Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from last month’s Wagner mutiny looking weakened, despite defusing the immediate threat, according to analysts.
The short-lived and ultimately aborted revolt by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary force marked the most dramatic challenge ever to Putin’s rule.
The Belarus-brokered deal to halt Wagner’s march toward Moscow saw off a major clash, yet now that agreement seems to be in question.
Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that Prigozhin was in Russia -- and thus not in the Belarusian exile called for in the deal.
Here are five weaknesses now facing Putin:
1) Prigozhin still at large
The whereabouts of Prigozhin and his troops were unclear after Lukashenko spoke on Thursday, with the Kremlin saying it was “not following” the mercenary leader’s movements.
Yet the threat from Wagner is not just military.
The group also controls media organisations and troll farms, meaning Prigozhin must be muzzled as well as disarmed.
The Russian authorities have blocked media groups linked to holding company Patriot, which “is in the process of being dismantled”, according to Maxime Audinet of the Institute for Strategic Research in Paris.
“Prigozhin is going to be deprived of his massive media power,” Audinet told AFP.
But it is difficult to imagine him staying silent for long, added retired Australian general Mick Ryan.
2) Cracks in Putin’s authority
Putin -- who has jailed his critics and has ruthlessly punished dissenting voices, particularly since the start of the war in Ukraine -- has spared the man who took aim at his senior defence chiefs.
“The idea that the regime is no longer infallible may grow in the minds of a part of the elites. If Prigozhin could do it, why not someone else?” said Audinet.
The attempted mutiny also exposed cracks within the security forces, as Wagner fighters moved on Moscow with little resistance.
“Prigozhin bypassed Russian military, police, and FSB bases with no attempts by those units to stop him,” said Kirill Shamiev of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“This illuminates the fragility of the Russian political system.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin speaking inside the headquarters of the Russian southern military district in the city of Rostov-on-Don during the mutiny last month. PHOTO: Handout / TELEGRAM/ @concordgroup_official / AFP
3) How to act?
Putin cannot remain inactive but has for months been described as paranoid and isolated.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R. Politik, said she was not expecting Putin to carry out a purge reminiscent of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
“His perspective splits individuals into heroes, traitors (who face severe consequences), or lost souls who may be pardoned if they repent in time. Arrests are possible within this framework.”
Putin’s future will not be settled in days or weeks, said Peter Tesch, a former Australian ambassador to Moscow.
“He presides over an ecosystem in which mistrust and deceit prevail and self-interest rules.”
“If Prigozhin drinks tea, he may well want to change his beverage of choice,” Tesch joked, referring to poisoning attacks that have targeted Kremlin opponents.
Kyrylo Budanov, head of intelligence at the Ukrainian defence ministry, has claimed the FSB internal security service has received orders to assassinate Prigozhin.
4) Bogged down in Ukraine
Putin foresaw a swift military victory in Ukraine when he launched his invasion in February 2022.
But the conflict has ground into a stalemate and Russian forces are battling a fresh Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Prigozhin was the most strident voice for those inside Russia criticising failures in the invasion and the strategies used by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and army chief Valery Gerasimov.
Many soldiers do not know why they are fighting and dying in Ukraine and “Prigozhin came to speak for these men,” researchers Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage wrote on the Foreign Affairs website, saying the remarkable episode highlighted the army’s troubled state.
Putin is “fixated” on an unwinnable war for which he has wasted massive resources, procrastinating when he had to make tough decisions, added Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London.
5) Multiple fronts
After almost 16 months of fighting, a new front -- domestic and political -- has opened.
Russian elites, divided over how the war was being led, are potentially preparing for life after Putin, even if none openly supported Prigozhin.
The Kremlin has an internal stock exchange indicating the rise and fall of the political credit of the powerful, said Fix and Kimmage.
Putin must ensure a return to normal and is likely to avenge the humiliation, they added.
Outside Russia, Putin’s weaknesses are being instrumentalised. CIA director William Burns has said the Ukraine war has had a “corrosive” effect on Putin and the government.
Dissatisfaction with the war will continue to gnaw away at Russian leaders, Burns added.
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