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Putinism’s demise will be chaotic and violent

Putinism’s demise will be chaotic and violent

by host

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted putsch has demonstrated the fragility of Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. Or as Russian opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky puts it: “Now the country and the world know it’s possible to rebel against Putin.”

Facing no resistance, the paramilitary boss’ band of heavily armed rogues, cut-throats and penal conscripts crossed into Russia from occupied territory in Ukraine, seized control of Rostov, a key logistical hub and military headquarters, then proceeded up the M4 highway towards Moscow, only facing opposition around Voronezh, a six-hour drive from the Russian capital, but still managing to come within 240 kilometers of the capital’s outskirts.

On Saturday night, Putin might have thought he could sleep a little easier after a deal was struck under which Wagner Group’s mercenaries would disarm or be folded into the Russian army, while Prigozhin would be packed off to Minsk. But — to what must be Putin’s intense chagrin — even that arrangement seems to be morphing, with a defiant Prigozhin insisting on Monday evening that Belarus is offering to allow him to keep his band of Wagner renegades together as a fighting force. In a sign of frailty, Putin said the Wagnerites were free to go, but it’s still unclear from Prigozhin’s first post-coup audio message whether he has actually withdrawn to Belarus, or ever intends to.

Remarkably, the whole escapade over the weekend required only about 8,000 fighters, though that’s still a lot of people to be in on a secret operation. Prigozhin is an opportunist but his insurrection showed signs of preparation, and it remains likely — though surprising — that some parts of the surveillance state failed to pick up on what was afoot and preempt him.

More worryingly for Putin though, the obvious conclusion is that many of his spies and top officials did know, but kept him out of the loop. U.S. intelligence agencies claim they knew something was up in advance, so it is implausible that at least Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, which has close ties with Wagner, failed to notice anything untoward. The absence of preemptive action suggests some key players decided to watch and see whether the president’s days were numbered.

Still, without wider active support from the military and players like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Prigozhin’s rebellion was doomed to fail, partly explaining no doubt his abrupt decision to abandon the insurrection and to accept a deal brokered by Russian satrap Alexander Lukashenko. How the Belarusian autocrat, who’s dependent on Moscow for political and economic support, must have enjoyed turning the tables on Putin and saving the day!

Hiding from view

Failed coup it might have been, but the clear loser is Putin.

By lying low, the Russian leader not only allowed the Ukrainians a propaganda opening to claim he’d slunk off from Moscow, but his behavior stands in marked contrast to the confidence displayed by a tank-mounting Boris Yeltsin during the 1991 coup aimed at ousting Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Both a Gorbachev ally and critic, Yeltsin was hyperactive leading a campaign of anti-authoritarian protesters to defy the coup, galvanizing others to express their determination to resist the hardline Soviet and KGB plotters efforts to turn the clock of history back.

Of course, that 1991 coup gives a clue of what might unfold now in Russia because of this failed putsch.

Gorbachev was fatally wounded — it led to both the immediate collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and four months later to the dissolution of the USSR. Prigozhin’s antics, his turning against the man whom made him, has left the clear impression that disloyalty lingers just beneath the surface. Over the weekend, the system stalled, some prominent regime luminaries were notably silent or bided their time, no doubt trying to calculate the likely winner in the confrontation. People in Rostov appeared to chant support for the rebels.

Key Putin allies and propagandists are already raising a hue and cry and questioning how rebellious fighters got so near Moscow. “If tank columns are advancing, why are they not being stopped?” TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov queried on how his show Saturday night.

“Russia avoided a catastrophe,” announced Tsargrad, a nationalist Orthodox media outlet. “In the end, it was possible to stop the bloodshed, although Russia was one step away from civil war.” it added. “Politically, the balance of existing forces has already been broken,” it said in an editorial. “The notorious ‘Kremlin towers’ are wobbling. Some people may have to leave,” it suggested ominously. 

So, there is more to come — including a likely witch-hunt and more jostling and infighting as factions ponder how to ensure they at least don’t become casualties when the balloon finally goes up. “We haven’t seen the last act,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in a CBS interview Sunday.

