Some Strongmen Lose Power In Stages. Will This Be Putin's Fate?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat examines the potential for a wartime erosion of power, jump-started by Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's show of force, to eventually take down Russian President Vladimir Putin too.
Published:June 28, 2023
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Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Strongmen can lose power in stages. That was the case with Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After twenty years of tyranny, his own Fascist Grand Council removed him from power in 1943 for incompetent leadership after the Allies landed in Sicily. Adolf Hitler revived him as head of a puppet state (the Republic of Salò), and he resumed the ruinous war that ultimately led to his death.

Will a wartime erosion of power, jump-started by Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's show of force, eventually take down Russian President Vladimir Putin too?

Seen from the perspective of authoritarian history, this moment stands out as a breach of a system--one of those stress tests that wars can bring--and as an omen of what could befall Putin in the future.

Prigozhin's action reminds us of the fragility of authoritarian power and why such leaders live in fear of being overthrown. It brought to mind a passage from the "Endings" chapter of Strongmen. "The authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure. It does not foresee the leader’s people turning against him, from military men he trained to young people he indoctrinated to women he rewarded for having babies."

Authoritarian leaders arrange things to prevent intimations of that failure from reaching their ears. They surround themselves with sycophants who won't tell them the truth about their incompetence and puff up their personality cults and aura of omnipotence. Ironically, this "institutionalized lying," as I call it, only increases their insecurity and obtuseness about what is happening on the ground, in their ministries and among their regular and irregular armed forces.

The longer such individuals stay in power, the more defensive and paranoid they become, which is why they multiply their bunkers and informants, monitoring everyone and trusting no one.

While Putin blames the West for threatening Russia's cultural and moral integrity, his greatest fear seems to be the prospect of the Russian Federation imploding from within, repeating in miniature the breakup of the USSR that so scarred and shaped him.

All autocrats fear being overwhelmed by "the mob" that could come for them. But Putin's particular obsession with tropes of disintegration speaks to his terror of everything falling apart, of the center not holding, of the power verticals he has so carefully assembled crumbling.

This fear coursed through his 2013 address to the nation, which warned Russians that without his leadership they would be overwhelmed by “retrogression, barbarism…movements backward and downward, to the chaotic darkness, a return to the primitive condition.”

The next year, he authorized the creation of the Wagner Group under Prigozhin's lead. Wagner is not just a mercenary force with a lawless culture (they recruit in prisons): it is an integral part of Putin's kleptocracy. It rapes and murders, as autocrats' irregular forces often do, but it also funnels profits from plundering assets in its foreign theaters of operation back to Moscow.
Wagner cooperated with the system until Prigozhin's simmering tensions with the Russian military command --based on poor performance in Ukraine and dislike of a rival corruption channel--boiled over. Then Wagner turned its wrath inward. For a few nightmarish days, Putin found that the center did not hold.

Whatever Prigozhin's actual aims were in making his move (former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Koyrev's reminder to "believe nothing Putin or Prigozhin tell you" bears repeating), his show of power, staged on Russian territory, has left Putin seeming weaker—and perception is everything in the strongman world.


Spectacle of power. Putin addresses a rally in Red Square to celebrate the occupation of Lugansk and other Ukrainian regions, Sept. 2022. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images.

As the Wagner Group occupied Rostov-on-Don, the world, including Russian elites, saw that Putin's military and security forces are not necessarily the loyal and enthusiastic servants his propaganda makes them out to be.

At least Putin has the support of Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who, we are told, played the role of mediator between Putin and Prigozhin.
Lukashenko is less able than most authoritarians to mask his fear of "the mob." When protesters marched towards his presidential palace in 2020, he donned body armor and fled into a helicopter, armed with a machine gun. Now he has the volatile head of the Wagner Group under his care.

Yet Lukashenko's main identity is as a Putin client. In parking Prigozhin in Belarus, Putin may be telling the world that he considers that country a quasi-extension of Russian territory. When a strongman feels injured, there is always a lesser strongman to dominate.

We can ask where Putin's fears will take him next, as his diminished stature and uncertain control of some armed forces has been revealed to the world.
As a student of history, Putin undoubtedly knows that strongmen can lose power gradually. And that assassination attempts often rise when a strongman appears vulnerable, with many of those late-regime plots coming from the military. That was the case with Hitler and with Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi as well. 

For this reason, too, letting Prigozhin live peacefully in Belarus, even if he is used in some fashion for the cause of defeating Ukraine, would be an exception to authoritarian history and out of keeping with Putin's character. Dozens of civilian elites have died in suspicious circumstances for making critical remarks about Russia's handling of the war on Ukraine.

In the end, strongmen do whatever is necessary to retain their hold on power and, in Putin's case, keep their kleptocracy going. This may prompt actions that seem to make no sense until one or another party plays their hand. In the short term, Putin will likely take out his rage on Ukrainians, who had nothing at all to do with this domestic threat, and escalate his quest to annihilate them.

The odds are very good that he will fail. Then Putin will lose all legitimacy, opening the door to other elite or military moves that may spell the end of his time in power. 

Reference: Quote from Putin’s December 2013 address to the nation: Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin, 255-256