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OPINION

Akela turns tail: Vladimir Milov explains why Prigozhin mutiny will weaken Putin's regime

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Two weeks after the Prigozhin mutiny, it's time to draw some conclusions. First and foremost, the notion that the mutiny came out of the blue is incorrect. Numerous observers had been saying for months that the escalating tensions between the Ministry of Defense and the Wagner group would eventually culminate in a dramatic climax. While it was hard to predict that the private military company would seize control of Russian cities, this event brought to light something that was clear to Prigozhin but had not been apparent to external observers. He capitalized on the absence of substantial forces in the rear areas near the front lines, particularly in Rostov-on-Don, to occupy mostly vacant territory with minimal resistance.

Wagner and Co: Did Prigozhin have allies in high places?

It is hard to agree with the notion that Prigozhin, as many currently claim, had some “influential allies in high places.” The fact that only the initial part of his plan succeeded, and none of the subsequent steps did, indicates the opposite - that there were no allies, and he simply caught everyone off guard on the night from Friday to Saturday when the leadership of the security forces was universally incapacitated. For example, General Surovikin is attributed as one of Prigozhin's “allies,” primarily because Prigozhin once openly praised him. However, in reality, it was the Aerospace Forces (VKS) under Surovikin's command that was the only branch of the military which truly resisted the mercenaries' march. In fact, the whole mess formally arose because, according to Prigozhin himself, strikes were launched against Wagner PMC from the air, precisely by Surovikin's subordinates. In response, Prigozhin's fighters shot down Surovikin's forces in the air. Quite the “allies in the coup.”

The fact that Prigozhin only succeeded in the initial steps means that he had no influential allies

The rumors of some kind of “arrest” or persecution of Surovikin still lack any real confirmation. If any measures were taken against him, it is more likely due to his failure to successfully bomb the Wagner PMC from the air. However, it cannot be said that he did not try, and his air forces suffered significant losses within a very short period. In short, these are the strangest “allied relations” one can imagine.

In reality, it is very difficult to imagine that anyone in power could seriously side with Prigozhin. Firstly, they all understood perfectly well the balance of power and the futility of the Wagner mercenaries' uprising. Considering that some of the militants remained in the camps and did not participate in the mutiny, and some had to be left in Rostov-on-Don to control the captured territories, the number of participants in the “march on Moscow” could not exceed a few thousand. With such a number of rebels, the federal forces waiting for them near Moscow would have dealt with the situation. This was understood by everyone in the corridors of power.

Secondly, unlike active Internet users, members of the power elite are well aware of who Prigozhin really is and have no illusions concerning his rhetoric of “justice,” “fight against corruption,” and so on. Prigozhin is, above all, an unprincipled liar. It takes a complete lack of common sense to trust him even an ounce and take his rhetoric seriously. Furthermore, he is well-known for his love of playing without any rules. What kind of prize could one get for siding with him? It's a rhetorical question. However, the risks are enormous—everyone knows what Putin's wrath means.

Although the topic of a “conspiracy within the corridors of power to support Prigozhin” is currently in vogue, all these discussions are extremely superficial, and there has certainly never been a successful conspiracy in history where conspirators launched an armed uprising far from the capital, in Rostov-on-Don. Such a “conspiracy against the government” at the maximum distance from the seat of power is utterly meaningless. They might as well have set out from Magadan.

A Game of Survival: Why did Prigozhin do it?

Simply because he had no intention of seizing power. His only goal was to save his own skin. It appears that he obtained some information about his imminent removal—I am uncertain about the exact form it could have taken, whether it involved arrest or something more severe (given Putin's diverse array of means)—prompting him to take proactive measures. He swiftly captured territories in southern Russia to establish a buffer zone. The excessively rapid takeover of these regions fueled suspicions of a “conspiracy within the power elite.” However, the actual explanations behind it are much simpler. Firstly, the majority of significant forces were deployed on the frontlines. Additionally, a glance at any Russian coup serves as a reminder that the security forces have been consistently slow to respond to unforeseen events. It has become the norm.

