What is happening in Russia?  An attempted coup? Is Vladimir Putin’s iron grip loosening?

Russian troops in a tank

A mercenary Russian Army fighting in Ukraine halted its march toward Moscow on Saturday, but what may have been an attempted coup has shaken Vladimir Putin’s iron grip on leadership in Russia, experts say.

“This is a significant crisis, a major inflection point, in Russian history here. There are a lot of potential implications for the stability of our current international relations,” said Steve Flynn, founding director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute and a professor in political science who also served on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration.

Flynn said he predicts Putin will ultimately prevail. But the instability of the situation makes him nervous.

Later Saturday, the president of Belarus, Alexsandr G. Lukashenko, had negotiated Mr. Prigozhin’s agreement to halt his forces’ advances. According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, Russia is dropping all “armed rebellion” charges against Prigozhin, who must now go into exile in Belarus. Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters who did not take part in the rebellion will be given amnesty, and then they will sign contracts that will bring them under the control of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. 

“This is a significant crisis, a major inflection point, in Russian history here,” Flynn said. “There are a lot of potential implications for the stability of our current international relations.”

Ekaterina Botchkovar is an associate professor at Northeastern who since 2014 has been studying war in Ukraine and its effects on Ukrainian society. Prior to the war, her main research focused on crime in Russia.

She sees the events as harmful to Putin.

“We’re looking at many scenarios—not any of them look good for Putin,” Botchkovar said. “Even if nothing happens, his power will be diminished.”

As the mercenary army turned its guns away from Ukraine and marched toward Moscow Saturday morning, Botchkovar said we witnessed an attempted coup.

“From the news that is being shared, it’s a real attempted coup at the moment,” Botchkovar said on Saturday morning. 

But the march on the capitol had reportedly halted by mid-afternoon. Did that mean it was over? 

“If this is a coup that topples Putin, the worrisome thing is—just as we faced at the end of Cold War with attempts against Gorbachev at the time—we have a nuclear power whose leadership is unraveling,” Flynn said. “That is serious.”

Tensions rose on Friday night as Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of a private army called Wagner that makes up a large portion of Russia’s forces fighting Ukraine, upped his criticism of Putin and his handling of the war in Ukraine—accusing the Russian military of attacking Wagner’s encampments. 

We have a nuclear power whose leadership is unraveling. That is serious.

Steve Flynn, founding director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute and a professor in political science

The New York Times said the claim could not be immediately verified. Prigozhin also described the invasion of Ukraine as a “racket” to benefit a corrupt Russian elite. 

He vowed that his 25,000-strong mercenary army would go on the offensive against the Russian defense ministry, although he said his actions were not a “military coup,” according to the New York Times.

Russian authorities responded by charging Prigozhin with “organizing an armed rebellion,” and Prigozhin claimed to have taken over the city of Rostov-on-Don in the south of Russia on his way to Moscow. 

In an address to the Russian people Saturday, Putin declared the actions “a stab in the back of our country and our people” and vowed “decisive actions.”

However, that afternoon Prigozhin said he halted the march on Moscow to “avoid shedding Russian blood,” according to a Tweet from the Associated Press.

Beyond questions of what happened, there are questions about the implications of the events.

For example, what does this mean for the war in Ukraine?

Botchkovar cautioned that we should not assume Prigozhin’s criticism of the war in Ukraine means he is pro-Ukraine. 

“I think he is anti-war, in the way the war is going,” Botchkovar said. She described Wagner and Prigozhin’s followers as an “ultra patriotic, ultra radical group of individuals who feel like war should have been over a long time ago.”

For them, that this war has been a year-and-a-half is “unfathomable” for a country as large and powerful as Russia, Botchkovar said. 

And they hold Putin responsible.

“I think he is just very much anti-Putin’s government at this time, and that is what is driving him,” Botchkovar said.

But is the enemy of an enemy a friend?

“He is not at all an ally of the United States,” Botchkovar said of Prigozhin.

In fact, Botchkovar noted that Prigozhin established the Internet Research Agency—a “troll farm” that Russia used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

Flynn questioned whether internal strife would change Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“If Russia has to withdraw to handle all this, it creates a real shift in the situation Ukraine is facing just as it is mobilizing its current offensive,” Flynn said. 

And Botchkovar said that there is some hope that if Prigozhin came to power he would begin to negotiate. However, she cautioned, “it’s difficult to predict what happens at that time.”

“He has been working with Putin since day one, Putin is the reason why he became so powerful,” Botchkovar said. “It’s very difficult to predict what would happen if this person were to acquire more resources and come to power.

“Basically, much of what has been happening over the past year-and-a-half, has been tied to Putin. The common sentiment is that once Putin is gone, the war will stop—we don’t know if that is true, but the general hope, perhaps, is that this could be the case.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.