Beware of wishful thinking about Russia

Russian President with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

Russian President with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

After an extraordinary few days in Russia, several realities must be confronted. Vladimir Putin remains in the Kremlin, although his authority is shaken by the aborted mutiny led by the Wagnerian mercenaries. The war in Ukraine continues with the same intensity despite the disruption of the Russian armed forces caused by the insurgency. The military leaders whose removal was demanded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s chief, also appear to be still in office.

Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, was shown on television visiting the troops, although when the video was recorded is unclear. As with so much in Russia, the truth was hard to establish amid a cascade of propaganda, deception and lies.

Prigozhin was apparently persuaded to call off his advance on Moscow in exchange for a pardon for Wagner’s troops and his own banishment to Belarus. Early suggestions that he no longer faces treason charges appear to have been quashed, but he defended his forces’ actions in an audio recording released from an unknown location last night. Moreover, the mercenary group remains fully armed, continues to recruit and is still fighting in Ukraine and North Africa.

Putin, who issued a panicked statement on Saturday after Wagner’s troops seized Rostov-on-Don, has now delivered a speech of defiance to the nation, saying the mutiny would have been put down even without a deal.

The Kremlin was keen to project a “business-as-usual” image after what was potentially a near-death experience for the regime. But few in the West buy this version of events, not least because before the rebellion Putin was almost invisible and seemingly unable to stop Prigozhin from exposing the conduct of the war.

Joe Biden said Putin’s weakness had now been exposed, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there were “real cracks” in the Russian leader’s authority. In the Commons, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said the “mask had slipped” with Prigozhin’s assertion that the war was unjustified and that Russian support was waning. To what extent is this wishful thinking?

For a few hours on Saturday, Russia stood on the brink and Putin’s future hung in the balance. For now, he has regained control and enjoys the support of his biggest ally, China. The Foreign Ministry said Beijing “supports Russia in maintaining national stability”, but for how much longer?

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