The revolt by the Wagner mercenary group has exposed glaring weaknesses in the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising questions over his capacity to weather the growing threats to his political survival, analysts say.
Putin saw off the immediate danger that erupted over the weekend, with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin calling off the advance of his forces and accepting a deal that will see him sent into exile in Belarus.
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Observers caution that it is still too early to determine the full consequences of the revolt for Putin, 70, who has ruled Russia for almost two-and-a-half decades after its first post-Soviet president Boris Yeltsin handed over power on New Year’s Eve of 1999.
But as Moscow presses its invasion of Ukraine, the mutiny has exposed as an illusion the image of Putin as an all-powerful strongman, revealing a possibly isolated figure battling to control squabbling factions.
“Putin and the state have been dealt a severe blow, which will have significant repercussions for the regime,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R. Politik consultancy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose administration was according to the New York Times aware of Prigozhin’s intentions days before he launched the munity, said the revolt “raises profound questions. It shows real cracks.”
“We can’t speculate or know exactly where that is going to go, we do know Putin has a lot more to answer for in the weeks and months ahead,” he told US television on Sunday.
– ‘Beginning of a process’ –
The bitter infighting revealed by the revolt, including the personal dispute between Prigozhin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, has shown Putin no longer sits comfortably atop a vertical of power.
Meanwhile his armed forces, who in the February 2022 invasion were ordered by the Kremlin to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, were unable to even prevent Wagner taking control of the Russian army’s southern command centre in Rostov-on-Don.
In a strange twist, the negotiations that saw Prigozhin abandon his revolt were brokered by the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko who usually appears as Putin’s much junior partner rather than his saviour.
And while the revolt ended within hours, the images of Prigozhin and his fighters being given a hero’s send-off in Rostov-on-Don would have made for uncomfortable Kremlin viewing.
The questions for Putin are particularly acute with Russia’s March 2024 presidential election less than a year away. Controversial constitutional changes mean he can stand for two more terms, up until 2036.
He has yet to formally confirm his intentions and there is no sign of a successor entering the frame, even if there is an increasing interest in Tula region governor Alexei Dyumin, his former top bodyguard, as a possible replacement for Shoigu and candidate for future promotion.
Kirill Rogov, director of the Re: Russia consultancy, said: “This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Military rebellions, even unsuccessful ones, very often in history are a harbinger, the beginning of a process.”
In an address whose tone surprised many observers, Putin on Saturday compared the revolt to the “stab in the back” of 1917 when the initial events of the Russian Revolution ousted the tsar and pulled Russia out of World War I.
“None of this means the regime will collapse soon,” said Mark Galeotti, director of the Mayak Intelligence research consultancy.
But he added: “The mutiny further undermines the capacity, strength and credibility of the Putin state and brings closer the day when this regime will fall.”
– ‘Putin lost as well’ –
The invasion of Ukraine has also intensified the scrutiny of Russian-language media based outside the country on his health, lifestyle and decision-making, painting a picture of ailing and paranoid leader who has become increasingly isolated since the Covid pandemic, spending little time in the Kremlin.
Several outlets, basing their reporting on open source material, have alleged Putin spends most of his time at a large complex on Lake Ladoga outside Saint Petersburg, to which he reportedly travels on an armoured train rather than plane to ensure maximum security.
His famed macho posing which saw him photographed bare-chested while fishing or on horseback in a display of virility now appears to be a thing of the past.
The Kremlin has insisted Putin was in Moscow as the weekend’s events unfolded and has always rubbished claims about his health.
“My conclusion is that Prigozhin ultimately lost. Wagner will also lose out,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA).
“But Putin lost as well, and the regime was wounded. What the long term repercussions are remains to be seen.”