Home Featured Russia’s put the genie back in the bottle — or has it?
Russia’s put the genie back in the bottle — or has it?

Russia’s put the genie back in the bottle — or has it?

by host

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

Nothing to see here — now move along, please.

A little over a week after the 36-hour insurrection of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries, this seems to be the line adopted by the Kremlin, its propagandists and supporters.

The politicians and functionaries who remained ominously silent and kept their heads down as the shock rebellion unfolded are now all rallying, flocking to President Vladimir Putin and praising his sagacity, while seeking to trivialize Wagner’s military contribution in the war on Ukraine.

“If there had been people like Putin at the helm of the state in 1917 and 1991, there would have been no revolution and no collapse of the USSR,” declared Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma. Putin has emerged even stronger, he opined on Telegram.

Meanwhile, Andrey Kartapolov, chair of the Duma’s defense committee, was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying there would be no adverse effects from Wagner’s absence on the battlefield. “There is no threat at all regarding a drop in the combat potential, both in the mid-term and long-term perspective,” he said. And state TV channel Rossiya-1 has been similarly downplaying the paramilitary group’s battlefield effectiveness, dubbing its role in the war an overblown and “constructed myth.”

Putin’s propaganda machine has thus found its footing and voice once more, after being thoroughly wrong-footed by the armed rebellion authored by a convict-turned-caterer-turned-warlord. And Russia’s modern-day tsar has become visible once again — now that the immediate danger has seemingly passed.

This is a pattern we’ve seen repeated time and again by Putin, disappearing whenever serious problems have emerged — whether they be man-made or natural disasters. For example, he was largely absent when the pandemic unfolded, as Moscow battled to curb its spread and St. Petersburg prepared for a surge of cases. Instead, he secluded himself at his Novo-Ogaryovo estate on the outskirts of Moscow.

Similarly, in 2000, Putin vacationed at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. He eventually met with the relatives of the 118 victims as a media storm erupted, but the meeting did not go well, as he was accused of inaction and the military was accused of incompetence.

Then again, in 2018, Putin was criticized for a sluggish response to a massive shopping mall blaze in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which left at least 64 dead — 41 of them children — with bereaved families accusing him of repeating his Kursk disappearing act.

And now, with Prigozhin’s rebellion over, in recent days Putin has apparently appeared in Dagestan, mingling with an adoring crowd in what Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described as an “astounding demonstration of support and happiness.”And he also delivered a speech in a square inside the Kremlin to 2,500 members of the military, security forces and the National Guard, thanking them for quelling the mutiny and saving Russia from chaos.

The message being conveyed is that Putin is in control; that he never lost control, he’s loved, and he acted judiciously — allowing talks to conclude the mutiny without more bloodshed and then offering Prigozhin a way out with exile in neighboring Belarus.

The coherence here stands in stark contrast to the confusion when the insurrection began — from the stunned initial silence of state broadcasters, who had no direction from the Kremlin, to the following mixed messages, including the claim the West must be behind it all. And as Prigozhin headed toward the Russian capital, executive jets began heading away from Moscow, including those of oligarchs Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Potanin and Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov, according to investigative website Vazhniye Istorii. Manturov had long planned a weekend away in Turkey, friends said.

The confusion was even greater farther afield, with regional governors unsure of what to do or expect. And the first sign of some direction eventually came around 24 hours later from Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, who instructed governors and regional leaders to register public support for the Russian leader.

And they did. Although the statement from the head of Buryatia Alexei Tsydenov was strikingly equivocal: “You know our people are worrying about their loved ones equally … no matter if they are listed in the Armed Forces … or Wagner. We are watching all your ups and downs equally,” he said.

But now the genie is back in the bottle. Or is it? Questions persist.

How exactly were a rag-tag group of mercenaries able to mount the challenge they did? How were they allowed to seize control of Rostov — a key logistical hub and military headquarters — then proceed up the M4 highway, only facing opposition around Voronezh, which is a six-hour drive from the Russian capital, and still manage to get within 240 kilometers of Moscow’s outskirts? Why did the armed forces, security services and National Guard react so slowly? And how come the security services — including the GRU military intelligence agency, which has close ties with Wagner — fail to pick up on what Prigozhin was planning?

Was it incompetence or betrayal? Likely both. And that, no doubt, is what Putin and his loyalists are trying to weigh as they trawl through the ranks of security services, armed forces and government technocrats. Who can be trusted? Who equivocated? Who was treacherous? Most observers don’t expect a quick wholesale purge — Putin might not be strong enough for that — and there are already confusing signs as to who’s in and who’s out. Kremlinology is a fool’s game.

So far, however, some Western media outlets have said General Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, has been detained. And according to Alexei Venediktov, former head of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station that was shut down by authorities last year, Surovikin and his close lieutenants haven’t been in contact with their families for several days.

But pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov believes Surovikin is still destined to replace Valery Gerasimov as chief of the General Staff — which was one of Prigozhin’s key demands. Markov has also tipped Alexei Dyumin, governor of the strategically important Tula region and a former top security official, to succeed Sergei Shoygu as defense minister. “But this will not happen immediately, so that there are no thoughts that Shoygu and Gerasimov were removed at the request of the rebel,” he wrote.

If that were to happen, it would mark a significant win for Prigozhin, who called for the ouster of Gerasimov and Shoygu for months. Surovikin and Prigozhin have reportedly been close since 2015, when they were both active in Syria. And it’s been noted on the Meduza news site that both Dyumin and Dmitry Mirono — another rising star and former head of the Yaroslavl region — have been quietly supportive of Prigozhin.

So, is the genie really back in the bottle? Not likely. And Russia’s near future seems destined to see more witch hunts and rumors, more jostling and infighting as factions and clans ponder how to ensure they don’t become casualties in Putin’s endgame — however short or prolonged it might be.

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