RUSSIA-UKRAINE-CONFLICT-WAGNER

Members of Wagner group sit atop of a tank in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. President Vladimir Putin on June 24, 2023 said an armed mutiny by Wagner mercenaries was a “stab in the back” and that the group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had betrayed Russia, as he vowed to punish the dissidents. Prigozhin said his fighters control key military sites in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Credit – Roman ROMOKHOV- AFP

The astonishing rebellion of former convict and “troll factory” owner Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23 and 24 has unveiled the brittle foundations beneath the surface of Russia’s power structures. The stifled revolt has shed light on the growing confusion and lack of assertiveness of Russia’s perennial leader, President Vladimir Putin. Although the illusion of his omnipotence has not been entirely shattered, the carefully constructed image of unity and strength within the regime is starting to show cracks.

Putin has long used the Wagner Group as a counterbalance to the military and assumed that Prigozhin, who was completely dependent on his patronage and state resources, could never pose a political threat to him. Despite gradually being distanced from Putin and his inner circle, the outspoken businessman managed in recent months to accumulate significant political capital as a counter-elite populist. While professing full loyalty to Putin and fervently supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin lambasted the military top brass in charismatic recruitment pitches across Russia, press conferences with war bloggers, and obscenity-laden Telegram rants. Prigozhin’s exploits in the war, especially his significant contributions to the capture of Bakhmut, enhanced his sense of privilege and emboldened his decision to rebel when he felt cornered.

Prigozhin’s clumsy, reckless mutiny was neither a blatant power grab nor an attempt to overthrow the regime. Instead, it was born out of desperation. The clash between Prigozhin and the military leadership—Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov—had been escalating for a while, but Putin appeared reluctant to intervene. The feud reached a tipping point after Prigozhin overtly challenged the rationale for the war, accused the army of trying to sabotage the Wagner Group, and impulsively started his “march for justice.” Recognizing his impending ouster from Ukraine and struggling to sustain the “private military company” amid the state apparatus turning against him, Prigozhin aimed to capture Shoigu and Gerasimov, draw Putin’s attention, and force discussions on the preservation of his lucrative enterprise. However, the insurrection unfolded into a crisis and exposed that Putin, long-regarded as Russia’s unshakable strongman, is increasingly hesitant and misinformed.

Fierce internal strife and deadly turf battles among elites often happen in Russia, but they rarely spill out into the open. Putin seems to have underestimated Prigozhin’s growing brazenness and burgeoning popularity among the angry pro-war “ultra-patriotic” camp and the military rank and file in Russia, who see him as a kind of folk hero taking on the establishment. Despite receiving multiple warnings that Prigozhin was getting too erratic, the Russian president sat idly by as the maverick tycoon crusaded against the defense chiefs. Putin’s apparent disengagement in the lead up to Prigozhin’s shocking stunt presents a vivid picture of an aging autocrat increasingly detached from the realities of his power structures, unable to mediate disputes within his ranks, and failing to prevent internal power struggles from spiraling out of control.

Read More: What Comes After Putin’s Rule in Russia

Prigozhin’s audacious move elicited a surprising degree of paralysis in decision-making within the regime. There was a discombobulated response from the military and security services, and government officials were mainly silent, waiting for a clear signal from Putin. The Wagner Group seized Rostov-on-Don, the logistical hub and nerve center of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and came close to reaching Moscow without encountering much resistance. Russia’s chief propagandists, such as RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, were curiously silent. Some bureaucrats and oligarchs scrambled to leave Russia or depart from Moscow in the midst of the chaos. While elites in Russia were predominantly aligned against Prigozhin and believed he “went mad,” their reluctance to act decisively without explicit direction from the Kremlin exposed a significant vulnerability of Putin’s ruling style, which distributes power based on personal loyalty rather than institutional stability.

Putin waited for more than nine hours after he was briefed about the “attempted armed rebellion” to give a televised address accusing Prigozhin of “treason.” It took Putin another ten hours to reach a surprising deal with the mercenary boss, reportedly closing a criminal investigation into his mutiny, exiling him to Belarus, and dissolving his mercenary operations in Ukraine. Putin had lost control of the situation, sending shockwaves through the state. Russia’s power brokers eventually rallied behind Putin, but notably, only after the uprising ended, underlining the crucial role of Putin’s active engagement in securing elite solidarity.

Notwithstanding his latest setbacks, Putin remains the centripetal force holding the Russian state together. His authority, albeit increasingly questioned, continues to be the central mechanism by which political stability is maintained. It is Putin who sets the national agenda and ultimately holds the reins of Russia’s power dynamics. In the wake of the upheaval, the regime is making a concerted effort to show elite consolidation and project the image of an unwavering, united front supporting an indispensable statesman.

The Kremlin has orchestrated a series of set piece events in recent days aimed at rewriting the narrative of the insurrection and demonstrating normalcy. Putin vowed to “take decisive action” and applauded the “civic solidarity” of the people. Talking heads in Russia are currently painting Prigozhin out to be a “traitor”, thanking Putin for his “strength and wisdom” in resolving the crisis with minimal bloodshed, praising him for averting “complete chaos and a civil war.” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov argued that Russia will come out “stronger” after the incident. Russians usually feel more comfortable aligning themselves with prevailing narratives espoused by Putin’s propaganda machine than confronting negative information and difficult news stories. Putin maintains approval ratings at around 82%, and although his public approval is derived more from apathetic obedience than sincere allegiance, the pervasive belief that there is no alternative to his rule remains intact—at least for now.

The Kremlin’s relentless repression of dissenters may intensify, promoting an atmosphere of fear and stoking greater fatigue and helplessness to stand up to the regime. The uprising is already being called a “crash test of loyalty” in Russia, and purges of alleged Wagner Group conspirators seem to have begun in the military. Following intense speculation about his presumed involvement in the mutiny, the whereabouts of Russian army general and Commander of the Aerospace Forces Sergey Surovikin are currently unknown. Putin may become more brutal and paranoid as the intrigues surrounding the incident are further unraveled.

The rebellion does not suggest a sudden plunge into political volatility in Russia, but it serves as a stark reminder that Putin is not infallible. He has outlived many predictions about his demise before, but the system he built is becoming more fragile as the war goes on. The key question moving forward is whether Putin can manage to restore the perception of his ironclad rule or whether the failed gambit of Prigozhin will serve as a catalyst for more severe domestic challenges threatening the survival of the regime.

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