However brief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny was, he had spent more than a month undermining the authority of the Russian state and particularly its military, in public. The damage he caused is considerable, and it will not be easily repaired. The fog of war has embraced the war in Ukraine, but still many facts remain clear.
As Samuel Huntington taught us in his seminal book, The Third Wave, autocracies tend to fall when their ruling elites divide. Prigozhin showed us that is the case in Russia today. He could not have revolted without substantial support from the military and he has all along had strong contacts with the GRU. The FSB, the FSO and the National Guard were possibly on Putin's side, but the strikingly unintelligent commander of the National Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, acknowledged that his riot policemen were unable to resist as they had neither armor nor artillery. A common view is that the FSB is so large that it is split into different factions, while the FSO is the Putin’s sole reliable presidential guard.
Dmitry Kiselev used to be Putin’s top propagandist, but perhaps he was too moderate for Putin’s recent needs, so he has not appeared much. Recently Kiselev reappeared claiming that Prigozhin had received $19 billion in catering contracts from the Kremlin. Never believe anything that the Kremlin says, but obviously Prigozhin was financed by the Russian treasury, and he was entitled to steal by padding his no-bid contracts along with all of the other Putin-affiliated crooks.
But why was Prigozhin so privileged? The Navalny group made an outstanding investigative video half a year ago about how Prigozhin's friend General Sergei Surovikin made his money on delivering oil, gas and fertilizer production to Putin's wealthiest crony, Gennady Timchenko while in Syria. Thus, Prigozhin and Surovikin are well protected. Can Putin kick Timchenko out? I doubt it. Naturally, Timchneko, who hardly ever appears in public, has not said anything.
Undoubtedly, Putin’s power has been seriously weakened. He has seemed frail many times before, but never as weak as now. He is not likely to survive this litany of mistakes: losing a huge war, a declining economy, near complete international isolation, and severe division among Russian elites. Putin has shown that he is slow, indecisive, poorly informed, and cowardly. How can any serious person respect him after all this? The Russian elite is tough. It is not likely to tolerate Putin for long after this.
Most commentators claim that the Wagner mutiny has not had much of an impact on Russia’s ability to conduct its war in Ukraine as yet, but it is bound to grow. With the demise of Wagner, Russia will lose many capable soldiers, and undoubtedly some generals will be purged. Yet, it might be more important that Prigozhin’s Concord company delivered most food supplies to the Russian military, the quality of which was generally considered to be poor. Now Russian troops are likely to suffer even worse standards of nutrition, which will impede their fighting ability further.
At present, Ukraine appears to be on the offensive, though cautiously so, on four fronts - Melitopol, Berdyansk, Bakhmut and, perhaps, Kherson. If Ukraine breaks through, the war will end and thousands of human lives will be saved.
Therefore, the West must deliver as many arms as possible to Ukraine as soon as possible. Ukraine needs modern aircraft, F16s or similar planes, such as the Swedish Gripen or French Rafael, unlimited ammunition supplies and long-distance missiles. The West must no longer tie Ukraine’s arms by prohibiting Ukraine from bombing Russian territory with Western arms! The US policy of drip-feeding the Ukrainian armed forces is incomprehensible. It would be disastrous for the Biden administration if Ukraine loses this war or suffers unnecessary losses because of stingy Western support. Give the Ukrainians all they need so that they can defeat Russia and retake their legal territory!
But the West must be realistic. Putin is as bad as Hitler and will fight until he is defeated. Therefore, he must be defeated. The real Western goal must be regime change in the Kremlin. No plausible Russian leader can be worse than Putin. The sooner he goes, the better for the world. Moreover, the faster the regime changes, the less will the risk be that the old authoritarian kleptocracy is able to regroup. The mistakes of 1991 were that the KGB was not dissolved and that no lustration or truth commission was established. Russia’s next regime change must be more radical to succeed.
Some sensible Russian liberals, notably Leonid Gozman and Viktor Shenderovich, argue that ideally Russia would capitulate as Germany and Japan did in 1945 to their and the world's benefit. Only after a capitulation can a real cleansing of communism, Stalinism, and Putinism take place in Russia.
Apart from arming Ukraine as fast as possible, the West needs to let Ukraine into NATO. Then Russia will be forced to withdraw because it does not dare to fight with NATO. As my late friend Boris Nemtsov always said: “Putin believes in Article 5” [of the NATO charter].
Finally, forget about nukes! Whoever uses nukes will lose and die and Putin is an extreme hedonist, indulging in his palaces and five superyachts. Whenever Putin does not know what to say, he threatens the West with nukes. It was a serious US mistake in 1991-94 to focus on getting Russia to move all of its nuclear weapons onto home soil, which resulted in the disastrous Budapest Memorandum of December 1994. It is now clear that was a policy of long-term destabilization.
Today, the West needs to do everything for Ukraine’s early victory in the war.
Anders Åslund is the author (with Andrius Kubilius) of Reconstruction, Reform, and EU Accession for Ukraine (Frivärld 2023).
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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