Vladimir Putin’s authority remains intact for now, but the mutiny has put the most significant dent in the Russian leader’s power in 23 years of rule. Peter Bale explains what it all means, and what could happen next.
Beware of Vladimir Putin when he is pushed into a corner and has to reassert his prestige and the sense of dread he has held over rivals, lieutenants and foreign governments for more than 20 years.
The extraordinary mutiny by mercenaries loyal to oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former close confidant of the Russian president known as “Putin’s chef” who heads the Wagner Group private army, is far from a coup – though over-eager commentators have called it that. It could lead to a coup but there is no sign yet that anyone is in the wings with a serious chance or intent to topple Putin.
However, it is absolutely the most significant dent in Putin’s authority in his entire rule and we should be fearful of how a cynical and embattled leader may react.
“President Putin is facing the most serious challenge of his 23 years in power,” historian Mark Galeotti wrote in The Sunday Times (paywalled). “Even if the immediate crisis may be defused thanks to the intervention of Belarusian president Lukashenko, the damage is done. When history records his downfall, it will say the endgame began here.”
Putin has a history of dramatic and deadly actions to cement his control, from the apartment bombings that may have paved the way for him to take power and led to the second Chechen War, to the Beslan school massacre, and the mysterious Moscow theatre siege. In each case his tactics showed he is prepared to sacrifice many others to bolster his position.
Given he faces what he has called a traitorous mutiny and a “stab in the back” in the middle of a war against Ukraine and what he has twisted into a war waged against Russia by the west, we have to fear his response may be to lash out, distract, and reclaim the upper hand.
Ukraine appears to have taken the initiative amid the chaos created by the mutiny along parts of the long eastern border with Russian-occupied Ukrainian provinces.
It has to be significant that the Wagner Group mercenaries run by Prigozhin were easily able to take control of a primary Russian command centre in the city of Rostov-on-Don. They have withdrawn now apparently under an agreement supposedly brokered between Putin and Prigozhin by Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko.
Under the purported agreement, Prigozhin will move to Belarus, his men can apply to join the Russian conventional forces, and no one will face retribution. Yeah, right.
The mutiny has blown up just as Ukraine appeared to be making only limited progress against Russian lines and in the same week Russia confirmed that intercontinental ballistic missiles moved recently to Belarusian territory were ready for operations.
Prigozhin launched his operation after months of increasingly bitter attacks on the Russian military establishment for their conduct of the war against Ukraine and their alleged lack of supplies and even attacks on Wagner units. Now the attempted mutiny clouds the entire picture of the invasion of Ukraine, the risks of western support for Kyiv, and the future of Putin himself.
Russian secret police raided Wagner offices in Moscow and St Petersburg (supposedly finding $38 million in cash), while authorities closed museums and shopping centres in the Russian capital, and built roadblocks and trenches against a thin convoy of Wagner mercenaries heading towards the city from Rostov 1,000km away.
For once, the Ukraine war came to the streets of Moscow in a way that couldn’t be hidden from the public, though this time it was Russian soldiers of fortune posing the threat. Putin compared the mutiny to the 1917 collapse of Russian forces against Germany in the first world war, which historians will point out led to the communist takeover and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Ukraine may have brought the war to Moscow with the pinpricks of drone attacks, but this is a much greater disruption to the life of Muscovites and to the authority of Putin.
“Is Putin facing his Czar Nicholas II moment,” asked a subheadline over an analysis in The Atlantic (paywalled), by historian Anne Applebaum, who went on: “In a slow, unfocused sort of way, Russia is sliding into what can only be described as a civil war.”
In the febrile climate created by the Wagner mutiny and the war in Ukraine, conspiracy theorists and genuine experts went into overdrive with ideas – from the mutiny being organised by Putin to justify a crackdown on the military, or on Wagner, or that Prigozhin really was standing up to Putin and genuinely angry at the loss of Wagner troops in a conflict he has repeatedly said is badly run and suppled by corrupt Russian military top brass.
Phillips Payson O’Brien, a strategic studies academic at St Andrews University, wrote in The Atlantic (paywalled) that he believed it was a pre-planned move by Prigozhin, whose Wagner mercenaries have a long history in Syria and Africa before joining the Ukraine campaign. “What we’ve witnessed over the past 24 hours has every appearance not of a spontaneous mutiny but of an extremely well-planned attempt to manipulate President Vladimir Putin and even threaten his rule,” he wrote.
Galeotti, in The Sunday Times, concluded: “The three pillars on which Putin’s regime rest are his personal legitimacy, his control of the security apparatus, and his capacity to throw money at intractable problems. The money is dwindling, his already-decaying legitimacy is going to take a further hit, and the unity and loyalty of the security apparatus is clearly now open to question. Putin seems likely to defuse or defeat this specific challenge, but will still take what may in the long term prove to be a mortal wound.”
Recommended reading and ways to keep on top of this story
Wagner chief’s 24 hours of chaos in Russia, by the BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg, who offers calm and experienced analysis, is a good read.
The Guardian live blog on the Ukraine invasion is a generally solid way to stay on top of fast-unfolding events.
BBC World Service Newshour is always a useful update but a special on Sunday hosted by Lyse Doucet was particularly insightful, especially an interview with New York-based historian – and yes, great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev – Nina Khrushcheva.
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