Tuesday, 27 June 2023 00:35

What’s going on with Vladimir Putin after the mutiny?

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a ceremony, marking the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, June 22, 2023 in Moscow, Russia, days before Prigozhin’s uprising.

Late Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly addressed the end of a mutiny that threw the country into chaos. Any attempt to create “internal unrest” is doomed to failure, he said, claiming that he could have crushed the rebellion, but wanted to avoid bloodshed.

“They wanted Russians to fight each other,” Putin said in his short remarks. “They rubbed their hands, dreaming of taking revenge for their failures at the front and during the so-called counteroffensive. But they miscalculated.”

It was a glimpse at the official narrative emerging in the aftermath of an armed rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group paramilitary. In less than 24 hours, Wagner fighters seized military installations in Russia’s south and marched on Moscow. Then, just as abruptly, Prigozhin halted that movement, claiming this was all part of the plan. The Kremlin later said a deal — apparently brokered by Belarus — had been reached whereby Prigozhin would avoid prosecution in exchange for going into exile in Belarus, though the details of are still very murky.

But Putin’s remarks Monday evening did little to answer the many questions that still swirl around Wagner’s insurrection, including the status of Putin himself.

Prigozhin has since said he wasn’t trying to do a coup; instead, he was trying to stop his Wagner fighters from being absorbed by the Russian military. That is still going to happen, according to Putin, unless those fighters also prefer to go to Belarus or agree to be decommissioned.

And this uprising was perhaps the biggest challenge to the Russian regime in decades. Prigozhin may not have wanted to overthrow Putin, but in 24 hours, it looked possible that Putin could be overthrown. The Russian president showed that he is not the infallible strongman he has sold himself to be.

And yet. It is likely way, way too soon to be declaring this the end of Putin. The mutiny showed the cracks in Putin’s control, and in the autocratic system he created. Those weaknesses, in lots of ways, were already visible in Russia’s failures in Ukraine, just this time, the lack of communication and confusion happened on Russia’s home turf.

“This provides us a lot of information about his ruling style, which we know to be under duress right now, and not necessarily completely rational,” David Szakonyi, assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University, said of Putin. “But he has, at the end of this, eliminated what would have been one of his greatest threats to power.”

Again, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the fallout from Prigozhin’s adventure. The mutiny exposed the vulnerabilities in Putin’s system, and revealed a breakdown in some of the dealing and bargaining that make this kind of autocratic system work. That world witnessed that. But so has Putin, and how he responds may ultimately determine how vulnerable he really remains.

What to make of Putin’s response to the Wagner uprising, as best we can

Putin’s Monday remarks were the first since Prigozhin’s mutiny ended on Saturday. The Russian leader had been somewhat absent as the whole Wagner episode unfolded, other than remarks Saturday, in which he called the uprising treasonous, and said anyone who consciously went down the path of betrayal “will be punished inevitably.”

But it was apparently Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko who brokered a deal with Prigozhin, though it is likely that Putin endorsed it. (Some experts speculated that Putin may not have wanted to get his hands dirty by negotiating directly with Prigozhin, so he dispatched his kind-of puppet to take care of it.)

But even so, Putin was conspicuously absent in the hours after the uprising. It was only on Monday, hours after Prigozhin himself posted an audio message reiterating his grievances, that Putin’s spokesperson teased Putin’s forthcoming speech, saying, it “without exaggeration, will determine the fate of Russia.”

But Putin’s follow-up speech on Monday didn’t exactly promise punishment to Prigozhin (whom he did not name) or Wagner fighters. Putin said the uprising failed because all of Russian society united against it — although those people weren’t exactly taking to the streets, if they existed. Putin also indicated that while the mutineers wanted bloodshed, he wanted to avoid that on Russian soil.

Szakonyi said some pro-Russia propagandists have used this kind of framing: Sure, it was a bad option for the Kremlin to make a deal with a guy named as a traitor. But the really, really bad option would be chaos and fighting on the streets of Moscow, of images of Russian killing Russians.

And in a weird way, Putin does seems to have at least dispatched with the populist threat Prigozhin presented, although maybe it did not play out as planned.

