Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ
Energiesnet.com 06 25 2023
Shaken by the Wagner mutiny, Russia began addressing the damage of Saturday’s bout of violence as its citizens tried to understand how these events will affect President Vladimir Putin’s regime, which has shown itself so unexpectedly vulnerable.
The whereabouts of Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin were unclear on Sunday, and neither he nor Putin made public remarks about the conditions under which the rebellion ended. The Russian minister of defense and the head of Russia’s armed forces also remained out of sight.
One widely shared conclusion in Russia, however, was that none of the key players in the power struggle that began when Prigozhin seized the southern city of Rostov on Saturday morning has been strengthened by the ordeal that brought the country to the edge of civil war.
Putin, who earlier in the day demanded his security forces to crush what he described as a treasonous mutiny, amnestied Prigozhin and his men by the evening, after Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko negotiated a face-saving compromise.
Prigozhin, who showed Wagner’s strength by marching two-thirds of the way toward Moscow with little opposition, ended up aborting the rebellion and accepting, at least for now, exile in Belarus. The Russian army and security forces, meanwhile, displayed little glory as their troops proved reluctant, if not outright afraid, to try stopping Wagner. Flying Russian flags, large Wagner columns on Sunday were driving south on the Moscow-Rostov highway.
“The entire system has lost yesterday, including Prigozhin, who is also part of the system,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who was in Moscow on Saturday. As for Putin, he added, “it turned out that the czar is not a real czar because he couldn’t control a man from his own system who’s supposed to be under his full control.”
As a result, the authority and self-image of the Russian state has sustained lasting damage, likely fueling future challenges to its writ regardless of what happens to Prigozhin. That is especially so as the war in Ukraine, which helped precipitate the Wagner mutiny, continues raging with no end in sight, causing mounting casualties on both sides.
“Our country will never be the way it used to be. Wagner’s column didn’t move on the asphalt, it moved through people’s hearts, cutting them in half,” noted Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a veteran of the pro-Russian movement in Ukraine’s Donbas region who is now deputy commander of the Russian National Guard in Donetsk. “Yesterday, everything was hanging on a very thin thread.”
Wagner’s forces Saturday shot down six Russian helicopters and an IL-22 airborne command-center plane, killing 13 airmen, according to Russian military analysts—deaths that will not be easily forgotten, particularly inside the Russian air force, which is commanded by Prigozhin’s onetime ally Gen. Sergei Surovikin. Damage included bridges and roads destroyed by authorities that aimed to stop Wagner’s march, and a jet-fuel depot that was hit and burned down in the city of Voronezh.
Prigozhin late Saturday night left the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov, to an unknown destination. Disconcertingly for Putin, many locals cheered Wagner’s troops as they withdrew from the city—and jeered the regular police that reappeared on Rostov’s streets after hiding for a day.
In Moscow, too, feelings about Prigozhin were mixed at best on Saturday. “There was a moment of total loss of control. Moscow was already awaiting him, the city froze in expectation that some groups of people would enter,” Kolesnikov said. “And people were not afraid. Putin was afraid of him, but not the country’s population.”
A volatile personality and a former inmate of Soviet prisons, Prigozhin isn’t necessarily the favorite alternative for many Russians, particularly the Moscow elites. That is especially so because Wagner’s ranks include thousands of violent criminals recruited in Russian prison camps.
Yet, the very fact that there was so little spontaneous rallying for the Russian president on Saturday, in Rostov or in Moscow, showed the pent-up hunger for change after 23 years of Putin’s rule, many Russian analysts noted.
As of Sunday morning, Wagner remained in charge of the Millerovo military airfield in southern Russia, according to Russian reports. It wasn’t clear when and how Prigozhin will leave for Belarus, and how many of his men will follow suit.
Fighters loyal to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who has had his own feud with Prigozhin, deployed to the outskirts of Moscow and erected roadblocks—once Wagner had turned around its columns.
Prigozhin, so far, hasn’t spoken in public about leaving Russia, saying only that he had agreed to Lukashenko’s request to cease the march on Moscow in order to avoid bloodshed. Putin, too, hasn’t made any public remarks since accusing Prigozhin of treason on Saturday morning.
Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, whose removal was Prigozhin’s key demand, hasn’t been seen since before the mutiny. Neither has the chief of general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. Shoigu maintained silence on Sunday, even as Russian social media lit up with unconfirmed rumors of his likely replacement in coming days.
“The entire world has seen that Russia is on the brink of the most acute political crisis,” Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser and a political analyst in Moscow, said on Telegram. “Yes, the putsch failed now. But putsches have fundamental reasons. And if the reasons remain, a putsch will happen again. And it could be successful.”