Putin postpones the inevitable

June 29 – Why It Matters: Russia’s failed coup exposes Vladimir Putin’s fundamental weakness.

Was it a drama or a farce that played out last weekend on the road to Moscow? The coup-that-didn’t end smoothly on Saturday, with mercenary warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin abruptly stopping his column of armored vehicles a few hundred miles from the Kremlin and accepting exile in Belarus.

We doubt the validity of Vladimir Putin’s amnesty offer – he doesn’t let the past pass – but Prigozhin’s fate does not concern us. Between Putin and Prigozhin there is no one for those who cherish democracy.

The established autocrat and the pretender each backed down, two bloodied killers piously professing their desire to avoid bloodshed. The reality is that everyone thought they were too weak to risk a decisive confrontation.

This is almost certainly true of Prigozhin. While his private army, Wagner, was arguably the most capable of the Russian forces in Ukraine, his attempted coup needed the absolute backing of the official Russian military. What he found was sullen neutrality at best. Prigozhin cut his losses and surrendered.

But the whole episode is also a worrying sign for Putin. His rule relies on brute force and cruelty, and this weekend, his army destroyed in Ukraine, he could not find an effective response to an obvious armed rebellion.

Last weekend exposed Putin’s fundamental weakness. He avoided the immediate crisis, but his regime’s days are numbered. The only questions are the precise number – and what will follow when it is inevitably dropped.

President Joe Biden, who wisely remained silent during the Prigozhin crisis, knows full well that Washington cannot play an overt and direct role in replacing Putin. Ideally, the next regime will want to become a legitimate peer of civilized nation-states rather than a threat. This will not come naturally to anyone in Putin’s circle.

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