"Putin is stronger today": Russia expert explains how rebellion effort may backfire

Matthew Schmidt, professor of national security at the University of New Haven, on war in Ukraine

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 3, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin | A destroyed tank lies in rubble, in central Mariupol (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin | A destroyed tank lies in rubble, in central Mariupol (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Ten days ago, the world was on tenterhooks as it watched an apparent mutiny (and perhaps coup attempt) by the Wagner mercenary group, which is led by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, against Vladimir Putin's regime and its military commanders. But as quickly as the crisis began, it ended abruptly in a type of anticlimax one day later as Prigozhin's forces stopped their march on Moscow, stood down, and agreed to return to their barracks. Prigozhin has apparently accepted a type of exile in the former Russian Republic of Belarus, where he was promised amnesty by Putin. For now, at least, a civil war or other type of armed conflict inside Russia has been averted.

The punditry and many other professional Russia-Putin watchers quickly reached a consensus that whatever the final outcome of these recent events may be, one thing is certain: Putin has been greatly weakened and huge holes have punched in the appearance of his total control and power over Russia and its military. Ultimately, it is not a matter of if Putin will be brought down (in large part by the failure to win a quick victory in Ukraine) but when and by who.

Matthew Schmidt, a professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven and an expert on Russia, defense, intelligence and foreign policy, has reached a different conclusion. Schmidt believes that Putin may actually be stronger (in the short term) because of how he was able to stop Prigozhin's mutiny, further cementing his position as a strongman leader. In this conversation, Schmidt explains why the punditry and experts reached what he sees as very premature (and incorrect) conclusions about the recent events in Russia — and how those errors are indicative of broader misunderstandings that the West holds about Putin and Russian society and politics.

Schmidt also details why the recent crisis in Russia will likely not have an immediate impact on the war in Ukraine as many have hoped. He cautions that the war in Ukraine will ultimately end in the streets of Moscow when the Russian people decide to overthrow Putin. Schmidt warns that the Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely take some time to succeed and that Western weapons and assistance will not be a type of magical solution to the brutal and bloody battles that lie ahead.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What do we actually know about the recent events in Russia with Vladimir Putin and a revolt or insurrection by Prigozhin's Wagner mercenary force? Where are we now? 

Anybody who is telling you that they have a good, definitive idea about what's going on with Putin and these events you shouldn't trust. There are scenarios that I can draw for you. The common consensus seems to be that Putin is weaker now, that Prigozhin showed that Putin cannot control his country, and this is going to mean that Putin is going to face more threats to his power and that he is severely undermined and damaged. No one in the elite defected from the Kremlin. I think many people were waiting to see what was going to happen with Prigozhin's moves, they were cautious. But in the end, no one left Putin's orbit. Putin has shown the elites that he still has the loyalty of the security services. I think Putin is stronger today, but in the long term he's doomed. The problem is that the war is happening now. 

Now observers are waiting to see if Prigozhin is going to fall out of a window anytime soon — which I also believe is not going to happen anytime soon. He's useful; he can fall out of a window at any time, so there's no rush. And now Putin has his putative enemy basically under his control in a foreign state. Putin now has the best fighters on the battlefield under the direct control of his generals. What has Putin really lost? There is another lesson here from what happened last weekend. Prigozhin takes two major cities without any resistance. Now everybody in the West says, "Oh, my God, that shows Putin's control is weak!" But anyone who has lived in Russia or lived in the Soviet Union or studied it knows that the key to Russian and Soviet control of society was apathy.

That has to be considered as an explanation for why nobody resisted Prigozhin. I am also quite certain that Prigozhin never intended to take Moscow. He's not stupid. He never had the capability to accomplish that goal. Prigozhin must have known that would be a suicide mission. His goal was to create exactly what he said, which is pressure to get rid of Shoigu and Gerasimov.   

As you watched the pundit and talking head 24/7 cable news machine spin up into crisis mode what did you find most frustrating about the dominant narrative?  

"Putin isn't stupid. Putin's economy is weak. All he has is the military. Putin will not risk the total destruction of his military."

