Putin faces historic threat to absolute power in Russia

(Bloomberg) — Vladimir Putin managed to avert an attack on Moscow thanks to an eleventh-hour deal with his mutinous mercenary commander. But the uprising pierced his aura of total political control over Russia like no other event in his quarter-century in power.

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Insiders in Moscow were stunned that he ignored repeated warnings that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was preparing to bring convoys of heavily armed fighters to the capital. Instead, the Russian leader allowed them to get so close that authorities had to deploy tanks and troops in defense. It has fueled once unthinkable doubts about his legendary command of the country.

US and European officials privately described the 24-hour uprising — advance indications their intelligence also picked up — as an unprecedented challenge to the 70-year-old president’s control. The murky deal that allowed Prigozhin and his men to leave without consequences is unlikely to mark the end of tensions, they warned.

Seventeen months into a war that was expected to last days, the turmoil has laid bare how the struggling invasion has shattered the semblance of stability Putin has worked for years to create. A longtime protege who rose to prominence staging events in the Kremlin, Prigozhin mounted the first military challenge to a Russian president since 1993, a grim omen in a country where failed wars have repeatedly led to bloody ends. for the leaders who triggered them.

“This is the biggest public failure of Putin’s entire political career,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist currently based in Berlin. “The Prigozhin mutiny shows how fragile the Russian political regime really is.”

Putin and Russia are likely to emerge from the crisis weaker, according to a confidential European intelligence assessment, sharing the view that this will be seen as his personal failure.

Ukraine, struggling to break through Russian lines with a counter-offensive that is its best hope of retaking occupied lands, has reveled in the chaos in Moscow. kyiv said its troops were advancing around Bakhmut, where Wagner’s forces had been fighting for months, as well as further south. “There is progress on all fronts,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Saturday.

Putin’s perceived weakness could embolden those among Kyiv’s allies who are calling for an even stronger response to Russia’s aggression, especially at the NATO summit in Vilnius next month where Ukraine is seeking commitments stronger on the part of the alliance, according to a senior Western official.

But others among kyiv’s partners were more cautious. They feared the upheaval could strengthen the hand of extremists who want to step up the war effort or make Putin more unpredictable as he further cracks down on those seen as disloyal at home. U.S. and European capitals have told officials to remain cautious in their public statements amid uncertainty.

Putin worked the phones over the weekend to reassure his allies. Russia sent a diplomat to China, which supported Putin during the war, to explain “the events of June 24”, to put it mildly from the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Beijing’s account of the meeting does not even mention the uprising.

To be sure, Putin has survived past threats to his authority, facing public protests, economic crises and pressure from abroad. At this time, there are no signs of an immediate challenge to his control. But as the Kremlin prepares for elections next year that will keep Putin in power until 2030, doubts about his political invincibility are growing.

Tensions within the Russian elite over the stumbling war effort have been on the rise for months, according to people familiar with the matter. Rival camps have emerged, they said, with some pushing for a much more aggressive continuation of the campaign, while others hope for a quick settlement to limit damage to Russia. Putin’s efforts to strike a balance between the two are becoming increasingly difficult, the people said.

The Russian president was convinced he could manage the ambitions of a man who once served him soup, according to people close to the management. Prigozhin’s battle-hardened troops could deliver on the battlefields where Putin’s army failed, and his swear-filled public attacks on senior commanders kept the pressure on underperforming military top brass.

But as the war effort struggled, Prigozhin’s reach grew thanks to a flood of Kremlin funding and support. His seemingly direct speech on social media won over many ordinary Russians tired of official propaganda. More importantly, he tapped into a deep vein of support among influential extremists in the security and government elite. They feared that Putin and many other top officials were not committed enough to achieve victory in Ukraine and might settle for a ceasefire, the people said.

Prigozhin’s criticisms have never spread from social media to the state-run media that determines wider public opinions. “In society there is a desire for this to end sooner,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the independent Levada Center.

Inside the Kremlin, fears over Prigozhin’s growing influence grew, but Putin dismissed warnings that he was preparing to mount an armed challenge, the people said.

It was Putin’s belated effort to rein in Prigozhin that sparked the crisis, these people said, when officials earlier this month ordered his Wagner fighters to register with the Defense Ministry by 1st of July. Accustomed to resolving man-to-man conflicts, Prigozhin took his fighters to demand an audience in the Kremlin.

“They wanted to dissolve Wagner,” Prigozhin said on Telegram on Saturday.

As part of the deal to end the uprising, brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Russian ally, Putin agreed to personally guarantee the mercenary could leave the country and dropped all criminal charges against his fighters . Crowds cheered as Prigozhin left Rostov-on-Don on Saturday night with his fighters, according to video from the scene.

“They had to make a deal,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant close to the government.

A senior Putin loyalist joked on Sunday that he and his team had prepared to defend their offices in downtown Moscow the day before, but were shocked that Prigozhin and his men were allowed to leave without consequences. That, he said, made him wonder if the president really knows what he’s doing.

As armored vehicles continued to leave the streets of Moscow and other cities over the weekend, the Kremlin sought to appear calm. A government department has recommended that journalists be given a day off on Monday after the “emotional and tense” weekend.

But Putin appeared to address those who, like Prigozhin, questioned his commitment to the war effort in comments aired on state television on Sunday. He told the reporter in an interview recorded before the uprising that the invasion is getting his full attention. “The day begins and ends with it,” he said. “Around the clock.”

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