Prigozhin had intensified his feud with Russian military leaders in recent weeks to an astonishing degree. There is a space in Putin’s Russia for different camps of elites to fight it out among themselves. And in Prigozhin’s case, his criticism, at least at first, put pressure on the war’s generals, but not on the necessity of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But then Prigozhin walked up to that line and crossed it, criticizing the war’s justification and the elites who profited from it. That kind of populist attack doesn’t exactly make Putin seem like he’s in control. Moscow did look as if it was trying to curtail Prigozhin’s power, namely by trying to force Wagner fighters to sign with the Ministry of Defense (Prigozhin’s stated reason for launching his uprising). Prigozhin may have also realized his time was up (maybe literally). But now, it seems, Prigozhin will at least be a less active and legitimate critic of the war effort.

“Why would Putin need to do more than that? It means nothing to be gained by attempting to take revenge on Wagner, or having people imprisoned and executed,” said Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

The weaknesses of Putinism does not mean the end of Putin. But man, there are still so many questions!

Of course, it’s probably fair to say that it is going to be pretty hard to just move on past all this.

Putin’s Monday speech may have been an attempt to shore up stability, but it didn’t fully deliver. No one really understands the contours of this so-called deal with Prigozhin, or how Prigozhin was allowed to push this so far, seemingly catching the Russian security services off-guard (despite Western intelligence officials indicating they had an idea of what Prigozhin was up to). Prigozhin has not actually resurfaced yet, besides his recorded statements, and exactly how Wagner fighters, Russian soldiers, and the public are interpreting these events is still pretty opaque. Wagner’s efforts in Ukraine, and in Bakhmut, have elevated them as heroes, and crowds cheered as Wagner fighters left the southern city of Rostov-on-Dov on Saturday.

One of the bigger questions is how the Russian elite respond to this. Fracturing and infighting is a possibility, which may further undermine Putin’s rule.

“There, I think, has to be the sense that Putin is losing his mojo, and he’s supposed to be the one who keeps everything in balance, he’s supposed to be the one who protects all of our interests,” said Brian Taylor, a Russia expert and professor of political science Syracuse University. “And then, one of his creatures, turns on him and tries to bite his hand off, and everyone’s supposed to pretend that didn’t happen — I can’t see that.”

In lots of ways, Prigozhin’s uprising was so shocking because his position was wholly dependent on Putin. He may be the leader of the Wagner Group, but he more or less got that gig because of his ties to Putin. In Russia, especially in Putin’s Russia, these informal relationships matter, and having an official role in the system doesn’t necessarily equate to power and influence.

Prigozhin’s mutiny showed the downsides of a system like this. As Taylor noted, some of the Wagner fighters advanced with little resistance, perhaps in part because no one really understood what was going on. Prigozhin isn’t the boss of the country, but “he also has this connection to the biggest boss of them all. And so maybe I’m not supposed to do anything,” Taylor said, “and so everyone kind of sat on their hands while this mutiny goes all day because no one really felt empowered to do anything to stop it.”

Putin himself may not have fully understood what went wrong, and where the threats were coming from. “When his back is up against the wall, he picks the better choice of the bad options in front of him,” Szakonyi said, of Putin. “The question is: how many times can you still get away with picking the worst of two really bad options until it all kind of crumbles?”

Putin may be trying to do damage control behind the scenes, trying to figure out who failed where, which means it’s a bit hard to judge Putin’s relative inaction right now. In the past, Putin has responded to challenges with crackdowns and purges. “I think we have to see: are there going to be more repressive measures? Are some more heads going to roll? I think we it’s too early to tell that yet,” said Angela Stent, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest.

The fates of top military leaders, like Shoigu, seem assured, at least in the short-term. Otherwise any firings might seem like a concession to Prigozhin. On Monday, after his remarks, a televised broadcast also showed Putin meeting with top defense officials, including Shoigu, another apparent attempt to make everything seem like business as usual.

Looming above all of this is Russia’s war in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s rebellion was shocking, but it is a symptom of larger dysfunction within Russia, and Moscow’s disastrous campaign in Ukraine exposed that. “The huge question that remains is: what happens on the battlefield in Ukraine? That’s what will either preserve or destroy this regime,” Lievan said.

He said speaking to people in Moscow, there are two camps when it comes to how the war plays out: “On the one hand, they say, they can’t imagine circumstances in which Putin would fall. But equally, they say, we can’t imagine how Putin could survive.”