Ever since the failed 1991 coup against then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, it has been a fear shared by much of the Russian public and some international commentators that history would one day repeat itself.

The events back then caught the world by surprise and were far from unanimously welcomed. US President George H W Bush was concerned that the total collapse of the USSR would be hugely destabilizing and sought to prevent it. Fast forward to June 24, 2023, and it looked like the anxiety following the 1991 rebellion was about to be realized again, as Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his mercenary column on an ill-fated march to Moscow. 

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In spite of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s televised vow to exact “brutal” retaliation against the rebels, it appears that Prigozhin’s only punishment is being exiled to Belarus. On June 26, both Prigozhin and Putin made public statements – in that order – but Prigozhin’s whereabouts remain unknown.

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Wagner’s chess move on June 24 came after months of growing tension between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Moscow’s Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. According to The New York Times, US intelligence agencies briefed the White House and the Pentagon on Prigozhin’s plans just a few days before he moved his troops towards the Russian cities of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, but decided to let events run their course.

West Bad, Russia Strong – Key Points from Putin’s Latest Speech
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West Bad, Russia Strong – Key Points from Putin’s Latest Speech

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest address to the nation was mostly a repetition of previous rhetoric and did not address Transnistria’s appeal for Moscow’s protection.

Bruno Tertrais, a Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, has written on the potential for Putin’s regime to suddenly fall: “It is not uncommon to see empires collapse after major military defeats, which act either as a direct cause or as a catalyst for implosion – the lack of political legitimacy and the disorganization of state structures compounding the human and financial cost of war.”

Signs of weakness

Politicians and commentators seem to share Tertrais’ view and are united in believing that the recent situation highlights the inherent weakness of the Putin regime; a weakness that conventional wisdom knew existed all along, despite a sense of surprise at how quickly events unfolded.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the aborted revolt exposed “real cracks” in Putin’s regime. “This was a direct challenge to Putin’s authority,” he told CBS News. “It raises profound questions.

 “This is an unfolding story and I think we’re in the midst of a moving picture. We haven’t seen the last act.” 

John Foreman, a former UK defense attaché in Moscow said: “[The UK diplomatic] assessment was that this was going to be gradual. It wasn’t going to be a sudden march on Moscow.”

Foreman also identified the meaning of a specific word Putin had used in his June 24 morning address: “смута (smuta)” - meaning strife or turmoil.  He believes the Russian president’s use was significant as it is often used to refer to the “Time of Troubles,” the period of anarchy that followed the death of Ivan the Terrible.

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“All Russians know immediately what he is talking about when he uses that word,” Foreman said. It implies the need to turn to a strong leader when the state is threatened, though doubts are growing in Russia and internationally as to whether that is Putin.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Prigozhin fiasco was “yet another demonstration of the big strategic mistake that President Putin made with his illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine.”

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow, wrote on Twitter that Putin agreeing to a brokered deal with Prigozhin undermined the macho man image he has always proclaimed.

“When faced with the difficult decision of trying to stop Wagner mercenaries with major force, he backed down,” McFaul wrote.

“He didn’t escalate... the lesson for the war in Ukraine is clear. Putin is more likely to negotiate and end his war if he is losing on the battlefield... the sooner Putin fears he is losing the war, the faster he will negotiate.” 

On arrival at a summit of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, June 26, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, warned that the instability in Russia following the Wagner debacle is dangerous.

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“It is important to understand that this is cracking the Russian military power and affecting its political system. And certainly, it is not a good thing to see a nuclear power like Russia going into a phase of political instability,” he said. 

“The most important conclusion [regarding] the war against Ukraine launched by Putin and the monster that Putin created with Wagner, [is that] the monster is fighting, the monster is acting against his creator. The political system is showing its fragilities and the military power is cracking,” he added.

His views were echoed by other ministers attending the Luxembourg meeting, including German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn and Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. 

Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen suggested Putin's hold on power was not strong.

“It is common for authoritarian states that everything seems to be very stable until one day, nothing is stable anymore. And I expect such a development for Russia as well,” she told reporters.

Silence in the Russian ranks 

It is noticeable that most of Russia’s top politicians and public figures have maintained a low profile and an unyielding silence on the events of June 24, especially from the permanent members of Russia’s security council including Secretary of the Council Nikolai Patrushev, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov. 

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Similarly, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-controlled Russia Today, who normally has a lot to say on everything and anything has not spoken publicly or posted on social media since June 23.

As Putin’s grip on power looks increasingly tenuous following Prigozhin’s intervention and the weak response from the Kremlin, many – not least Kyiv’s leaders – are rubbing their hands with glee. Others, as implied in Borrell’s remarks are, not so phlegmatic.

Unpredictability

It is possible that Moscow’s humiliation could cause Putin and his acolytes to demand an even more vicious push in a war that has already targeted Ukrainian civilians.

If political strife in Russia further damages its troops’ morale and leads to battlefield losses, Putin’s position could become even more difficult. This could fuel fears of the Russian leader escalating the war to new and dangerous heights after months of nuclear saber-rattling.

