For most of his more than two decades in power, a key part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mythology has been that there is no alternative to his continued rule. Polling for years has shown a solid majority of Russians support him at least partly because they either see no other option or only worse, more dictatorial, more fascistic possibilities.
So Russians, along with the rest of the world, were stunned by the events of June 24, in which the crude-spoken leader of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led an armed mutiny against the Russian military that for a few hours captured the large southern city of Rostov-on-Don and threatened a serious march on Moscow. Although Prigozhin had been blustering aggressively against Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, for some time, it had seemed unlikely he would take such a bold step—unless he was counting on broad and active support from officers and troops.
In the aftermath of the revolt’s failure, global attention is focusing on the central question of how secure Putin’s grip on power is. Many commentators were quick to say that despite the apparent failure of the 24-hour mutiny, the uprising signaled the end for the president.
Among those urging caution is ICWA executive director Gregory Feifer, whose fellowship in Russia (2000-2002) coincided with the beginning of Putin’s rule.
“He’s been prematurely written off more than once during his 23-year-tenure,” he said, “most notably in 2011, when even much of the political opposition mistakenly believed his regime had been mortally wounded by mass protests.”
The Putin system has shown remarkable resilience during trying periods, as well as a willingness to turn quickly to brutality and repression. The cultivated apathy of the Russian public—reinforced by the entrenched belief that the current president is irreplaceable—gives his regime considerable leeway to ratchet up its mounting authoritarianism. And there seems to be no shortage of functionaries willing to carry out orders.
But the Prigozhin mutiny did touch a “central dynamic of Putin’s Mafia rule,” Feifer said: “His ascendant role as ultimate arbiter pitting key supporters against each other.” His ability to continue his past mastery of that function, particularly in the midst of a war in Ukraine that is hardly going according to the Kremlin’s plan, will surely be tested in the coming weeks and months.
The Wagner uprising has also posed a dilemma for the anti-Putin Russian opposition abroad, said ICWA fellow Aron Ouzilevski, who is reporting about Russian exiles, currently from Berlin. It was divided between those who saw the armed mutiny as the quickest path toward Putin’s removal and those who cautioned that Prigozhin is no knight in shining armor.
It all happened too fast for people to really process it on an emotional level and ended in such a farce.
He is, they point out, a Soviet-era petty criminal who wears his years in prison openly. He has overseen horrendous acts such as the extrajudicial murder of some of his own fighters with sledgehammers and urged the Kremlin to be even more indiscriminate and ruthless in its invasion of Ukraine.
But the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a key funder of the anti-Putin opposition, cheered on the mutiny and dismissed those with qualms about Prigozhin as “flower children” with rose-colored spectacles, Ouzilevski noted.
Sasha Tavaler, an activist who represented the Feminist Antiwar Resistance at an antiwar conference in Brussels this month, criticized those supporting Prigozhin for their “limited political vision” and “empty political agenda.”
People like Khodorkovsky supported Prigozhin because of “a lack of belief in or ideas for alternative strategies,” Tavaler said in an Instagram post.
Still, like most others, Russian émigré circles have been largely flummoxed by the Wagner mutiny.
“It all happened too fast for people to really process it on an emotional level and ended in such a farce,” Ouzilevski said, adding that many exiles have few ideas how such a potential coup could “impact their own lives in the longer run.”
Although the Wagner mutiny likely did not spell the precipitous end of Putin or Putinism, both may be significantly changed by events that, as Feifer noted, “provided a peek into how the system works, when political institutions and public rhetoric function as facades keeping outsiders in the dark about the players and the rules of the game.”
Top photo: Vladimir Putin (Wikimedia Commons, www.kremlin.ru)