They were hungry to find explanations for things that there wasn't enough data to have an explanation for. Few if any of the pundits and talking heads were willing to step up and say, "We don't know". They were doing what they were asked to do, which was to explain things. We experts and pundits owe it to the public to tell them when we don't know something and from there a real conversation about current events — especially developing events like in Russia last week — can start.

Words have actual meanings. Was this a "coup"? A rebellion? An "insurrection"? Something else? 

Prigozhin's military success was impressive. But he did not have the political side of the equation solved. A "coup d'état" has both of those dimensions. I prefer the term "mutiny" to describe what happened with Prigozhin and Wagner PMC, which is simply to say that here is a group of troops who decided to not follow the orders that they were given by their leaders. That term also does not require that we determine a reason or motive. It is descriptive language. The term "insurrection" is almost synonymous with "coup d'état" and the idea that you are trying to overthrow the government. The evidence does not point in that direction at this early point.

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Prigozhin is a mercenary. Was this just about the money?

Let's look at the data that we actually have. Prigozhin was criticizing his commanders for months. He threatened to pull out of Bakhmut until his commanders gave him more ammunition and support. Then what Prigozhin claimed is that the Russian military directly bombed his troops in their barracks. That is a huge claim. I have not seen Prigozhin's allegation proven convincingly. But let's take Prigozhin at his word for now. Believe it or not, I think he is very much motivated by a sense of honor. Prigozhin doesn't need the money. That is not his driving motivation. Also, Prigozhin was not attacking Putin, he was very careful about that. Putin was not attacking Prigozhin directly either. They were leaving each other an exit ramp to get what they wanted and also to save face.

Again, I am dubious that his ultimate goal was to march on Moscow. Prigozhin was using military force to send a signal of intention. He had no intention of ever marching to Moscow, his forces would have been crushed. Putin had no intention of allowing Prigozhin's forces to get to Moscow because that potentially could have swayed some of the oligarchs against him. Putin was not going to let that happen.  

Given all the misdirection and confusion about Russia and what is actually happening domestically, how do we in the West and elsewhere determine the truth about the mutiny and other political matters? How do you suggest we better pierce that opaque Russian box to use that metaphor? 

Look at people's actual words and do not assume that everybody is lying. Yes, they may be lying about details, but the actual words will tell you important and true things. The second thing you have to look for is evidence that people believe in the ideology they profess. Does the public at large believe in the ideology? Do the elites around Putin believe in ideology? Or are the elites and the public apathetic? If you see evidence that continues to show apathy, or support for the ideology, then Putin is not going anywhere. 

The Soviet system, and Putin's Russia, depend on people's political apathy to rule. Putin rose to power by essentially buying off Russian society with oil and gas money. He offered a higher quality of material life in exchange for people's apathy towards political rights and foreign policy.  

How are the Ukrainians processing the mutiny in Russia and what it may mean for the outcome of the war and counteroffensive? 

I was talking to a reporter yesterday, from Ukraine. When I explained that I thought Putin did not end up weaker, and that he is going to stay in power for the foreseeable future, she asked what does the mutiny really mean for the battlefield? I told her that I don't think it means much yet. It is too soon to tell. The Ukrainians have not yet had a chance to exploit the mutiny and what it may mean or not for Putin and Russia and the war. The problem that Ukraine has is turning lethal success on the battlefield into political conditions at home in Moscow. Ukraine can have lots of success on the battlefield and not actually do that. That is my sincere worry. In the end, I think the war ends in the streets of Moscow. The Russian people must overthrow the Putinist regime. But there's going to be a guy after Putin. He may be worse than Putin. He may be slightly better. And then there's going to be a guy after that guy. That person is the most likely chance for Russia to have a democratic system. That outcome is decades in the future.

Russia will lose the ground war in Ukraine. Russia will be forced to concede territory, albeit not all the Ukrainian territory they conquered. Russia will continue to be an existential threat to Ukraine until a new democratic leader emerges in Russia decades in the future. Ukraine will have to maintain one of the largest armies in the world; it will have to maintain extraordinary levels of competency; it will have NATO forces in Ukraine in large numbers; Ukraine will be like Germany was in the 70s. Ukraine will have to rebuild itself. But Ukrainians right now want to believe in a quick, rapid victory. Unfortunately, Ukraine's counteroffensive is not going to accomplish that. Ukraine's leaders have chosen the safer route. For Ukraine to achieve a faster victory and force Putin to settle will require taking Crimea — but that is the hardest military objective. 

