Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership capabilities and strength are being put to the test—as his invasion of Ukraine enters its 17th month.
- On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded the eastern regions of Ukraine in a self-proclaimed mission to “DeNazify” its former puppet state.
- The unprovoked attack drew international condemnation for being the largest launched European land war since World War II.
- On June 23, 2023, mercenary group Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin condemned the Russian military’s justification for the invasion and prepared a military force to march against Moscow in retaliation.
- On June 24, an alleged force of 25,000 Wagner mercenaries reportedly ceased the military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-On-Don.
- By the end of the day, Prigozhin announced a deal had been struck with Moscow and that the march had formally been called off to avoid the bloodshed of Russian citizens.
- On June 25, Russian General Sergei Surovikin was arrested for allegedly siding with the Wagner mutiny attempt, The Moscow Times reports.
While the details of the Wagner deal with Moscow’s leadership have been unclear, it would appear that the mercenary group’s leadership has not been formally charged with any crimes, with the arrest of General Surovkin being a notable, if strange, exception. The international media spun the sudden and unexpected event as a military coup against the Russian state, suggesting that the bogged-down war could abruptly end in a civil war and the ousting of Putin from power. However, this did not occur.
Ron Holloway is a former special agent with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and is the CEO of Arrow Coaching LLC. He tells Leaders Media that the media should not regard last month’s events as a “failed coup attempt” but as the start of a shift in the larger propaganda battle over Putin’s ability to lead the Russian state.
“When you have a smaller force going up against a larger force—using asymmetrical warfare—the aim isn’t to capture territory but hearts and minds. The language and justification Prigozhin used question the validity of the war in the first place. He says he’s fighting because they’re sending Russian soldiers into a meat grinder, which could win soldiers and their parents,” says Holloway.
“He says the withdrawal was to avoid killing Russians, an appeal to nationalism and the people. Putin is even thanking him for not invading Moscow and has shown he is willing to negotiate, which is a strange behavior for Putin—who has an image as a tough guy. If they had the ability to punish a coup like that, they would. But Putin hasn’t, and he realizes his attack dog has turned on him,” he continues.
Putin has sold himself to the Russian leader as a nationalist strongman with the aim of rebuilding his broken country into a great empire. This has placed much of his leadership in a propaganda game, with him using payoffs and sanctioned murders to maintain his strong-man image and grip on power. The Wagner rebellion raises questions about that leadership, likely suggesting that General Surovikin’s arrest was a symbolic act to save face.
The Ukrainian invasion has already proven costly to Russia—both to its people, to the economy, and to the powerful oligarchs backing the invasion. U.S. estimates suggest that Russia’s casualties include 50,000 killed and 180,000 wounded, placing a war that has lasted less than two years into a situation comparable to the U.S. Vietnam War or Russia’s own invasion of Afghanistan, which lasted for a decade and killed 14,453 Russian soldiers. Putin has no choice but to make a clear case to his citizens and financial backers why the war continues to be justified, lest he displays weakness and faces an ousting.
“This battle is for hearts and minds. It comes down to a game of propaganda. The people know they have a voice,” says Holloway. “I don’t think this is going to fade away totally. Part of warfare is timing. Prigozhin has the microphone now, and he can keep talking and building up his political power. As long as Putin can’t kill him or his family, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Putin’s circle turn to Prigozhin or back away from him. I’d say there is more to come. These things take years, but I would say Putin’s days are numbered—live by the sword, die by the sword.”
As we previously reported, U.S. support for Ukraine has faced greater scrutiny in recent months. Watchdogs suggest that keeping Russian financial and military support accountable is challenging, while Republican politicians are pushing isolationist positions that are more skeptical of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership.