Behold The Dress Rehearsal For Post-Putin Russia
The recent revolt led by Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has opened the door to what Russia could become after Vladimir Putin is deposed.
Welcome to post-Putin Russia! Not the most pleasant, nor the safest of times. But what can you do? Dictatorships, like Russian President Vladimir Putin's, often end up like this: in an unstable equilibrium, when we're reminded that it's often easier to gain power than hold onto it.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the recent rebellion by Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is its phenomenal success: the mercenaries shot down an airplane and six helicopters, crossed state borders, took the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don without a fight and captured two major cities.
If Prigozhin's goal had been to head the Don People's Republic, with centers in Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, it seems like no one could have prevented him. At least, neither the police nor the border guards nor the military gave any sign that they could have, and Russian state security, the FSB, slept through the rebellion (if it was not its co-sponsor).
Putin must have felt lonely and defenseless — much worse than during his inauguration in 2012, or being quarantined in a bunker during the pandemic.
Now, it's impossible to know whether Prigozhin would have occupied Moscow like Rostov and Voronezh, and if so, how much territory he would have held and how much blood it would have cost. But it is clear that a coup was not part of his immediate plans: he only sought to defend his power, as part of a duel with Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Weakness of a strongman
Putin did not behave like a real commander-in-chief during the mutiny. The presidential plane flew to his Valdai residence at the beginning of the revolt and returned when the danger began to subside, and the civilian elite followed the leader's example. Security forces started to remove secret documents from Moscow. This is not the behavior of people ready to take on the danger. The country's leadership was not confident that the military units near Moscow would protect them, or that roadblocks were sufficient guarantees of success against Wagner forces.
Yes, we did not see thousands of soldiers of the Armed Forces, the Federal Guard and other units defecting to the rebels. But we also did not see anything resembling organized resistance. And in Rostov and Voronezh regions, neighboring regions and adjacent occupied territories, many people have weapons. Border guards and internal troops were inactive. Supports of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who were on their way to Rostov for a long time, did not join the fight with the mercenaries either: Why waste a loyal and combat-ready force if 5,000-10,000 well-organized and armed people are all that is needed to change the government in Russia?
The brief Prigozhin revolt has shown that neither the army nor the country's internal troops are ready to defend Putin's regime from real danger. They have learned how to roll up the liberal opposition, but don't know what to do against a man with a gun. This dramatically increases the importance of power brokers like Prigozhin and Kadyrov, as well as national guard leader Viktor Zolotov and generals like Mikhail Mizintsev and Mikhail Teplinsky — people who have, or can quickly acquire, thousands of loyal and motivated bayonets. Their time is coming.
A police officer in central Moscow on Sunday
A failed state
This strange mutiny has once again disproved the notion, suggested by opinion polls, that most Russians are loyal to Putin and will not accept regime change. They will take it and stick a carnation in a tank muzzle (the symbol of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004). Prigozhin's anti-elite pathos, with its criticism of overgrown officials and the military, quickly boosted his popularity, and in Rostov, the Wagnerites received more support from civilians than discontent. Many units and formations in the army, torn apart by the war with Ukraine, would support a fairer social order in which the top brass would steal and live less, and the generals would value the lives of ordinary soldiers.
Most Russian soldiers do not understand the goals of the war. They either went to war involuntarily or, as people with a high appetite for risk, saw in it an opportunity to earn money and hope to survive. If the chances of dying increase and the chances of making money decrease, the desire to fight disappears. Such people were the target audience of Prigozhin's propaganda campaign of 2023. Undoubtedly, other power leaders can reproduce a similar narrative.
The formerly unified power of Putin is splitting into separate parts, like the mirror of the Snow Queen, and the powerful, whose hands now hold the large pieces of the mirror, will fight for control and the expansion of their territory.
It is similar to the struggle for power in failed states, like Sudan or Nicaragua, where the government has lost its monopoly on violence. Here is a quote from a financier on June 24, asking how to proceed on Monday: "Even if the rebellion is quickly put down, the very fact that it has happened puts the Russian market on the level of Somalia or Sudan." Political scientist Grigory Golosov also considers the Sudanese conflict between the Rapid Reaction Force and the army to be the closest analog to the Prigozhin rebellion (in Sudan, the battle had already flared up after the overthrow of the dictatorship).
Prigozhin's victory tour through Rostov-on-Don
Preparing to divide the inheritance
The typhoon has been turned around, but the aftermath remains. It is possible to agree with Prigozhin, or to liquidate him, but this story will not be forgotten. Now, Putin's regime will no longer seem to have any alternative, even to those loyal citizens convinced that it was war in Ukraine and stability in Russia. The transition mechanism from an external war "for Russia's survival against the collective West" to an internal war is becoming increasingly evident to many people in Russia, no matter how they feel about the war with Ukraine and Putin. The smell of civil war is in the air again, literally as it was 30 years ago. An unjust foreign war, necessary only to keep power in the hands of Putin and his friends, provokes an internal battle, pushing them away from power.
Of course, the end of Putin's regime will not happen tomorrow.
For a moment, the Golem, raised by Putin, believed in himself and decided to act independently to counteract his creator-master. Prigozhin told part of the truth about the war, which made him a "hero." He shifted the criticism to social inequality and injustice, which became the nutrient broth for the war. If Prigozhin, Putin's creation, went against his father-creator and did not take power just because he was not ready for it, why can't others go all the way? If it is so easy to use populist anti-elitist rhetoric to gain popularity, what is to prevent Prigozhin's success from being repeated, but to change power, not retain business? All it takes is a couple of equipped divisions and a well-worn tongue.
Since the Tsar is no longer an untouchable, celestial being, a vast field of opportunity is opening up, since he is so easy to bring down. Putin has been humiliated as a leader who can neither defeat nor punish the rebellious.
Around the world, political leaders looked at Putin and his security with ill-concealed amazement: "If you can do that there, you are even less scary than we thought." Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gracefully kicked Putin, expressing hope that events in Russia would be "a new milestone on the road to a just peace in Ukraine." U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken suggested that instability in Russia is now a long way off, and that the challenge to Putin's power may not yet exist, and that Putin will soon have to deal with many new complex issues. The U.S. has even postponed imposing new sanctions against Wagner.
Of course, the end of Putin's regime will not happen tomorrow. Putin and the security forces will respond to the humiliation they endured with a sharp increase in repression. There will be many debriefings and purges in the system — a sort of 1937, when the major blow will be directed not at the enemies but at the nation. But the end of the Putin era and the beginning of a new, vague era can now be seen very clearly. The end of a dictatorship is seldom pleasant. But the colossus, which seemed solid not so long ago, is now staggering on its clay feet, and its rich clothes are gradually falling off.
The emperor is already half-naked. The failures at the front, likely to continue in the coming months, will rob Putin of more of his garments. The period of inheritance-sharing is beginning, and power entrepreneurs who grew in Putin's shadow are mulling their chances. They will be hampered by the shallow level of mutual trust in this system. Putin's heirs will have to find some consensus, or they will be swept away by players who are willing to, at least rhetorically, put themselves outside the system — like Prigozhin.
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