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Vlad the Terrible
June 29, 2023
On June 27, four days after the humiliating armed incursion by a rogue oligarch ended, Vladimir Putin marched down a grand staircase inside the Kremlin to address 2,500 troops in a show of force that fooled no one, inside or outside Russia. Flanked by goose-stepping guards and military brass, the diminutive dictator stated “you defended the constitutional order, lives, security, and freedom of our citizens, saved our motherland from shake-ups, actually stopped a civil war.” His theatrics were cartoonish and disingenuous: Freedom or security for citizens in Russia doesn’t exist, his military and security didn’t stop the rebellion, and his inner circle of mobsters are more divided and disenchanted than ever. The rebellion turned the ruble into rubble and now Putin attempts damage control. Who he purges or promotes will determine the duration of the Ukrainian conflict as well as his job security. So far, Western response has been pitch-perfect. The day Putin spoke, the Pentagon announced another $500 million in military aid for Ukraine.
Putin now must fight a “war” at home. Going forward, he will try to consolidate his hold on power, change the optics to make himself look strong, crush Prigozhin, arrest his collaborators, blame the West, and watch his back. Prigozhin hides and Sergei Surovikin, a senior Russian general and former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, has disappeared since the mutiny began because some say that he knew about the rebellion in advance. As for Putin, he is already “damaged goods” and many believe that his strategic and managerial missteps since 2022 disqualify him as Godfather to Russia’s mafia. Boris Bondarev, a former high-ranking Russian diplomat, told Newsweek recently: “The beginning of the end of Putin started when he invaded Ukraine. His war was from the very beginning doomed. This mutiny is just another step…The uprising, which lasted less than 24 hours, showed that [Putin's] regime can be toppled very easily.”
Kremlin operatives now jockey for position and power. If “moderates” rise to the top the war will end more quickly, but if “hardliners” win it won’t. The struggle will be done behind closed doors and all the potential contenders have kept their cards close to their vests and their heads down. For example, capable moderates such as Putin’s second-in-command, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin each disappeared during the emergency and made no public statements backing Putin until it was over. “They fear him, but they wish him out,” said a commentator on June 25 on state television. “Those who may become actors or even benefactors like Mishustin and Sobyanin sit on fences, waiting to see who will win.”
Prime Minister Mishustin, a technocrat from Moscow, has never commented publicly or privately about the war. Reports are that he was kept in the dark until the invasion had already happened. Mayor Sobyanin runs Moscow, the richest and most privileged fiefdom in the country, and is aligned with Russian business tycoons and other powerful economic players who have been concerned about sanctions and Putin’s ongoing war. He was born in the Urals, and is a member of the Mansi, an ethnic minority that has been repressed for generations, but he has worked his way into the highest reaches of Russian political ranks.
It is likely that Putin will be pushed out by Russia’s elite because of his hideous track record. The war is obviously a disaster, and the Prigozhin affair also incriminates him. In September, Putin admitted that Russia (he) had secretly employed the Wagner Group for years in Ukraine and around the world even though mercenary armies are illegal under Russian law. Then, after the rebellion, Putin admitted in private meetings that his government had paid Prigozhin’s Wagner Group $1 billion between May 2022 and May 2023 to fight, and had paid another $1 billion to Prigozhin’s catering company to supply food to the military. This raised the question of kickbacks to Putin or others, which is common practice among Russia’s mafiosi.
Putin’s immunity deal with Prigozhin is also problematic, politically. The mercenary leader left the battlefront, invaded Russia, and killed 37 Russian military personnel in two days and yet was granted immunity — unlike the thousands of Russians who rot in jails or gulags for merely speaking against the war. Atop that hypocrisy, Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed that Putin initially wanted to “kill” Prigozhin, but he talked him out of it – another revelation which, if true, meant Putin was closer to Prigozhin than admitted and not ruthless enough to rule.
Prigozhin is the catalyst that will bring about regime change, but a transition process was already underway. Weeks ago, Putin advisor and speech writer, Abbas Gallyamov, said in an interview before the mutiny, that Putin wouldn’t run for re-election in 2024 because his legitimacy has eroded as the war has dragged on. He believed that Dmitri Medvedev would be shoehorned in to make a deal with the West and stop the war. He also said the public was concerned that the war would lead to a 1990s collapse. “Everybody understands that this [the invasion] was something which could easily have been avoided,” said Gallyamov. “People really feel that if Putin doesn’t change something, if he doesn't stop what he's doing now, it will ultimately lead to a revolution. And all of the elites, of course, they don't want this. They want stability.”
But Medvedev has gotten mixed reviews, due to his “partying” as well as a string of out-of-character, obnoxious, non-statesmanlike, and threatening tweets that he posted during the war. But he has publicly supported Putin since the mutiny while colleague and hardliner, former KGB chief Nikolai Patrushev who is head of the Russian Security Council, has remained silent since the crisis. Patrushev is a hawk and supported Putin’s two Ukrainian invasions as well as his other aggressions in Syria and around the world and is said to “pour poison into Putin’s ear”. But he finally resurfaced on June 27 at a gathering where Putin thanked his cabinet for saving the country. However, Patrushev had been in charge of the security that failed to detect or prevent the incursion. Perhaps the lapse was intentional and perhaps he aims to replace Putin. That would be bad news for Ukraine and the world.
Interestingly, China weighed in gently against the war since the uprising. According to a recent report in Al Jazeera, “China’s envoy to the European Union suggested Beijing could back Ukraine’s aims of reclaiming its 1991 territorial integrity, which includes Crimea. When Fu Cong was asked about this, he said ‘I don’t see why not’. We respect the territorial integrity of all countries. So when China established relations with the former Soviet Union, that’s what we agreed. But as I said, these are historical issues that need to be negotiated and resolved by Russia and Ukraine and that is what we stand for’.”
It was not definitive support for Ukraine, but represented a nudge in favor of ending the war on Kyiv’s terms. Hopefully in July, NATO may deliver a blow against Russia by letting Ukraine join in principle and by pledging solid security guarantees after the war ends.
But the duration of this war lies entirely in the hands of Russia’s oligarchy. Like Prigozhin, they are war-weary, and disenchanted with Putin, because Ukraine is winning, their credit cards don’t work, they cannot get visas to visit their money and mansions abroad, and their profits as well as businesses have collapsed. Hopefully, they will hand Vlad the Terrible a pink slip or jail cell. Then they will appoint an administration of moderates who will negotiate an armistice, withdraw troops from Ukraine, permit international oversight over its nuclear arsenal, and slowly rebuild (or disintegrate) the country as happened 30 years ago to the Soviet Union.