Wagner’s revolt exposed Putin’s weakness

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By Webdesk

On June 24, Moscow was placed under a state of emergency for the first time since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. And while the Ukrainian army has shown its ability to attack Russian territory, it was not Kiev’s troops that threatened the Russian capital – it was an internal Russian force.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the private military group Wagner, withdrew his troops from the frontline in Ukraine and led them across the border into Russia, calling a “march of justice” to Russia launched. Moscow. He stated that with the help of his 25,000-strong militia, he wanted to oust the Ministry of Defense leadership, which he accused of large-scale corruption and responsibility for various misfortunes in the war.

This backlash followed the Russian Defense Ministry’s decision to force all mercenaries to enter into official contracts with the military, which would have ended Prigozhin’s successful mercenary project. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) also opened a criminal investigation against him and called for his arrest.

Within hours of Prigozhin announcing that he had “taken over” Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city across the border with Ukraine, and sent a convoy to Moscow, Putin declared in a televised address that his actions amounted to “armed mutiny” . and that “great ambitions and personal interests led to betrayal”. After Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko intervened and mediated between Moscow and the mercenary commander, the latter decided to withdraw his troops to avoid “shedding Russian blood”.

These events marked a significant escalation in the longstanding feud between Prigozhin and the Russian military top over resources and decision-making in the Russo-Ukrainian war. They also constituted the most serious domestic crisis Putin has experienced in recent years.

And he is only to blame: Prigozhin is his creation. He founded the Wagner mercenary group to serve in the Kremlin’s various foreign adventures, part of its geopolitical expansionist agenda in the Middle East and Africa. It also played a key role in last year’s large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Putin has not only empowered Prigozhin and others like him who have challenged official state institutions, but has also fueled their “great ambitions” by refusing to name a clear successor to the Russian presidency.

This power vacuum has motivated figures like Prigozhin to step forward and make their claims. The resulting dynamics of power and ambition are unresting the country, which could have dire consequences for Putin’s regime, as Saturday’s events demonstrated.

The war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the situation as it has given space for these political actors to build their public reputation and popularity. Initially, Prigozhin was particularly successful in attracting the support of the “war party” – those in Russia who not only welcomed the invasion of Ukraine, but also pushed for more decisive military action.

His rhetoric reflected their resentment of the Russian defense ministry and army command, and reflected their criticism of the shortcomings and inefficiencies of these institutions. The Kremlin allowed these verbal attacks to continue, perhaps given their usefulness in diverting public blame for any misadventures on the battlefield from Putin, the commander-in-chief, to the top of the military.

Prigozhin took advantage of the space he was given and over the past year he has expanded his appeal and attracted a larger segment of Russian society. This fueled public speculation about his political ambitions.

In recent months he has become more active, holding meetings with civilians, combatants and relatives of those killed in the war; he visited major Russian cities, commenting on political developments and criticizing state authorities.

His actions suggest that he wasn’t just trying to make his bid for the unofficial position of Putin’s successor; rather, he strove to maintain his own life by building a high-level profile and expanding his popularity with the general public. He probably hoped that those who resented his empowerment and wanted to get rid of him would fear the public outcry any attempt on his life would cause.

The Kremlin’s silence over his public spat with the Defense Ministry emboldened Prigozhin so much that he took it upon himself to punish military officers who he said were trying to sabotage him. Earlier this month, Wagner fighters captured the commander of the 72nd Motorized Rifle Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Roman Venevitin, and later released an interrogation video of him appearing to admit that he had ordered his troops to fire on a Wagner convoy.

In the end, Prigozhin seems to have switched, as the Kremlin decided to side with the Defense Ministry. Putin himself publicly stated that he supported the order issued to all mercenaries to sign contracts with the ministry. This display of presidential disgrace likely motivated Prigozhin’s decision to escalate by directly threatening Moscow.

The events of the past two days have certainly caused quite a stir in the Kremlin. First, Putin faced a high-profile figure who controls his own militia and openly rebelled against him. Second, the mercenaries marched into Rostov-on-Don with ease and then reached within a few hundred miles of the Russian capital, demonstrating the president’s inability to secure Russian territory.

This weakness was also exposed in late May and early June when a battle group consisting of the “Russian Volunteer Corps” and “Freedom of Russia Legion”, two Russian volunteer factions, began launching attacks against the Russian region of Belgorod. They even managed to occupy and hold territory in an attempt to create a demilitarized zone.

This brutal act sparked outrage from many Russian politicians and media pundits, who clamored for immediate retribution. Yet Putin remained remarkably silent on the matter. This uncharacteristic restraint confused even his most loyal supporters; some expressed confusion on state television, questioning the lack of a clear plan and reiterating the call for retaliation.

Before his recent escalation, Prigozhin suggested sending his mercenaries to secure Belgorod, but was rejected. Instead, another political actor with a military force loyal to him – Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – intervened.

After a meeting on June 12 between Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the State Duma close to Kadyrov, Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of the Belgorod region, and representatives of the Ministry of Defense and the Federal Guard, it was decided that Kadyrov’s Akhmat- troops would be tasked with defending the region.

Putin’s inability to rely on the military to secure Russian territory does not bode well for the country’s internal stability. Placing territory outside Chechnya under the control of Kadyrov’s forces may arouse local outrage and is certainly not a reasonable solution given what just happened to another private militia.

Prigozhin’s uprising, however brief, is likely to have a lasting impact on Putin’s regime. First, it shattered the illusion of invincibility surrounding his rule and publicly humiliated him.

This is likely to provoke a strong reaction from Putin, a former KGB agent and FSB chief, whose opponents have often faced assassination attempts – many of them successful. After enduring such significant humiliation, it seems unlikely that Putin would choose to jail Prigozhin. There is a significant risk of him being released from prison, given his newfound popularity among Russians and his authority among prisoners. Therefore, Putin will probably “play it safe” and have Prigozhin eliminated.

But that wouldn’t change the fact that the uprising showed Putin’s weakness to everyone — the Russian people, Russian elites, and foreign allies and opponents. This may encourage others within the elite to challenge his leadership or the political status quo. Kadyrov has so far shown his unquestioning loyalty to the Russian president, but there is no guarantee that he will not use his troops to extract concessions from him in the future.

Importantly, this upheaval could change the way China, currently the Kremlin’s main ally, views Putin. A perception of weakness by Beijing could make China’s policy towards Russia much less accommodating and much more assertive in the near future.

Indeed, Prigozhin, Putin’s Frankenstein’s monster, has managed to do so much damage in just two days that his creator will struggle for years to restore it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

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