Revellers at a Carnival in Germany celebrate around a float featuring Russian oligarch Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, co-founder of the Russian state-backed mercenary company Wagner Group | Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

That view is shared by exiled Russian opposition leaders like Khodorkovsky. The attempted “military coup was one of the most serious political events to take place in Russia in the last 20 years,” he says. But the “democratic opposition failed to take advantage of the situation because it was preparing for different scenarios,” he lamented on Twitter. “The democratic movement needs to learn a lesson: regime change will not come from the ballot box,” he added.

While welcoming the mutiny for signaling the end of Putin’s reign, Khodorkovsky and other democratic opposition luminaries grouped around the Russian Action Committee — which he co-founded with former world chess champion Garry Kasparov — and are urging Western governments to recognize “opposition institutions” as legitimate representatives of Russian society with the associated opportunities” as “this will help the opposition compete with the militarized national patriots.”

On the sidelines

But it isn’t clear how the democratic opposition can influence the course of events on the ground and be anything but observers — a perennial challenge for exiled opposition groups however much they prepare as authoritarian regime’s totter and fall apart. At the outbreak of the revolution in March 1917, Vladimir Lenin was shocked on learning of the fall of the Romanovs. “Staggering!” he cried to Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife. “Such a surprise! We must get home,” he said. And the German High Command made that happen, engineering the eight-day rail trek for him to return to a Russia in turmoil.

Then, as now, the opposition was splintered, divided into vying, mutually suspicious factions favoring different political agendas and ideologies, rifts not eased by clashing personalities. For months, there have been splits along a variety of lines, including on tactics and the use of violence. There have been divisions between “old” political exiles and those of more recent vintage. The Russian Action Committee has been at odds with Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker-turned-dissident now living in Kyiv, among others, and efforts to coordinate with Russia’s best-known opposition leader the jailed Alexei Navalny have proven relentlessly elusive.

When the final collapse comes it is likely to be chaotic and violent. The country’s most powerful siloviki, or “strongman” security officials, are unlikely to let go of their power, privileges and wealth easily and without a fight and possibly the best scenario is that behind-the-scenes they come to terms with each other and reach a settlement, possibly with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin as the ostensible figurehead.

And even if they can do so, for how long will that hold before security factions start squabbling with each other and with messianic pro-war ultranationalists? And if things start falling apart quickly will restive regions and aggrieved minorities seize the moment to push for independence or autonomy, setting off new unforeseen trajectories for Russia?

For months now, elements of the FSB security service have been talking with exiled opposition groups, according to a well-placed dissident, who asked not to be named. That in turn has prompted some hopes that the siloviki and Russian opposition groups can come to some arrangement for a more orderly end to Putinism — with both groups united in the fear of ultranationalists seizing control and waging war even more ferociously and recklessly in Ukraine. 

But it’s all too unpredictable to call. “Intentionally or otherwise, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, and their mercenaries became ‘icebreakers’ for political change in Russia. What began as an inter-agency confrontation has set off what will be a long-running struggle for ‘Putin’s heritage,’ for ‘Putinism without Putin,’ and/or for ‘post-war/post-Putin Russia,’” noted Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. 

Some fear that Putin will now double down on the war and repression at home. “The next steps are tightening the nuts by Putin,” Ponomarev predicts. He forecast on Facebook: “Now the regime will consolidate its support at home and abroad on the principle of ‘lesser evil.’”

Ponomarev argues other opposition leaders are being too cautious and that the only way to change is through force and backing groups like the Freedom of Russia Legion, a Ukrainian-based paramilitary outfit that some other Russian opposition leaders worry is controlled by the Ukrainian intelligence apparatus. The group has carried out attacks in Russia’s western Belgorod region in recent weeks.

“Thanks to Wagners — they demonstrated that everything is possible in Russia, and the regime is vanishingly weak. Hello to all the oppositionists who haven’t understood it yet,” Ponomarev says. But other opposition leaders are skeptical.

What should the West be doing as Russia’s future is being decided? Its disastrous military intervention during the Russian civil war in the wake of the Bolshevik seizure of power offers a cautionary tale, as does the recent history of Western interventions in the Middle East – from Syria to Iraq.

Much like the Russian opposition, Western powers are likely to be reduced to observers of another likely massive upheaval in Russia with huge global consequences.

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