scorecardThe Wagner rebellion weakened Putin — and may have reduced the threat of nuclear war
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The Wagner rebellion weakened Putin and may have reduced the threat of nuclear war

Charles R. Davis   

The Wagner rebellion weakened Putin — and may have reduced the threat of nuclear war
LifeInternational3 min read
  • The Wagner rebellion weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin, experts say.
  • His reduced standing could make him even less likely to order a nuclear strike in Ukraine.

Ever since its "special military operation" became a grueling slog of a war, the Russian government has periodically reminded the world that it is a nuclear power determined to use all means necessary to secure its existence.

Its underlying philosophy hasn't changed, experts say — on paper, Russia's policy on nukes is not so different than the United States' — but the saber-rattling has had a clear implication: back off, and don't help Ukraine take back annexed territory, or the Kremlin could go a little crazy.

In 2022, such aggressive posturing was widely viewed as weakness.

Russia wasn't necessarily losing the war it started, but it wasn't winning, either. Threatening to make life unlivable in Ukraine, and possibly the world, was a desperate card being played by a government that, whatever its faults, continued to be led by a rational actor whose primary interest is rebuilding an empire, not kickstarting armageddon. It was falling for that rhetoric that risked making the world a scarier place, in the view of some experts, because it would demonstrate that such existential threats are an effective substitute for diplomacy.

The brief rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries last week revived fears over Russia and nuclear weapons, raising the prospect that a couple thousand convicts turned soldiers-for-hire could themselves control the fate of the world.

But the fallout of what looks to have been an aborted coup d'etat is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been gravely weakened, if not overthrown, with Wagner's largely unchallenged march toward the capital suggesting that the strongman may not enjoy absolute power after all.

One Western intelligence official said the episode had so diminished Putin, and demonstrated the limits of his prior authority, that it had "reduced the threat of nuclear conflict," the Wall Street Journal reported, "since subordinates would be less likely to enact his orders."

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider that's a take he hadn't heard before — but could well be true, with the caveat that even Russia's elite seems not to fully grasp what happened with the Wagner revolt and why.

That said, "if the lack of armed opposition to the Wagner 800-kilometer insurgency happened because Russian armed forces refused to obey orders to stop him, then that could hypothetically mean that they might also refuse orders to carry out other military tasks, including nuclear operations," according to Kristensen, at least in the case of using nukes in Ukraine.

US officials stress that while Russia's occasional nuclear brinksmanship can be alarming, it appears to be purely rhetorical.

"We haven't seen any change in Russia's nuclear posture," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS in a June 25 appearance, a remark that comes not only after the Wagner revolt but Russia's decision to place some tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of planning to sabotage the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. On the eve of Prigozhin's rebellion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia was planning a "terrorist act" there, with his country's military intelligence service claiming that Russia, which seized control of the plant last year, has drafted a plan to blow up the facility, à la the Kakhovka Dam — a claim that Russia has flatly denied.

It's an open question whether any Russian commander or intelligence officer would be willing to carry out any nuclear-related order from a man at the top of a wobbly regime, barring a literal NATO attack on Moscow. And it may well be that Putin himself is aware of this, further reducing the threat of an impulsive annihilation, according to Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia's nuclear arsenal with the United Nations' Institute for Disarmament Research.

"It's not that the subordinates would disobey," Podvig told Insider. "It's just that giving an order like this requires the president to be in a very strong position."

For more than 20 years, Putin projected that image of strength, at home and abroad. Now, though, he presides over a failing war that itself spawned a failed insurrection, prompting Russians and foreigners alike to wonder if he is really in control. And that may have made the unthinkable even less likely.

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