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Putin faces historic threat to absolute grip on power in Russia

Bloomberg • 6 min read
Putin faces historic threat to absolute grip on power in Russia
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Vladimir Putin managed to avert an attack on Moscow with an eleventh-hour deal with his mutinous mercenary commander. But the uprising has pierced his aura of total political control over Russia unlike any other event in his nearly quarter century in power.

Insiders in Moscow were stunned that he’d ignored repeated warnings that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was preparing to bring convoys of heavily armed fighters to the capital. Instead, the Russian leader allowed them to get so close authorities had to deploy tanks and troops in defense. That’s fueled once-unthinkable doubts about his legendary command of the country.

US and European officials privately described the 24-hour uprising — advance indications of which their intelligence also picked up — as an unprecedented challenge to the 70-year-old president’s control. The murky deal that allowed Prigozhin and his men to leave without consequences is unlikely to mark the end of the tensions, they warned.

Seventeen months into a war that was supposed to last days, the turmoil has laid bare how the struggling invasion has shattered the appearance of stability that Putin has worked for years to create. A longtime protege who’d risen to prominence catering Kremlin events, Prigozhin mounted the first military challenge to a Russian president since 1993, a dark omen in a country where failed wars have repeatedly led to bloody ends for leaders who started them.

“This is the biggest public failure in Putin’s entire political career,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist currently based in Berlin. “Prigozhin’s mutiny shows how fragile the Russian political regime really is.”

Both Putin and Russia will likely come out of the crisis weaker, according to one confidential European intelligence assessment, sharing the view that it will be seen as his personal failing.

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Ukraine, struggling to break through Russian lines with a counteroffensive that’s its best hope for retaking occupied lands, reveled in the chaos in Moscow. Kyiv said its troops pressed forward around Bakhmut, where Wagner’s forces had fought for months, as well as further south. “There is progress on all fronts,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Saturday.

Putin’s perceived weakness may encourage those among Kyiv’s allies calling for an even stronger response to Russia’s aggression, particularly at the NATO summit in Vilnius next month where Ukraine is seeking stronger commitments from the alliance, according to one senior western official.

Eastern Front
But others among Kyiv’s partners were more cautious. They worried that the upheaval may strengthen the hand of the hardliners who want to step up the war effort or make Putin more unpredictable as he cracks down further at home on those seen to be disloyal. US and European capitals told officials to keep their public statements cautious amid the uncertainty.

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Putin worked the phones over the weekend to reassure his allies. Russia sent a diplomat to China, which has stood by Putin through the war, to explain “the events of June 24,” in the euphemism of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Beijing’s account of the meeting didn’t even mention the uprising.

To be sure, Putin has survived past threats to his authority, facing down public protests, economic crises and pressure from abroad. For the moment, there’s no sign of immediate challenge to his control. But as the Kremlin prepares for elections next year that will keep Putin in office until 2030, doubts about his political invincibility are growing.

Tensions within the Russian elite over the stumbling war effort have been on the rise for months, according to people familiar with the situation. Rival camps have emerged, they said, with some pushing for a far more aggressive pursuit of the campaign, while others hope for a quick settlement to limit the damage to Russia. Putin’s efforts to balance between the two are getting more difficult, the people said.

The Russian president had been confident that he could manage the ambitions of a man who once served him soup, according to people close to the leadership. Prigozhin’s combat-hardened troops could deliver on battlefields where Putin’s army failed and his expletive-laced public attacks on top commanders kept up the pressure on the underperforming military brass.

But as the war effort struggled, Prigozhin’s reach grew thanks to a flood of funding and support from the Kremlin. His seemingly straight talk in social media won over many ordinary Russians tired of official propaganda. More importantly, he tapped into a deep vein of support among influential hardliners in the security and government elite. They worried Putin and many other top officials weren’t committed enough to achieving victory in Ukraine and might settle for a cease-fire, the people said.

Prigozhin’s critiques never spread from social media into the state-run outlets that determine broader public views. “In society, there’s a desire for this to be over sooner,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the independent Levada Center.

Inside the Kremlin, fears about Prigozhin’s expanding influence grew, but Putin dismissed the warnings that he was preparing to mount an armed challenge, the people said.

It was Putin’s belated effort to rein Prigozhin in that triggered the crisis, these people said, when officials earlier this month ordered his Wagner fighters to sign up with the Defense Ministry by July 1. Used to resolving conflicts man-to-man, Prigozhin took his fighters to demand an audience in the Kremlin.

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“They wanted to disband Wagner,” Prigozhin said on Telegram Saturday.

Under the deal to end the uprising, brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Russian ally, Putin agreed to personally guarantee the mercenary could leave the country and lifted all criminal charges from his fighters. Crowds cheered as Prigozhin left Rostov-on-Don late Saturday with his fighters, according to video from the scene.

“They had to make a deal,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant with close ties to the government.

One senior Putin loyalist joked Sunday that he and his staff had been preparing to defend their offices in downtown Moscow a day before but were shocked that Prigozhin and his men were allowed to leave without consequences. That, he said, left him wondering whether the president really knows what he’s doing.

As armored vehicles were still leaving the streets of Moscow and other cities over the weekend, the Kremlin sought to appear calm. A government ministry recommended journalists be given the day off on Monday after the “emotional and tense” weekend.

But Putin seemed to address those like Prigozhin who questioned his commitment to the war effort in comments shown on state TV Sunday. He told the reporter in an interview recorded before the uprising that the invasion gets all his attention. “The day starts with it and ends with it,” he said. “Around the clock.”

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