The Putin system is crumbling

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The images that defined Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a leader were filmed on February 25 last year. As Russian troops closed in on Kyiv, the Ukrainian president walked the streets of the city with his close colleagues, reassuring citizens that: “All of us are here, protecting our independence and our country.”

Now contrast that with Vladimir Putin’s performance, as the Wagner militia briefly threatened to march on Moscow over the weekend. From the comfort of an office, the Russian president raged about “betrayal” and “treason”. Then he disappeared. Rumours abounded that Putin had left Moscow. Kremlin officials later insisted he had been working in his office.

The contrast between Zelenskyy and Putin was striking. On the one hand, courage, comradeship and a display of national unity. On the other, fear, isolation and division.

The Prigozhin rebellion is over for now. But it would be futile to believe that things can go back to normal in Russia. The reality is that there is no normal to go back to. The uprising happened because the Putin project is falling apart. That process is likely to accelerate after the events of this weekend.

It is now clear that Putin faces a two-front struggle for survival. There is the war in Ukraine. And there is the internal stability of his regime. The two fronts are connected. Further setbacks in Ukraine will inevitably worsen his situation at home — and vice versa.

The events of the past weekend cannot be unsaid or unseen. Russians have now heard Yevgeny Prigozhin accuse Putin of having gone to war in Ukraine on the basis of a lie about Ukrainian and Nato aggression. They have heard Putin vow that Prigozhin and his comrades would face “inevitable punishment” and “answer to the law and to our people”.

They then saw the Russian leader agree to drop all charges against Prigozhin, in return for a promise to stop his march on Moscow. They saw Putin rely on the mediation of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko — the same Lukashenko who Putin has treated with ill-disguised contempt in the past. Above all, Russians have seen their mighty army and its feared security services unable to stop a rebel militia from marching on Moscow, after taking control of Rostov, a city of more than 1mn people.

The Wagner forces were the most effective fighters that Russia has deployed in Ukraine. But the militia, which has tens of thousands of members, is now to be disbanded and its leader sent into exile. In theory, any Wagnerites who took part in the weekend rebellion will not be allowed to serve in the Russian armed forces. But expecting a battle-hardened, rebellious militia to simply dissolve into Russian society sounds unrealistic. Incorporating the former Wagnerites into the Russian army also sounds like a hazardous operation.

Russian forces in Ukraine will also wonder how long domestic support for the war effort will hold up. Prigozhin’s rebellion and his caustic takedown of the reasons for the war will be heard on the battlefield, and will surely affect morale. As John Kerry (later to become US secretary of state) put it when the Vietnam war was winding down: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

As for the Ukrainians, they know that open disarray in Russian ranks presents them with an opportunity. They may choose this moment to commit reserve troops to the counter-offensive. They will also be furnished with new arguments to present to their friends in the west, at the Nato summit next month.

Those allies who quietly suggested that Russia could not be defeated — and that Ukraine should negotiate with Putin — will fall silent for now. By contrast, Putin’s international backers will be having second and third thoughts and will now be actively considering post-Putin scenarios for Russia.

For all that, it would be a mistake to believe that anything is inevitable — including Putin’s downfall. His friend Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got through a coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 and is still clinging on to power.

But the odds on Putin’s survival are clearly getting worse. Prigozhin remains a threat. He is a genuine thug — a former convict, who is comfortable on the front lines. The contrast with Putin, a former bureaucrat who is fond of posing bare-chested, but terrified of infection, is getting a little pointed.

It seems highly unlikely that Prigozhin will opt for a quiet retirement in the Belarus countryside. He is likely to remain a vocal and dangerous critic of the Russian military leadership — and of Putin himself.

Putin may be tempted to throw some of the military leaders targeted by Prigozhin overboard. Generals Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov have clearly failed both in Ukraine and on the home front. They might be convenient scapegoats. But getting rid of them could make the Russian leader look even weaker, while vindicating Prigozhin.

A hunt for scapegoats could also fracture the Russian elite. One reason Putin has survived for so long is that so many of the most powerful people in Russia know their fortunes are tied to him — and to the system he has created.

Sticking with Putin once seemed the safe option for the country’s elite. But, as the system crumbles, those calculations are changing.

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