June 26, 2023

Mutiny in Russia

“The greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out after the rebellious mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow abruptly reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sounded the retreat. The brief revolt, though, exposed vulnerabilities among Russian government forces, with Wagner Group soldiers under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin able to move unimpeded into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advance hundreds of kilometers (miles) toward Moscow. The Russian military scrambled to defend Russia’s capital…

“Under the deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighboring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped. The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.” AP News

Here’s a timeline of the situation. New York Times

Both sides agree that the attempted coup shows Putin’s weakness:

“Prigozhin’s hubris was already astounding. His unlikely rise saw him evolve from petty thug to a thug on a grand scale, via a hotdog stand and military catering contracts. Wagner, a network of companies, is believed to have sent mercenaries to about 30 countries… His claim that he stood down his men to prevent bloodshed raised eyebrows, given the atrocities of which Wagner forces have been accused in Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic and other nations. He presumably realised that he could not amass enough support…

“But he has not been punished – yet – and was said to be going to Belarus, supposedly following the mediation of its leader, Alexander Lukashenko. The fighters who supported the uprising will reportedly be forgiven; others subsumed into the regular military, as planned. The disintegration of Wagner forces could be helpful to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as could the Russian leadership’s distraction. More critical may be this episode’s impact on the morale of Russian troops and relations among its ruling clique. The deal, and Mr Prigozhin’s survival, symbolise Mr Putin’s weakness.”
Editorial Board, The Guardian

“For Prigozhin to literally fly off into the evening sunset (at least for now) is odd, to put it mildly. It is especially bizarre given that in Putin’s Russia, even teenagers can be jailed for posting anything faintly critical of the ‘special military operation’ (it is illegal to call it a war) that the Russian defense forces have been pursuing in Ukraine since February 2022. The liberal opposition figures Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza received prison sentences of eight and a half and 25 years, respectively, for their social-media criticisms of the war last year…

“One would think leading an armed rebellion is significantly more problematic for the regime than some tweets and interviews… Evidently, there was genuine fear in the Kremlin of Prigozhin’s mutiny leading to a wider military rebellion… His quick conquest of Rostov-on-Don and rapid journey north toward Moscow indicates that some units of the Russian defense forces stationed along the way may have been at least passively, and perhaps even actively, supporting his mission.”
Kathryn Stoner, The Atlantic

“We can at this point only speculate about why Prigozhin undertook this putsch, and why it all failed so quickly. One possibility is that Prigozhin had allies in Moscow who promised to support him, and somehow that support fell through: Perhaps his friends in the Kremlin got cold feet, or were less numerous than Prigozhin realized, or never existed. Prigozhin, after all, is not exactly a military genius or a diplomat…

“Nonetheless, this bizarre episode is not a win for Putin. The Russian dictator has been visibly wounded, and he will now bear the permanent scar of political vulnerability. Instead of looking like a decisive autocrat (or even just a mob boss in command of his crew), Putin left Moscow after issuing a short video in which he was visibly angry and off his usual self-assured game… Prigozhin drew blood and then walked away from a man who never, ever lets such a personal offense go unavenged. But Putin may have had no choice, which is yet another sign of his precarious situation.”
Tom Nichols, The Atlantic

“Putin has always tried, generally successfully, to present himself as the man who calls the shots at the Kremlin. He has painted himself as a decisive leader, a man in complete control of the Russian political system and a master at balancing the elites around him to ensure no faction gets too powerful. Then came a former hot dog [vendor] named Yevgeny Prigozhin, who threatened Russia with arguably the worst domestic security crisis in 30 years…

None of this would have happened if Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine in the first place. Because of his propensity toward maintaining Russian influence without tapping into the Russian army, Putin created a Frankenstein quasi-army he couldn’t fully control. In the process, Putin elevated a cruel and possibly unstable man who has turned out to be unmanageable… [Putin’s] veneer of invincibility is diminished, if not completely gone. And Putin will have to work to recapture the public narrative knowing he has no one but himself to blame.”
Daniel R. DePetris, MSNBC

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