How do military professionals such as yourself assess a counteroffensive and its success or failure? What are the metrics?   

What observers tend to look at are the colors on the map and how the territory changes hands. Attrition is another metric. How many vehicles of what type are being destroyed? How many people are being killed? How many are being taken off the line because of injury, total casualties? What the public does not see is what is happening at the National Security Council, for example. How can we move the war in Ukraine to a political conclusion using military force? That does not fit into a sound bite, which explains why the general public and commentariot are not engaging with those questions and themes.  

How are you evaluating the Ukrainian counteroffensive? 

Their counteroffensive is making progress, and that progress is slow and plodding. What they're trying to do is protect against failure. A large failure really hurts the Ukrainians because it will impede their ability to continue the counter offensive in other places. I don't see any surprise moves yet, and to be honest that's what I'm waiting for. The Ukrainian military is also trying to develop units that have figured out how to breach Russian lines. Once they have some units that have learned how to conduct those operations successfully, those units can go and train and then lead larger parts of the counteroffensive in other areas. That's something that people outside of military experience just don't pay attention to.

We are also not seeing combined arms maneuvering (Cam) by the Ukrainians. CAM is what makes the Western militaries so good, it was designed with the Soviet military approach in mind. NATO has always assumed it would fight with fewer men and fewer guns. It's an approach tailor-made to fight Russia, which has largely retained its Soviet culture in the armed forces. But it takes time to learn, and time is not on Ukraine's side. But it's partially why I think Zelenskyi is being patient with the start of the full counteroffensive. He's trying to get more and better training in place. He's in no real rush, and every week of training time is worth yards of success and buckets of blood saved.  

There was a recent video of the Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and the Leopard tanks being severely damaged and destroyed during a failed breaching operation against the Russians. Of course, you had all the online and other armchair generals making proclamations about that one small battle and of course jumping to incorrect and premature conclusions. What difference will Western equipment and armaments really make in the war? How do we explain to the public what these systems are capable of or not? 

 A good general would never say that a battle is won because of the equipment. A good general will always say that you must have competent, brave soldiers with competent brave leaders who understand that their job is to take care of their soldiers, and the soldiers will take care of the mission. It's just that simple. You need the right weapons – or alternatively weapons that are close enough to being the right ones. The Ukrainians are getting the right weapons now. A huge critique I have of the Biden administration is that the US should have just given the Ukrainians the weapons and other support they needed much earlier. It would have made a huge difference in the war.

The Ukrainians do need more training. That is a large explanation for what delayed the counteroffensive. We should not underestimate their extraordinary capacity to learn quickly, to learn well, to be brave, and where they didn't have time to learn well, to substitute bravery for the technical capabilities they may have lacked.  Ukrainian society is totally behind the war. The Ukrainians are going to win. What that victory looks like is what remains to be determined.  

Putin has continued to make threats of using nuclear weapons if he deems it necessary. Are those threats credible? 

The chance of Putin actually using nuclear weapons is very small. Why is that? There are two types of nuclear weapons. The media gets confused. The media hears "nukes" and they think of New York being destroyed. This is not what Putin would do, it makes no sense to achieve his political aims. Battlefield nukes are what we should focus on more. But again, battlefield nukes are not really going to offer Putin either a political, psychological, or tactical advantage. It's just not a useful weapon. The US has said, publicly and privately, that NATO will enter the fight, and you, Vladimir Putin will lose your military. Putin isn't stupid. Putin's economy is weak. All he has is the military. Putin will not risk the total destruction of his military. 

You are not psychic. But how do you think Putin and Prigozhin are feeling right now?   

Prigozhin is probably struggling to find his identity. He is also likely scared for his life and that of his family. Putin, I believe, is riding high for the moment and feels like he now has more undisputed control over the military than he has had during the entire war in Ukraine. Putin feels very good about that. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Joe Biden Matthew Schmidt Military Russia Ukraine Ukraine War Vladimir Putin War