Why A Weaker Putin Is Actually More Dangerous
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin reveals the great confusion that reigns in Russia, and the weakness of the Kremlin's leader — but it's a weakness that makes him all the more unpredictable.
It's too early to tell what really happened between the Russian cities of Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh and the capital Moscow — not to mention Minsk the capital of Belarus, where the solution to the recent coup attempt was apparently reached, and where its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will seek refuge.
The argument both sides used to justify the compromise — "to spare Russian blood” — is almost shocking, given how little the two parties in the coup, Wagner mercenary Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, care about human lives, whether Russian or Ukrainian.
Still, there are a few lessons we can take away from this deeply confusing episode. Since the Wagner revolt, Putin has become both weaker and more dangerous — and his thinking, and maybe even intentions, have become clearer over the last few hours.
The short speech he gave on Saturday morning, in which he denounced the “traitors” behind the coup attempt, will remain in the eyes of historians as an essential document for understanding Putin, and to illustrate his about-face. Like former U.S. President Barack Obama in Syria, he too set a red line and didn't stick to it.
The Kremlin’s leader has not grown from this episode, which is almost reminiscent of the gladiators’ revolt in Spartacus: “Those who are about to die salute you.” Prigozhin and his men's "March for Justice" would almost seem to be the absolute opposite of the formula for the circus games in Rome. "Those who died for nothing, in a useless war, can't take it anymore. They demand the resignation of incompetent leaders, of an unmotivated army.”
Divide and rule
For years, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping would often repeat that classical liberal democracies have reached the end of the rope, and that the future of the world belongs to more effective authoritarian regimes. The events of the last two days in Russia have clearly contradicted this thesis. Beyond Putin, the authoritarian model itself has been weakened. The Russian president was afraid of his mercenaries' revolt. He used them to destabilize Africa and the Middle East, and to better control, if not destabilize, his military leaders. A lifelong advocate of "divide and rule," the former KGB officer fell victim to the complexity of his schemes and calculations.
Nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal.
In Beijing, all that could be done was to watch, with horror and incomprehension, the Russian tragicomedy. Chinese leaders could only conclude, with a false sense of comfort, that "it wouldn't happen here." On the other hand, in Kyiv, one can only rejoice at an episode that objectively weakens Moscow, and confirms what has been repeated since the beginning of the war: Russia is not as strong as it claims to be. It is unmotivated and even more divided than we thought. Shouldn't Russian soldiers potentially fight on two fronts: external and internal? Which one is ultimately more dangerous?
Since the weekend, there has been "less Putin," in Russia and around the world. This is cause for celebration, but also for concern. Nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal, especially when it has at its disposal a considerable nuclear arsenal.
More than ever, we must support the Ukrainians with all the energy and means at our disposal. Russia is even more vulnerable than we thought. It is not the time to push the Ukrainians into negotiations, or to impose territorial sacrifices on them. On the other hand, the confusion in Moscow should give fresh impetus to a counter-offensive that seemed to have lost momentum in the last few weeks. The more confusing the situation in Moscow, the clearer the Ukrainian advance on the ground should be.
Putin hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow in March.
Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin Pool/ZUMA
Heir to the tsars
But there is another dimension that cannot be ignored. Over the course of the last two days, Putin not only revealed his weakness but also clarified his thinking. As he denounced the traitors who had just given Russia "a stab in the back," he evoked the precedent of 1917, and clearly presented himself as the heir to the Tsars, not the Bolsheviks.
We can only note the gap that separates China from its confused "vassal," Russia.
It was Lenin who, by exploiting the war to promote a revolution, forced Russia to give up territory. Lenin is the traitor, and Nicholas II the unhappy hero. In this respect, there are more than a few nuances between Xi Jinping and Putin. The former is Leninist in domestic policy, Marxist in economic policy and ultranationalist in foreign policy. It's important to note that the two men only really converge on foreign policy. Once again, above all, we can only note the gap that separates China from its confused "vassal," Russia.
“There is something rotten in the state of Denmark," Hamlet said. There's more than confusion in Putin's Russia. The war, once again, has served to reveal and accelerate history. But in what direction? It's still too early to say.
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