Russia crisis: Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is 'not a fool', wouldn't lead mutiny without support, expert says

As the fallout continues in Russia following an aborted armed mutiny, attention is now turning to see if cracks are starting to emerge in the leadership of President Vladimir Putin. 

Putin broke his silence on Tuesday morning (NZ time) thanking Wagner mercenary fighters and commanders who stood down to avoid bloodshed.

He accused the organisers of the mutiny of wanting Russian society to "drown in blood". 

Overnight, the head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin re-emerged and recorded an 11-minute audio message after leading Saturday's mutiny.

In it, Prigozhin said his men headed to Moscow to "hold to account" those leaders he blamed for "mistakes" in the Ukraine war.

He denied his "march for justice" was aimed at toppling Putin and made no direct reference to his own whereabouts.

Putin also promised to allow Wagner fighters to relocate to Belarus if they wanted or sign a contract with the Defence Ministry or simply return to their families.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and leader of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and leader of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photo credit: Getty Images

But international law expert Professor Alexander Gillespie from Waikato University told AM on Tuesday history shows Putin doesn't always keep his promises and Prigozhin's life is in "'jeopardy".

"He may yet well end up dead, I mean, there's an unfortunate history with Putin and those people who went against him…so I think even if he flees to Belarus, his life will be in jeopardy," Gillespie said. 

He pointed to Sergei Skripal - a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies - and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, who were poisoned in Salisbury, England in 2018. 

A few months later, British authorities identified two Russian nationals, using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, suspected of the Skripals' poisoning and alleged they were active officers in Russian military intelligence. 

The armed mutiny in Russia has led to questions about Putin's leadership and if he's become vulnerable. 

The US has said the mutiny showed "cracks" in Putin's leadership, while military strategists believe it could have serious implications for Russia's war on Ukraine.  

Gillespie believes the "cracks" in Russia are deep, with Putin no longer "invincible" leading to people around him growing in confidence that they can topple him. 

"I think Prigozhin is not a fool and he wouldn't have done this unless he had more support than is actually visible. So I think the cracks in Russian society are much deeper than what we can see in the West right now," he told AM. 

"To take on the stand that he did and got as far as he did was quite an achievement. So those around Putin will be thinking this guy is not invincible and there might be a chance to topple him. 

"The risk that presents is not just for Russia but also for the West, because in these situations, in times of chaos, countries can lash out as leaders try to assert control." 

International law expert Professor Alexander Gillespie from Waikato University.
International law expert Professor Alexander Gillespie from Waikato University. Photo credit: AM

He told AM the most likely outcome now will be for Putin to take complete control of all his armed forces. 

"I think what you've got with the mutiny is an open rebellion against proper authority, it's the most serious thing that a state can face," he said. 

"You've got two different stories going on, you've got Putin and you've got Prigozhin. One saying mutiny, one saying it was just a protest. 

"I think you're going to see a process now where Putin gets complete control of the state to make sure that he's got a complete monopoly on all use of force."

The worst-case scenario for Russia and Putin is if he doesn't get complete control of the armed forces, Gillespie said.

This could lead to armed gangs going around "doing what they want" with no accountability and making it much more difficult to have peace negotiations. 

"If you've got warlords on the field, it becomes complicated and dangerous and tends to escalate," he said.

Watch the full interview with Alexander Gillespie in the video above.