Just when we all thought that the writing was on the wall for Putin, Prigozhin and his horde of veterans and ex-convicts got cold feet. Having got halfway up the motorway to Moscow and taken out a slack handful of Russian attack helicopters on the way, they turned tail and retreated to whence they came.
The peacemaker was Putin’s chum President Lukashenko of Belarus. His grip on power in that country depends wholly on Putin’s patronage, and he will do anything to please his master.
It is significant that it is Prigozhin has been exiled to Belarus. He is still within easy reach of Putin. I wouldn’t be staying in any tall buildings if I were him. As for his Wagner Group, its members are either relocating to their operations in Africa, volunteering to join the regular Russian army, or going home.
The dismembering of Wagner is a significant blow for the Russian war effort. It has done much of the heavy lifting in the fighting and is responsible for Russia’s only real tactical success to date, the taking of Bakhmut. With its withdrawal from combat the Russians are much weaker.
Conspiracy theories abound over who may have been behind these events – the CIA, the GRU, China – but there is little point in speculating. It will all come out in the wash in due course.
We might consider what effect all of this will have on the Ukraine conflict in general. It looked as if Zelensky had been presented with a golden opportunity to deal a major blow while the Russians were in disarray. That moment may well have passed now.
So the Ukrainian counter-offensive grinds on, by Zelensky’s own admission going slower than desired. However, if and when the Ukrainian breakthrough happens, it’s possible that Russian morale will collapse or their forces become so dislocated that coordinated defence is impossible. Then we might see the broad, sweeping advances and liberation of Russian-occupied territory that everyone is hoping for.
There is one other factor at play here, of course, and that is the weather. All of this needs to be achieved before the autumn rains return and cross-country movement becomes nigh on impossible. There isn’t that much time left this year.
As for Putin, well, the non-coup has left him weakened. He has seen his authority challenged, his rationale for invading Ukraine rubbished, and has been forced to compromise with his arch-critic who has publicly accused his senior commanders of incompetence.
This, plus continuing rumours about Putin’s state of health, suggest that his time in power may be coming to an end. His enemies will be plotting away behind the scenes, just waiting for the right moment to usurp him.
That time may not be far off.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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