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Putin has Just Been Weakened, Whatever that Means

The Prigozhin mutiny happened less than two weeks ago, yet it's already falling through the memory hole of American consciousness. Between Jack Smith's indictments and the SCOTUS coup, there is little oxygen left for other stories, especially those from halfway around the world, especially when they're as opaque as this one.

But the incident is hugely significant, even if nobody seems to know why, and it's certainly not over. When it might be over — or what "over" even means — is anyone's guess.

If you're confused, don't worry. So is the rest of the world, including the heads of every Western intelligence service.

Divining the real story is almost impossible, mostly because everyone involved is a professional liar. They're all masters of subterfuge and disinformation, and they all live in mortal fear of Putin. Many of them know people who've "fallen" from high windows, so they try not to attract attention.

Evgeny Prigozhin attracts attention. His visibility has long been considerably higher than most of Putin's inner circle. So when, in the last year, he started publicly dissing the Russian war effort — and by implication his old buddy Putin — it was hard not to see him as playing with fire.

Then, two weeks ago, he went completely rogue. He took 25,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, his own private army, and effortlessly captured a major Russian city, Rostov. This alone was an epic embarrassment for the "official" Russian military, some of whom were reportedly rooting for the Wagner troops.

But Prigozhin compounded the embarrassment by moving his troops up the road towards Moscow, causing all sorts of panic there, and prompting Putin to evacuate his own capital, the sort of humiliation to which he does not take kindly.

To make things even worse, Prigozhin also started ranting on right-wing Telegram channels that the whole Ukraine war was a mistake, that the pretext for it was a total sham, and that the military continues to vastly under-report the death toll.

In a police state like Russia, where the mere use of the word "war" is a crime punishable by ten years in prison, this was either suicidal behavior or brilliant theater. Nobody is sure which, and some have speculated that the whole affair was a fake, cooked up by Putin to discredit the military. Or something.

Whatever it was, it was the first time any member of Putin's inner circle had publicly criticized the war, let alone in such brazen fashion. And this guy was now marching on the capital.

But then, to the world's surprise, with his army a mere three-hour drive from Moscow, Prigozhin called the whole thing off. He turned the troops around and said, in effect, never mind.

Which is when Alexander Lukashenko — the odious dictator of Belarus, and a Putin puppet — swooped in and "negotiated" something, we're still not sure what. To hear Lukashenko tell it, he talked Putin down from having Prigozhin executed immediately, but since Lukashenko has no credibility at all, this is not verifiable. More likely, Putin gave a command and Lukashenko obeyed.

But as a result, Prigozhin has been granted safe passage to Belarus, and his troops are ostensibly free, either to go with him — Lukashenko is reportedly building them a base in Belarus, near the Ukrainian border — or to sign up for the official version of the Russian army. In other words, as of this writing, all is apparently forgiven.

This seems a most un-Putin-like denouement for a drama of such Shakespearean proportions. Which is why nobody takes it at face value.

There are no heroes here. Evgeny Prigozhin — nicknamed "Putin's Chef," for reasons that are not pertinent here — is one of the vilest creatures now walking the earth, responsible for perhaps tens of thousands of deaths. For sheer barbarity, he is second only to Putin, and they've been pals, more or less, for two decades.

Prigozhin was the guy behind the internet troll farms that so rudely interfered in our own 2016 election. That work earned him fame, fortune, the admiration of Putin, and an indictment from Robert Mueller, which means he can't set foot in any Western country without being immediately extradited to the U.S. Indeed, Belarus might be the best exile deal he can hope for.

Putin authorized Wagner's creation in the early 2010's, giving complete control to Prigozhin. The idea was to build an autonomous army that would be free to commit atrocities in Putin's behalf, while giving Putin deniability for any of its crimes.

Wagner quickly earned a reputation for viciousness in the hostile takeover of Crimea in 2014, and has since been rented out to thuggish dictators in the Middle East and Africa — wherever there are mineral rights that need exploiting or human rights that need crushing. Brutality is very much the Wagner brand — their motto translates loosely as "Death is our business, and business is good."

Putin's dilemma is that he needs the Wagner troops, as they're virtually his only dependable source of competent soldiers. They were the main force behind Putin's only victory — and a questionable victory at that — in the eleven-month battle for Bakhmut, the bloodiest battle of the supremely bloody Ukraine war.

It's estimated that upwards of 10,000 Wagner troops died at Bakhmut. Most were not the elite troops Prigozhin is so proud of, but were, in fact, prisoners. Prigozhin had famously offered hardened criminals their freedom in return for serving at the front. All they had to do was survive the war. Which was hardly likely.

But for all his right-wing loathsomeness, Prigozhin has managed to tap into a current of populist resentment, mostly directed at the Russian military establishment. He has railed against the incompetence, the inefficiencies, the poor equipment, the shoddy planning, the flagrant corruption, and the utter lack of accountability that pervades the Russian armed forces, especially in the high command.

He has also struck a popular chord with his utter contempt for what he calls "the elites," those privileged officials who send their own sons abroad, leaving ordinary Russians to be drafted and slaughtered.

While all this has given Putin plenty of indigestion, he has been uncharacteristically tolerant of Prigozhin's antics. That tolerance remains in force, though it could be withdrawn, with deadly consequence, by the time you finish this sentence.

The conventional wisdom holds that Putin has been weakened by the mutiny, but I've not heard any good explanation of what "weakened" means. Absolute autocrats like Putin are a recurring theme in Russian history, and when faced with similar predicaments, they have all, quite predictably, doubled down on the brutality, lashing out at all perceived enemies.

So while nothing about this is clear, there's a good chance we'll soon be seeing stepped-up atrocities in Ukraine, widespread crackdowns on any dissent in the Russian population, and abrupt purges of Putin flunkies throughout the government and the military, some of them through open windows.

Prigozhin himself is not safe in Belarus, and we don't know how, or even if, the Russian army will take in any of his Wagner troops, who are, after all, indelibly marked as mutineers.

But the Prigozhin affair put a crack in Putin's facade of invincibility, and that crack won't be easy to patch up or paint over. Whether that makes Putin more or less dangerous, we're about to find out.

 

Comments

  1. Your mention of the vile history of Russian autocrats is totally valid. Russian rulers have, throughout the history of Russian, been vile, ruthless and cruel. Most have, however, come to a bad end. Hopefully it will be true of Putin. Unfortunately the history of what has been, over the centuries, a horrid place to be, says that someone equally vile will be there to take his place. To think that Russia will ever join the world of peace and brotherhood is is a big mistake

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