Just over a week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip seemed to be unraveling. Rebel mercenaries were advancing on Moscow against little or no resistance. Wealthy Muscovites rushed to get tickets out of the country. A coup attempt seemed imminent.
And then, a puzzling reversal. After calling the mutiny a “treason”, Putin agreed to allow his leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, into exile in neighboring Belarus. Prigozhin, presumably realizing that his mercenaries could not conquer Moscow without the help of regular army units, submitted.
Putin, once seen as an all-powerful autocrat, appears to have suffered a humiliating blow to his authority.
But don’t count on Putin – not yet, anyway.
That’s what a growing number of Russian pundits have been saying over the past week as the dust settled and a modicum of perspective took hold.
“Putin faces many problems, that’s for sure,” said Stephen Sestanovich, professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. “But it looks like he still has most of the assets he needs to deal with it.”
“People would like to find new evidence that Putin is vulnerable, but it could be overdone,” warned Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The power of wishful thinking.”
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These Russian scholars are not defending Putin, the brutality of his regime, or his catastrophic decision to invade Ukraine.
“There is no better argument for term limits than Vladimir Putin,” Sestanovich said.
They simply note that he has already survived tough challenges and after 23 years in power he is unlikely to collapse without a fight.
Much of what happened in the bizarre clash with Prigozhin remains murky. The boss of the Wagner group, a so-called private military company, revolted against Putin’s order to submit his mercenaries to the command of the regular armed forces.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Prigozhin intended to kidnap Russia’s defense minister and army chief of staff to make his case. Prigozhin may also have expected other military officers to rally to his side; when that did not happen, he acknowledged that his cause was lost.
The deeper mystery is why Putin’s intelligence services apparently did not warn him of the plot and why other military units failed to block the mercenaries’ march on Moscow.
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By the time Prigozhin’s men were within 200 kilometers of the capital, “Putin was staring at the barrel of a gun,” Sestanovich said. “He had one overriding objective, which was to avoid shooting in the streets of Moscow. That would have been stark proof that he had failed.
“Putin’s mark is stability,” Sestanovich explained. “What he needs above all is to transmit normalcy… [and] a feeling that he is back in charge.
With the outcome clear, officials in Moscow rushed to declare their loyalty to Putin. The Russian military and intelligence services launched investigations to determine what was wrong. General Sergei Surovikin, the air force commander close to Prigozhin, would be interrogated.
Meanwhile, Putin has launched a charm offensive, staging a sudden flurry of public appearances after three years of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. His propaganda machine plays down the mutiny.
It’s even possible, Sestanovich said, that the mutiny shocked Putin into acknowledging that he had lost touch with his country’s politics.
“It was kind of a wake-up call for him,” Sestanovich suggested. “He has to make everyone feel like they’re still benefiting from his diet – quite a tough challenge.”
Meanwhile, his war against Ukraine continues unabated. The high-level unrest in Moscow had no discernible effect on the battlefields to the south. Russian units continued to defend the Ukrainian territory they occupied behind a fearsome system of minefields and tank traps called the “Surovikin Line” – ironically it was built by the general under interrogation. No units were reported as having deserted or defected.
On the contrary, the episode seemed likely to secure the jobs of Prigozhin’s main targets, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Army Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, even though the two have been widely criticized as incompetent.
Another Putin-style sign of normalcy: The Wagner Organization’s recruiting office in Moscow, which briefly closed during the mutiny, reopened and told callers it was accepting new applicants, according to the BBC and media Russians.
This suggests that Putin decided not to disband Wagner, who has not only been more brutal on the battlefield than the regular army, but also more effective in attracting recruits, in part because he pays higher salaries. .
If Wagner were to disappear, Putin’s war machine could lose up to 15,000 of its most experienced fighters.
Some Western officials have expressed impatience that the Ukrainian offensive will not go any faster. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that progress has been “slower than desired”.
But Ukrainian officers noted that finding weak spots in Russian defenses will take time and the fighting season will continue until November.
There is little the United States and its allies can do to influence Putin’s fate in Moscow – except, perhaps, to stay away.
But they can continue to provide military and economic aid to Ukraine to increase its chances of success.
Putin probably won’t go down anytime soon, but he’s still more vulnerable than he was before the mutiny. Now is not the time to give him leeway.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.