Putin disappears as his allies ask why the rebels moved closer to Moscow

Face masks depicting Vladimir Putin and Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, on display in a souvenir shop in St Petersburg

Face masks depicting Vladimir Putin and Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, on display in a souvenir shop in St Petersburg

Vladimir Putin has disappeared from public view since he pleaded with Russians not to support a coup as his propagandists wondered why the rebels had been able to get so close to Moscow.

Kremlin officials insisted Putin was working in his office, although they said he would not appear on TV to reassure Russians he was now in control.

“There are no new presidential addresses scheduled for today or tonight,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Saturday night after announcing an agreement to end the armed rebellion.

In his only communication with the public on Sunday, Putin appeared in a pre-recorded television interview saying he was solely focused on the success of the “special operation” in Ukraine.

Analysts said the leadership vacuum added to a sense that the Russian president had been weakened by the peace deal struck with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mutinous leader of the Wagner Group who sent his troops within 150 miles of the capital Russian.

Even Putin’s most loyal propagandists began to question his authority.

“If the tank columns are advancing, why aren’t they stopped? Vladimir Solovyov said on his regular Saturday night radio and TV show. “We need a layer of defense that we can put on high alert in the event of an invasion from Russia.”

Putin has relied on his propagandists to fortify Russian public opinion since he ordered his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and Mr Solovyov’s warning to his millions of listeners highlights the sentiment of chaos in the country.

Tsargrad TV, a nationalist media unit that has been a strong supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, went even further.

“Politically, the existing balance of forces has already been broken,” he said in an editorial on his website. “The famous ‘Kremlin towers’ are tottering. Some people may have to leave.

The new level of unpredictability and chaos in Russia, which controls the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, should worry the West, analysts said.

Edward Lucas, senior adviser at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told BBC Radio 4 that Britain should worry about who would follow Putin to the Kremlin.

“We may be facing a decade or more of relations with a deeply dangerous and unpredictable Russia without even the kind of superficial certainty that we have that Putin is in power,” he said.

On Saturday morning, Putin issued a video address to Russians from the Kremlin promising to quell the “betrayal” of the Prigozhin rebellion. Since then, however, only silence.

Instead, Kremlin-controlled TV stations aired ‘exclusive footage’ of Putin which turned out to be a replay of his Saturday speech from a different angle and a sweet interview filmed earlier in the week in which the Russian leader talked about boosting arms manufacturing.

Sam Greene, professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, said Putin’s weakness in the face of rebellion will be the only conversation in homes across Russia.

“This whole episode may have pierced the air of inevitability that has kept it in the air for the past 23 years,” he said. “Things that were previously unimaginable, like a change in direction, may become more plausible.”

The sight of fighters loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin leader, pledging to save the southern Russian city of Rostov after it was captured by Wagner mercenaries, also shook the aura of Putin, analysts said.

“Many members of the elite will personally blame Putin for the fact that everything has gone so far,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Russia-focused consultancy R.Politik. “We underestimated Prigozhin, but we also clearly overestimated Putin. It’s a blow for him. »

This humiliation will be intensified for Putin because he had to rely on Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, to broker a peace deal with Prigozhin.

Putin views Mr Lukashenko as a rude farm boy and treats Belarus as a Russian vassal state. Now he relied on him to help him keep control of the Kremlin.

Climbing is now ‘the only option’

Professor Nikolai Petrov, senior researcher at Chatham House, said that after this series of beatings, Putin would be looking for a way to demonstrate his strength.

“There remains only the option of escalation, which means not only raising the stakes of the war, but also accelerating the transformation of the regime,” he said.

And this power shift in Russia, the fracturing of the Kremlin’s prestige under Putin since its failed invasion of Ukraine last year, was on full display in Rostov on Saturday night.

Video footage showed people in the center of town shaking hands with Wagner fighters and thanking them before the mercenaries withdrew, as ordered.

When the regular Russian police returned, people waved Wagner flags in their faces and booed.

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