25 Jun 2023
Is Russia headed towards a new civil war?
The leader of private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has declared what amounts to an insurrection against Russia’s military leadership.
He’s now commanding a Wagner military force that has advanced into the southern Russian city of Rostov on Don, surrounding the Russian Southern Military district headquarters, and promised to march on Moscow. In response, Russian military forces in Moscow blockaded Red Square to protect the Kremlin.
The Wagner chief then reversed his extraordinary coup attempt.
These extraordinary and fast-moving developments raise some key risks and uncertainties.
If the Wagner forces gain support from the Russian military ‘rank and file’ soldiers, as opposed to Russian Ministry of Defence General Staff, it’s possible that Prigozhin’s insurrection will grow into something larger and more significant.
A march on Moscow for expanded Wagner forces would then become possible, and if the Russian General Staff, together with associated security agencies, fail to stop such a movement, the real risk of a civil war, or a military coup emerges. Events are not at that point yet, and it’s equally possible that Russian military forces will put down this insurrection, and in that outcome, Prigozhin is likely to meet his end.
However this insurrection ends – be it in civil war, a coup, or demise for Prigozhin – it highlights that Putin’s credibility is under increasing threat, and perhaps his days are also numbered.
Outside of Russia, Ukraine is likely to take advantage of any disruption to Russian military operations along their defensive lines in eastern and southern Ukraine, especially if those lines are weakened by Russian forces being redeployed to fight Wagner.
So, it’s quite possible that if the internal battles between Wagner and elements of the Russian military gather pace, the Ukrainians may see new gaps in the Russian defensive lines that they can probe, breakthrough and exploit to retake their territory.
Putin would then not only face the prospect of armed internal uprising – or even civil war – but military defeat in Ukraine. His credibility as Russian leader would be at a nadir, and other challengers could emerge from the Oligarchs and Siloviki – elites in the Russian security and intelligence community – that have up until this point, kept him in power.
Which takes us back to Prigozhin and his attempted coup attempt on Moscow.
The objective would be to remove Putin and place a successor in charge – not necessarily Prigozhin, but someone from the shadows – that would be more willing to align with hard line nationalist views of the Siloviki, and perhaps willing to undertake mass mobilisation to try to turn around the war in Ukraine in Russia’s favour.
There’s one other dimension that western states will be very concerned about. Russia is a nuclear weapons state, and any internal conflict – especially if a full-on civil war were to emerge – in a nuclear power is an extremely serious contingency.
A key concern must be ensuring positive control of nuclear forces, to make sure nuclear weapons cannot be used without authorisation. This is especially the case for tactical nuclear weapons that would be forward deployed, including in areas such as Rostov, and which may have simpler safety and arming processes than strategic nuclear forces such as silo based nuclear-armed ICBMs.
So western leaders will be carefully watching the posture and readiness of Russian nuclear forces. Given that risk it’s vital that western states send strong deterrent signals to the Putin regime to ensure that there is no temptation to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons – be it against Ukraine, or in an internal conflict. That could turn what at the moment is a limited insurrection into a much more dangerous crisis that threatens the entire globe.