Putin’s weaknesses laid bare after 24 hours of rebellion in Russia

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With a so-called “24-hour coup” by Russia’s mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin ending in an anti-climactic pullback, Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to avoid a dramatic and bloody standoff with his one-time ally.

Nonetheless, the fact that outspoken Prigozhin could even mount an armed mutiny with his private military company, the Wagner Group, with little resistance and an apparently muted response is widely seen as a deep political blow for Putin and his regime.

“Prigozhin’s armed rebellion indicates a political crisis within Russia and shatters the myth of Russia’s invincibility and overwhelming power,” Hanna Liubakova, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, and a journalist and researcher from Belarus, said in a note Sunday.

Prigozhin and his mercenary forces on Saturday seized one of the Russian military’s key bases in the south of the country, and the city of Rostov-on-Don, before proceeding north to Moscow. However, the rebellion was dramatically called off before the rebels reached the capital city.

Russia experts and political analysts characterized the uprising as “24 hours that shook the Kremlin” and the biggest challenge to Putin and the Russian elite in decades.

“Even in a Russia accustomed to crisis and chaos, the events over the weekend were extraordinary,” Chris Weafer, chief executive of the Moscow-based economic consultancy Macro-Advisory, said in a note Sunday.

“A heavily armed and determined military force got to within 200 kilometers of Moscow – a feat historically achieved, or attempted, by very few armies,” Weafer noted, adding that the revolt raises “serious questions which will lead to tensions at the upper echelons of power in Russia.”

There had been a tense lead-up to the weekend’s events with Prigozhin having a long-running and increasingly ferocious dispute with the country’s military leadership, accusing them of treachery and mismanaging the invasion of Ukraine.

Prigozhin also accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and army commander Valery Gerasimov of turning their backs on his mercenary force that has played a key role in Russia’s intense attritional warfare in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, for months.

Tensions came to a head several weeks ago when the defense ministry announced that all private military companies, including Wagner, would have to sign contracts. Putin endorsed the move but Prigozhin refused to sign — only to then lead his fighters in the ill-fated revolt last Friday.

Prigozhin called off his uprising en route to Moscow following talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

“Inevitably, after such extraordinary events, there is considerable speculation about, e.g., “Who knew what and when?”, “Was there collusion with a Western power?” Weafer noted.

“All of these, and more, will dominate conversations and coverage (especially in Western media) in the coming days and weeks,” he said, although Macro-Advisory believed the Russian media would seek to minimize the incident.

Analysts noted that public support for Russia’s operations in Ukraine, and the Kremlin, will likely have been shaken by this weekend’s seismic events.

“The declaration of a state of emergency, the Moscow Mayor’s call for people to stay indoors, and the real-time TV coverage of an army heading to the capital cannot have done otherwise,” Weafer noted.

“The Kremlin will now urgently feel compelled to show some battlefield success (that its objectives in Ukraine are being achieved) and it will need to ensure the economy stays on the current recovery path.”

Power struggle

Analysts at the Atlantic Council agreed that Putin and the Kremlin will feel under immense pressure to display strength following such a public show of weakness.

“If Prigozhin doesn’t pay a heavy price for his rebellion, it will put the Putin regime in serious danger,” Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said in a note.

“This is because political change comes to Russia when three factors are present: a divided elite (check), a dissatisfied public (check), and an absence of fear. If fear is removed from the equation, then the regime will be in peril,” Whitemore said.

In even attempting a battle with Putin, analysts acknowledge that Prigozhin has sown the seeds — potentially — of a battle of succession.

“The struggle for power is on,” Christopher Granville, managing director of global political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC Monday, arguing that it was now more uncertain whether Putin would seek another term in office at the presidential election in 2024.

“There is now a nationalist, opposition populist figure who is now relegated to exile in Belarus and the question is, will he stay there quietly?” he said, questioning the extent of the rebellion’s failure.

“The compromise with Prigozhin was such that he lost what he was fighting for, which was to maintain his Wagner fighting force’s independence … he lost that battle, but he also won,” Granville noted.

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