The uprising of the Russian mercenaries undermines Putin

For the first time in his more than 20-year rule, President Vladimir Putin’s power appeared to be on the line this weekend.

And although the rebellious Russian mercenary troops After all those who stalked Moscow have turned their backs, Putin will find it difficult to project the image of a man in complete control as he once did. That could set the stage for further challenges to his rule at home and weaken Russia’s influence in the war in Ukraine.

With spectacular ease and the declared goal of overthrowing the Russian defense minister, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner troops entered Rostov-on-Don, a city of 1.1 million people, and occupied the military headquarters there. They then marched at lightning speed hundreds of kilometers (miles) north towards the capital without encountering any serious resistance.

Some were even hailed – a sign that Prigozhin’s positioning as the enemy of a corrupt and incompetent elite was gaining traction, and a detail that will not escape those around Putin in the coming days.

“This whole episode has really caused deep concern among the elites of Russia,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow on Russia and Eurasia at the Institute for Strategic Studies. The actions of the former protégé of the Russian head of state “severely shake the confidence of important people in Putin’s environment.”

For several tense hours, the Kremlin seemed powerless as Wagner convoys rolled through Russia, occasionally breaching roadblocks and shooting down planes the military had sent in a desperate attempt to stop them.

With the majority of Russian forces engaged in fighting in Ukraine, the authorities sent a motley crew of troops and police to protect Moscow, digging up roads and even blowing up bridges to slow the attack.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov disappeared from public view on that pivotal day, adding to feelings of weakness and lack of control.

In a televised address to the nation aired early Saturday, a somber-looking Putin accused Prigozhin of treason and compared the situation to the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917.

But hours later, the Russian leader granted Prigozhin an amnesty – on condition that he go into exile in Belarus.

TV appeal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the citizens of Russia, personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and police officers related to the situation with PMC Wagner, as shown on TV.
TV appeal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the citizens of Russia, personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and police officers related to the situation with PMC Wagner, as shown on TV.

Artem Priakhin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

While the Kremlin tried to portray the deal as a smart move that helped avert an impending bloodbath, it was a remarkable compromise for a man who relentlessly repressed any sign of dissent and enemies who dared criticize him, at times violently silenced.

The quick pardon for Prigozhin contrasted with the Kremlin’s methodical crackdown on dissidents and war critics in Ukraine, who faced criminal prosecution, forced exile, or even violent death. For many in Putin’s Russia, his handling of the revolt was a sign of unforgivable weakness.

“Prigozhin showed that it is possible to seize a city of a million people with impunity, to make demands on the country’s leadership, to refuse to obey his orders and to launch military marches to Moscow, killing Russian soldiers in the process said Viktor Alksnis, a retired Soviet Air Force colonel and current hardliner who holds views shared by many Russian hawks who are increasingly critical of Putin’s rule and his handling of the war in Ukraine. “Russia is one step closer to its ultimate and irreversible collapse.”

The blow to Putin comes on top of Russia’s repeated failures in its 16-month war in Ukraine.

Gould-Davies noted that the mutiny had destabilized the military and badly damaged troop morale, opening new opportunities for Ukraine, now in the early stages of its counteroffensive.

“This means Russians are killing Russians on Russian territory while Russia is trying to contain a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” Gould-Davies noted. “This is not what Russia wants in wartime.”

While the deal with Prigozhin could bring some Wagner troops under Defense Ministry control – a demand the mercenary leader had previously rejected, which sparked the conflict – it is small compensation for the tremendous damage the crisis has done to governance.

Kirill Rogov, a political analyst who has long covered Putin’s policies, noted that the problem was created by the Russian president himself: he condoned Prigozhin’s feud with top military leaders as part of his strategy of blaming the military blunders in the shifting members of the elite against one another in the apparent belief that he can completely control Prigozhin.

“Golem’s creator always thinks he can be stopped, and he keeps making him look more convincing to scare others,” Rogov wrote in a comment, referring to a clay creature brought to life in Jewish folklore.

In the end, Putin stopped Prigozhin – albeit at a high cost.

Associated Press writer Danica Kirka of London contributed to this report.

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