Russian mercenaries’ near-rebellion undermines Putin’s power 2023

This weekend, President Vladimir Putin looked to be in danger for the first time in his 20-year leadership.

Even if the dissident Russian mercenary soldiers that descended on Moscow have pulled back, Putin will struggle to maintain his appearance of ultimate authority. That might lead to further domestic issues and undermine Russia’s hand in the Ukraine war.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner warriors stormed Rostov-on-Don’s military headquarters, aiming to overthrow Russia’s defense minister. They then marched hundreds of kilometers north to the capital without resistance.

Some cheered, indicating that Prigozhin’s portrayal of himself as an adversary of a corrupt and inept elite resonated and will be noted by Putin’s entourage in the coming days.

“This whole episode has sowed really profound anxiety across Russia’s elites,” said Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia Nigel Gould-Davies. Putin’s former protégé “severely shake confidence in Putin among those around him who matter.”

Wagner convoys broke across Russia, shooting down military jets.

Authorities hurried a hodgepodge mix of troops and police to guard Moscow, dug up highways, and even blew up bridges to impede the attack with most Russian forces in Ukraine.

On that crucial day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff head Gen. Valery Gerasimov disappeared, heightening the impression of weakness and helplessness.

Putin accused Prigozhin of treason in a televised speech to the country early Saturday.

However, hours later, Putin granted Prigozhin amnesty on the condition that he exile in Belarus.

The Kremlin sought to portray the bargain as a sensible decision that prevented a slaughter, but it was a stunning compromise for a guy who has forcibly silenced critics.

Prigozhin’s fast pardon contrasted with the Kremlin’s systematic crackdown on dissidents and Ukraine war opponents, who have been prosecuted, exiled, or killed. Putin’s uprising response was seen as weakness by many in Russia.

“Prigozhin demonstrated that it’s possible to capture a city of a million people with impunity, put demands to the country’s leadership, refuse to obey its orders and mount military marches on Moscow while killing Russian soldiers on the way,” said Viktor Alksnis, a retired Soviet air force colonel and current hardliner who shares the views of many Russian hawks who have grown increasingly critical of Putin and his handling of the Ukraine war. Russia is closer to irreversible collapse.

Putin suffered another defeat in his 16-month campaign in Ukraine.

Gould-Davies stated that the rebellion has destabilized the military and lowered soldier morale, giving Ukraine, which is beginning its counteroffensive, additional opportunity.

“This is Russians killing Russians on Russian territory while Russia is trying to contain a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” Gould-Davies said. Wartime Russia doesn’t want this.

While the arrangement with Prigozhin might put certain Wagner forces under Defense Ministry control—a demand that the mercenary commander had previously rejected, triggering the conflict—it’s a meager recompense for the crisis’s massive harm to government authority.

The Russian president tolerated Prigozhin’s feud with the top military leaders as part of his strategy to shift blame for the military blunders in Ukraine and play members of the elite against each other in an apparent belief that he could fully control him, according to political analyst Kirill Rogov.

“Golem’s creator always thinks that he can be stopped and he makes him look increasingly convincing in order to scare others,” Rogov said in a remark about a Jewish folklore clay figure.

Putin stopped Prigozhin, but it cost him.

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