Twenty-Four Hours That Shook the Kremlin
MOSCOW – Yevgeny Prigozhin may have called off his attempted coup just before his Wagner Group mercenaries reached Moscow, but the rebellion may nonetheless have fatally undermined Vladimir Putin’s regime. Days, weeks, or even months might pass before the cracks are fully exposed, but make no mistake: every crisis that ends with only the thinnest of resolutions, or none at all, further diminishes Putin’s stature, and thus whatever support he has left among Russia’s elites. His rivals are probably already eyeing the throne.
In the short run, Putin could spin the uprising’s failure in his favor. After all, the masses did not rise up to join the rebellion, as Prigozhin predicted, and Russia’s armed forces stood with the Kremlin, though only half-heartedly, as demonstrated by the fact that Chechen troops had to be sent to Rostov-on-Don to confront Prigozhin’s mercenaries. But, in time, it will become clear that none of this reflects the Putin regime’s strength.
Neither side, it seems, was confident that it could defeat the other. Though Prigozhin vehemently criticized Russia’s military brass, he denied that he was attempting a coup. Instead, he insisted that the Wagner advance on Moscow was a “march of justice” for the soldiers who had died in Ukraine because of the Russian military’s poor leadership – and even that mission was quickly cut short. Prigozhin knew that he could not sustain an assault on Moscow.
It did not help that Prigozhin never quite won over the Russian public. Despite scenes of crowds cheering him and his fighters as they departed Rostov-on-Don, where they had seized all military sites, it was done out of a feeling of absurdity: “war heroes” are going against the Russian military. Yet most Russians have not embraced Prigozhin’s unhinged rhetoric. His vision of cleansing Russia of corruption and indecision with blood lacks broad appeal.
But Putin’s response to the mutiny was hardly that of a powerful leader or even a skilled tactician. While he condemned the coup and vowed to punish those involved “brutally,” the response did not come quickly enough, and his rhetoric came across as more panicked than menacing. This was a man who was reacting to events, not controlling them.
Worse, far from crushing the mutiny, let alone having Prigozhin eliminated, he let Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko negotiate a deal that effectively lets Prigozhin off the hook: the Wagner boss will now decamp to Belarus, and criminal charges against him will be dropped. To some Russians, the deal makes Putin look pathetically weak, as it seems to have been presented to him as a fait accompli.
It is not inconceivable that Putin could still position himself as a great peacemaker. But he would need Russia’s elites to rally behind him. And Putin’s silence since Prigozhin cut his deal with Lukashenko suggests that he does not know, even now, whether he can count on his cronies’ loyalty. Moreover, people are eager to hear him explain why Prigozhin the “traitor” is being pardoned at all. The coup may be quashed, but the world sees that leadership is still lacking.
Putin still has some allies, of course, such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic who pledged to send troops to Moscow to fight off the coup-makers. And Russian leaders – including Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and most regional governors – spoke up in defense of the regime.
But opposition to the uprising among Russia’s elites was less about supporting Putin than about opposing Prigozhin. While they disagree with a number of Putin’s decisions – including isolating Russia and strengthening its dependence on China – and increasingly view him as weak and erratic, he is still a safer bet than the volatile head of an army of mercenary thugs and convicts.
At the same time, it seems likely that Prigozhin does have some Russian leaders on his side. For example, he may have an arrangement with General Aleksei Dyumin, the governor of the Tula region, next to Rostov-on-Don. Some in Moscow believe that Dyumin – who used to be in charge of Putin’s security, and at one point was considered one of his potential successors – negotiated with Lukasheno on Prigozhin’s behalf, and possibly even promised the Wagner boss a military position in the future.
It would be easy to deliver on that promise if, as some suggest, Dyumin becomes Russia’s new minister of defense, replacing Prigozhin’s principal enemy, Sergei Shoigu. Under Dyumin’s leadership, Russia would undoubtedly adopt an even more brutal approach to the Ukraine war, much to Prigozhin’s satisfaction.
More ominous for Putin, Prigozhin’s rebellion could well have been assisted, and even organized, by forces close to the Kremlin or by members of Russia’s domestic security agency, the FSB, who blame Putin for allowing the Ukraine war to drag on. Even if this is not the case, the fact that Prigozhin publicly defied Putin so flagrantly, and lived to tell the tale, could inspire new attempts to overthrow Russia’s top leadership.
So, who might seize the throne? Two obvious possibilities are Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, and his son Dmitry, the minister of agriculture. Another is Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who deliberately appeared on television hard at work during the crisis, while Putin reportedly flew to safety in Valdai, far from the Kremlin. Then there is Dyumin, as well as Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who controls his own powerful armed force.
This does not mean that Putin’s demise is imminent. There have been whispers about Russia’s elites wishing to replace him for a long time now. But change never seems to come. Just as Prigozhin backed down from a fight that he was not sure he would win, Putin’s potential challengers seem to lack confidence that they can defeat their rivals.
Nina L. Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, is the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler) of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St. Martin’s Press, 2019).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.
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