If the weekend was a taster for a possible total collapse of the Putin regime, and if the war keeps going from terrible to worse for Russia, the West could have another headache. 

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Echoing reactions to the threat of a Soviet collapse in 1991, many Western policymakers and commentators fear that an uncontrolled break-up of the Russian Federation could have catastrophic economic, security and – worst of all – nuclear consequences.

The worst forecasts anticipate that a sudden, total, Russian collapse could lead to unrestrained chaos with the bulk of the 21 republics or – even worse – the 83 federal entities that make up the federation, going their own way. Particularly concerning would be those that house nuclear weapons storage sites being taken over by nuclear-armed regional warlords and uncontrolled migration involving tens of millions of people trying to escape the anarchy.

The $64,000 question is: Does the West have a plan if the worst were to happen? If they do, they are keeping their cards close to their chests.

In an exchange in the UK Parliament on June 26, former Prime Minister Liz Truss said: “We, and our allies – including the Ukrainians, including the Poles, including the Baltic states – need to make sure that we have a plan in case of the implosion of Russia.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly responded by saying: “We do not speculate or attempt to predict – what we do is plan and put in place contingency arrangements.

“And so, therefore, whatever the outcome of this conflict is, we shall be prepared.” 

But what exactly is the plan?

 Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC thinks an effective approach would be for the West to clearly specify that, whatever happens, they want to work with Russia if and when Putin is gone. It should openly back pluralism, democracy, federalism, civil rights and the autonomy of its republics and regions and encourage Russia’s citizens by demonstrating they won’t be globally isolated.

 The West made a grave mistake when it assumed the collapse of Soviet communism meant the end of Russian imperialist longings. The historical imperative is that imperial states invariably collapse when they overreach and when existing internal pressures are made worse by economic distress, regional resentment, and national revivals. It must now avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to Russia.

 Everyone seems to be in agreement that the end of Putin’s rule may be on its way. But. as Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of former Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev says, it may not happen any time soon. “I grew up [under] Leonid Brezhnev,” she said. “It seemed like it was just absolutely going to collapse any minute, and then it took about 18 years to collapse. So yes, it is the beginning of the end [for the Putin regime], but I’m not going to predict it’s collapsing tomorrow.”

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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Comments (14)

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Imokru2
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It could happen at any time. If I were Putin, I would avoid interrogation in a farm basement.

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Joseph Swanson
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russia has collapsed...it never recovered and is still communist.

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I support
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Don't think he's weakened at all. They will purge like they always done. This was not a power grab it was a stupid farce that back fired when no one would back him Wagner got done.

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Tony Miller
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Or it could be an elaborate set-up to get the Wagner troops into Belarus, within easy striking distance of Kyiv. Putin is not known for his forgiveness, and this "incident" had strangely few casualties considering they took over a command post and were half way to Moscow! Then there just happens to be an available camp for them in Belarus, and from the border there to Kyiv?
I suggest a close eye is kept on all activities from there.

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Philip Havey
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The nation has always been one continuous mud hole brilliantly held together by the creative manipulation of permafrost wherein global warming has announced the time really up unless you were born with pontoonss.

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Darren
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I have so much hate for these Russian it .None of them deserve to live.

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Darren
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Banish Trump to Russia along with Steven Segal and every person associated!!!!ha ha

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Darren
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No he's sucking Putin and it looks as though Porighin has already fkt him lol

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Darren
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None of the Russian officials speak any Truth.Ill have half of what their on.

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Darren
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Possibility. I believe they will attack again from north as well as Belurus.Putin is a long way from the finish.Its seems to me they are both are having a joke.Both are best friends.Porighin mentioned strategic nukes also Putin's Puppet mentioned the same.Lets Prey for all on the right side of humanity..

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Darren
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Hurry to cut throats ,Strategic nukes to Belarus Now Porighin,I Smell fish

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Chris hook
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Be very aware... Lukashenko will die / fall out of window.. Privacy the pig will take over Wagner scum will cross into Belarus and take control of Country and then invade Ukraine from the rear= game over for the brave Ukrainian people.

I support
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@Chris hook, we must never under estimate their capacity to fuck up

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I support
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Putin will now become more paranoid so I don't see the end yet. There will be a purge at some point.

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Imokru2
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It is the beginning of the end for Putin, who has lost any chance of winning in Ukraine. He has also given NATO another 600 mile border with Russia in Finland.
The best case scenario for the West is for Russia’s security council to replace Putin with another leader from the council.
That leader could then order all troop withdrawal from Ukraine except for Crimea.
In negotiations over Crimea, an acceptable outcome would be the return of the peninsula to Ukraine, with Russia having free access to Sevastopol and a permanent lease to the naval base there.

KC Kunnanz
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@Imokru2, military presence in Crimea will no longer be tolerated. That boat has sailed.

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Paolo
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@Imokru2, the Russian navy as strangled Ukraines economy for the last 9 Years, so your proposal would be completely unacceptable to the Ukrainians.
I wouldn't accept anything less than the complete demilitarisation of the black sea.

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