In the 23 years that Putin has been in charge of the nuclear state, the Russian president is currently facing the gravest danger to his hold on power.
And it is astonishing to watch the façade of total control he has maintained for all that time, which served as the autocrat’s main selling point, disintegrate over night.
It was both inevitable and impractical. It was inevitable because the way the war had been handled had made it so that only a system as tightly closed and impervious to criticism as the Kremlin could survive such a horrifying mishap. And impossible because Putin’s opponents just disappear, tumble out of windows, or are viciously poisoned.
The Moscow elite can only be saved from collapse this weekend by fratricide, or turning one’s weapons on one’s fellow troops, according to the fifth-largest army in the world.
We are so used to thinking of Putin as a superb tactician that when Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin started to disobey, some people thought it was a ruse by Putin to make his generals nervous by having a faithful minion speak out against them. But what we are witnessing right now dispels any notion that the Kremlin was involved, with Putin being forced to acknowledge that Rostov-on-Don, his primary military base, is no longer under his authority.
Putin is at risk of losing his iron grip on power. The next 24 hours are critical
In this still image from a video released on May 25, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner private mercenary group, comments on the beginning of his forces’ withdrawal from Bakhmut and the transfer of their positions to regular Russian troops.
However, it’s possible that some of this has been prepared for some time by Wagner’s units. Hours after Prigozhin’s brilliant analysis of the justification for the conflict, the justification for this uprising appeared urgent and spontaneous: a purported air strike on a Wagner camp in the forest, which the Russian Ministry of Defence has denied.
He partially revealed the truth about the unfortunate start of the war: neither Russian nor NATO attacks posed a threat to the country. The only lie he continued to tell was that Putin was not behind the invasion plan but rather Russia’s top brass. Wagner’s forces swiftly reorganised themselves and advanced towards Rostov. That takes more than one afternoon to accomplish on your own.
Perhaps Prigozhin had the idea that he might pressure Putin into replacing the minister of defence that Wagner had been openly criticising for months. Putin’s speech on Saturday morning, however, has put an end to that possibility. The ruling class of Russia must now make an existential decision between the president’s waning regime and the dark, mercenary Frankenstein it produced to carry out its dirty job but which has now turned against its creators.
It is a turning point for the Russian military as well. Prigozhin’s moderate criticisms a few years ago would have resulted in elite special troops in balaclavas escorting him away. However, he is now free to go about his business and openly plans to march to Moscow. Where are the special troops of the FSB? Devastated by the war or not eager to face their armed and knowledgeable Wagner comrades?
This is hardly the first time this spring that Moscow has appeared frail. The elite around Putin must have wondered how on earth the capital’s defences were so thin after the drone attack on the Kremlin in May. Days later, more Ukrainian drones targeted affluent country homes. The actions on Friday will settle any doubts among the wealthy Russians regarding whether they should question Putin’s hold on power.
Ukraine would probably rejoice at how unfortunate the timing of this uprising among Russia’s ranks was. It will probably influence the war’s course in Kyiv’s favour. However, rebellions rarely succeed in achieving their goals in Russia or anywhere else. Tsar Nicholas II was deposed in 1917, which led to the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, and eventually the Soviet Empire.
It is not a given that changes will occur as this unusual Jacobean drama of common human imperfection unfolds. It’s possible that Prigozhin won’t prevail and that the Kremlin’s hold on power will remain intact. Putin might act irrationally to demonstrate his strength if he is weak, though.
In the upcoming months, on the front lines in Ukraine, he might show himself unable to comprehend the logic of loss. He might not be aware of the extent of the unrest inside his own armed forces and may not have the necessary control over their behaviour. Stability at the top is essential to maintaining Russia’s status as an ethical nuclear power.
There are much more negative outcomes than positive ones. But it is improbable that Putin’s regime will ever regain its former levels of dominance going forward. And it is certain that there will be further upheaval and change.