own reporting makes clear.
Alekseyev’s comments were a signal to those in the military who share Prigozhin’s views that there could be room for a serious conversation about the military leadership. Although they were not ready to support Wagner in action, this faction within the military saw an opening to start talking about what was going wrong in the war. In short, Alekseyev had broken the official silence around Russia’s military leadership and made the impossible possible.
It was in this context that Putin addressed the public when the mutiny ended. He appeared to be concerned not so much with Prigozhin but with the military itself. His strongly worded speech was aimed at sending a clear message to the armed forces: in effect, Putin said, I will call Prigozhin a traitor so that you, as the army, have no choice but to distance yourselves from him and his message.
In doing so, Putin didn’t miscalculate—he wanted to cut off Wagner from the military and security services, and for the time being, it seems that he did.
But in the long term, Putin has allowed for a new challenge to his cherished political stability to emerge. He successfully ended the mutiny, but such criticism of the generals at the top will remain and is likely to grow.
The fact that 13 Russian military pilots were shot down by Wagner forces, and that Shoigu and Gerasimov were entirely absent during the crisis, has only given more fuel to dissatisfaction within the infantry. And what will happen when Russia suffers new setbacks in the war and the mood in the military swings back in a negative direction?
Military morale is only one of the things Putin needs to worry about. His handling of the security services following the crisis could put his hold on power at even greater risk. For the moment, he has simply stood by. Although there has been widespread chatter in Moscow about post-rebellion repressions, these rumors only concern the military; Putin has left the FSB and the National Guard untouched.
Instead of attacking the leaders of the FSB and the National Guard for failing him in the crisis, he seems to have decided either to do nothing or to give these agencies expanded authority. In fact, the national guard hopes to strengthen its position by getting permission to have tanks in its service.
This lack of repercussions for the security services is particularly startling in view of the FSB’s performance in the crisis. When Prigozhin captured the headquarters of the Southern Military District—where he spoke to Yevkurov and Alekseyev—it looked almost like a hostage taking of several of Russia’s top military commanders.
Yet according to sources in the FSB, in response to the arrival of Wagner forces, the FSB agents in Rostov-on-Don simply barricaded themselves in their local headquarters. Also absent during the crisis were several of Putin’s top security officials, including the head of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov.
While a column of Wagner mercenaries marched toward Moscow, taking down helicopters and shooting into the houses of civilians on the way, these brave generals failed to show up—not at the scene or in front of the public at all.
The security services were paralyzed at a moment of national crisis.
It appears shocking, but this was not the first time that Russia’s security services have been paralyzed at a moment of national crisis. Take the 1991 coup attempt, in which a group of communist top officials headed by a KGB leader put President Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer villa in Crimea.
Although their plan to seize power failed and tens of thousands of people went to the streets to defend their freedom, KGB officers chose not to participate in the events and stayed at home. The officers who were at KGB headquarters on Lubyanka that night barricaded themselves in the building and watched the events from their windows.
In 2004, when terrorists took hostage more than 1,000 children and teachers at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia’s top generals seemed to respond with fear and helplessness. At the time, Patrushev, who was then FSB director, accompanied then Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev to the city airport, conferred in secret, and then hurried back to Moscow.
The officials got so scared that they left the situation to be sorted out by the local FSB branch, which by all standards was not in a position to tackle a terrorist crisis of this scale. In the end, more than 300 people were killed, including many children. Putin never punished these officials, and all these years later, Patrushev and Nurgaliyev are on Russia’s Security Council.
GETTING AWAY WITH IT?
For the first time during more than 20 years in power, Putin’s KGB background might not serve him well. As an officer of the KGB who also did nothing to protect the political regime he had sworn to protect, he seems willing to let slide the excuses made by today’s FSB generals. Of course, there could still be purges in the time to come, but in past crises, when Putin decided to make a change, it has usually happened swiftly: in 2004, for example, when Chechen militants briefly seized control of Ingushetia, heads rolled at the FSB almost overnight.
For now, it is not just Prigozhin who seems to have gone unpunished but also the security services who supposedly were protecting Putin from precisely such a threat.
For any autocrat, this is a strange way to reassert control. In the short term, Putin may see it as the best way to downplay the crisis and move on. But his security services will be unable to save him from the new reality that has taken shape in which the military itself is open to criticism and even challenges to its rule. If such challenges continue, they may not be limited to the military. They could extend to Putin’s own hold on power.