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February 24, 2024

Putin Thinks He’s Still in Control. He’s Not.

Putin Thinks He’s Still in Control. He’s Not.

Guest Essay

Credit…Alexey Malgavko/Reuters

By Mikhail Zygar

Mr. Zygar is a Russian journalist and the author of “War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.”

The Scarlet Sails festival is one of Russia’s most popular holidays. A celebration of high school graduates held in St. Petersburg, it culminates in a spectacular light show, where ships — including one with scarlet sails — pass along the Neva River, fireworks cracking above them. Teenagers mill about the city and drink on the banks of the river while members of the Russian elite, officials and oligarchs alike, congregate to drink champagne on their luxurious yachts. No one enjoys the occasion more than President Vladimir Putin, who loves this student holiday in his hometown and never misses a private party on the river, watching the ships go by.

This year was no different. The revels went off without a hitch and Mr. Putin took in the show from the yacht of Yuri Kovalchuk, the president’s closest friend and one of the country’s most influential oligarchs. That was rather strange, because the festival was on Saturday, June 24 — the day Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group, launched his mutiny. Despite the shock of the rebellion, which saw Wagner forces march to within 125 miles of Moscow unimpeded, Mr. Putin flew to St. Petersburg. Nothing, not even armed revolt, would deter him from his favorite party.

In the opinion of my sources close to Mr. Putin’s inner circle — officials, administrators, journalists, businessmen and more — this is the clearest evidence yet that the president is divorced from reality. He still believes that he has everything under control and that Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion has not changed the political situation in any way. But he is mistaken. Not only is the atmosphere around Mr. Putin fundamentally different, but there is also a growing appetite for change — even among those close to the president. For many I spoke to, Mr. Putin’s system of rule simply can’t go on much longer.

Mr. Putin was certainly culpable in allowing the situation to get out of hand. First, he encouraged Mr. Prigozhin, tacitly allowing him to recruit widely — including from prisons — for the war in Ukraine and to take a prominent position on the battlefield, particularly in the fight for Bakhmut. The calculation was not strictly military. Mr. Prigozhin was clearly elevated to act as a counterweight to the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the military generals, ensuring they didn’t become too popular. So when Mr. Prigozhin started criticizing the military leadership — often in explicit, expletive-ridden diatribes — the president did nothing to stop it.

But it soon became a problem. Mr. Prigozhin, riding a wave of popularity, became increasingly personal and insulting in his denunciations of Mr. Shoigu. Yet Mr. Putin failed to mediate. Though he arranged a meeting between the two men in February, he did not, according to a source in the presidential administration, say anything specific in the conversation, hoping the gathering itself was a sufficient warning to stop the public attacks. Mr. Prigozhin did not take the hint, however, and continued to fulminate against the military commanders.

In the weeks after, Mr. Prigozhin traveled the country as if he were a politician running an election campaign, meeting with potential supporters and criticizing the war effort. In this again he was unhindered by the Kremlin, which knew of his plans but chose to do nothing about them. As Mr. Prigozhin grew in popularity, even pulling in a former deputy defense minister as a deputy commander for Wagner — a clear sign he had high-ranking admirers among the security forces — Mr. Putin kept to himself. Sources close to him tell me he hasn’t met with Mr. Prigozhin for months.

This silence was crucial. In early June, when Mr. Shoigu sought to clamp down on private militias like Wagner by making all mercenaries sign a contract with the army, Mr. Prigozhin couldn’t get in touch with the president to object. In the language of Russian bureaucracy, this signals the highest degree of disfavor. A source close to the president told me Mr. Putin could easily have prevented the uprising if he had just talked to Mr. Prigozhin — or at least instructed someone in the administration to do so. Instead, without access to the Kremlin and fearing the loss of his autonomy, Mr. Prigozhin embarked on his aborted uprising.

The fallout was immediate. For Mr. Prigozhin, spurred on by pride and anger, it surely signals the end of his political and military career. Had he bided his time, waiting until perhaps the fall to raise a rebellion while building deeper support across the security apparatus, things could have been very different. Instead, after a deal brokered by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus — who has known Mr. Prigozhin for decades — the Wagner chief is in Belarus. Exile in the Central African Republic, where the Wagner group has a military base, is reportedly in the cards.

The situation for Mr. Putin is equally serious. In comments this week, he has sought to project control. But there’s no doubt much more will be needed to flush away the memory of the revolt. Despite Mr. Putin’s promises to pardon those involved in the rebellion, repression of the so-called patriotic camp is surely to come. Until now, such figures — hard-liners operating largely on the Telegram social messaging app, who generally support Mr. Prigozhin — could criticize the authorities with some impunity. Now it has become obvious that this hard-right, fascist wing is no less dangerous than the liberals persecuted by the Kremlin — not least because it includes many armed supporters. A purge is to be expected, starting with Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine who allegedly knew of the mutiny in advance.

But the damage is done. The rebellion has desacralized Mr. Putin, substantially weakening his authority. Before this weekend, much of Russian society, and especially state bureaucrats, believed that he always made the right decisions, that he was much more cunning, wise and better informed than anyone else. But the events of the weekend have shown Mr. Putin in the worst possible light: weak, vacillating, incapable of exerting control. He alone is to blame for what happened, something that is obvious to everyone except him.

For many members of the ruling elite, it is now clear that Mr. Putin has ceased to be the guarantor of stability he was for so long. A new situation is quickly emerging and what happens next is impossible to know. But it would be prudent, and not just for Russians, to start preparing for what will come after him.

Mikhail Zygar (@zygaro) is the former editor in chief of the independent TV news channel Dozhd and the author of “War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine” and “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.”

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