Why did the Prigozhin blitzkrieg go unnoticed by the security agencies? They were too focused on the “external enemy” and overlooked the internal one. Moreover, everyone was well aware of Putin's personal mandate for the Wagner mercenaries' activities, and no one suspected that Prigozhin would dare to challenge him directly.

Prigozhin's strategy proved to be a success. Putin was deeply fearful of losing control over territories and facing battles in Moscow, as well as the potential storming of Rostov-on-Don. Consequently, he agreed, at least temporarily, to any terms proposed by Prigozhin in order to immediately halt the situation. Putin urgently needed to put an end to the armed confrontation as each passing day further eroded his authority. As the saying goes, swift action prevents a fall from grace. If Prigozhin genuinely aimed to instigate changes within the army and the country's governance, he would have utilized his leverage to exert pressure on Putin, such as establishing a stronghold in Rostov (“digging in” as he himself put it), engaging in blackmail, or negotiating. Let me emphasize once again: the idea of storming Rostov-on-Don would have been completely unthinkable for Putin. However, Prigozhin was content with the assurances he received.

Prigozhin had significant leverage but in the end he was content with the assurances he received

Did Prigozhin have any grand plans beyond personal salvation? If he did, they quickly unraveled, revealing that they were built on sand. It seems that Prigozhin's head was turned by the presence of his own media empire and troll factory, granting him the rare opportunity among the ruling elite to amplify his own image through PR tactics. However, despite the inflated portrayal of his omnipotence in the media, Prigozhin never held true decision-making power. He merely carried out specific assignments and, perhaps mistakenly, believed that public attention equated to real institutional influence. Yet, it became clear that this was not the case, as there were no notable defections to his cause.

Furthermore, Putin promptly explained to Prigozhin the source of funding for the Wagner PMC, revealing that it was predictably reliant on the state budget with no substantial independent financial sources. This scheme was relatively easy to pull apart. Consequently, Prigozhin and the Wagner mercenaries have been forced into silence, lacking the independent institutional and financial foundations they once presumed to possess.

However, despite achieving a swift institutional victory, Putin suffered a devastating blow to the prestige of his entire system. Among the nomenklatura and business circles, there emerged a collective realization that Putin does not truly control the situation in the country, and unexpected problems and challenges can arise from unforeseen sources. His authority has always relied on the perception that he somehow “solves problems” and maintains complete control over the infamous sphere of security, which has been touted as his main strength for the past quarter-century. It is for the sake of this illusion of security that Russians, including those in positions of power and wealth, have been compelled to relinquish their rights and independence.

However, the outcome turned out to be classic: there is neither freedom nor security. The Putin system has spawned uncontrollable armed thugs and lawless territories, which can now manifest themselves in unknown locations and unpredictable ways. For the first time since 1943, unidentified individuals seized entire Russian cities, including Rostov-on-Don, the country's 11th largest city and the military capital of the south. For over a day, a sense of complete uncertainty and helplessness prevailed within the country. Machine gun nests were being installed in Moscow to “confront the enemy,” reminiscent of the situation in 1941. Ironically, a machine gun nest appeared a few hundred meters away from the monument inscribed with the words “Here, in 1941, the Southwest frontier of the Moscow Defense Zone was located” at the exit from the Moscow Ring Road near Yasenevo. The weakness of the Putin regime was evident to all during those hours. Moreover, it became clear that the cult of armed people who disregard legality, personally fostered by Putin, had turned against him.

The Putin system has spawned uncontrollable armed thugs and lawless territories

These sentiments will not be forgotten—Russia is deeply puzzled by the events that have transpired and has begun to bid farewell to the image of Putin as a strong leader. It all contradicts the narrative of “security,” “protection,” and “complete control over the situation” that Putin's propaganda has carefully crafted for years. Even regular viewers of Russian TV have started to actively voice that “something is amiss.” The abrupt shifts in propaganda rhetoric inflict significant damage to the positions of power, as the negative portrayal of the Wagner mercenaries, whom the authorities themselves once hailed as “heroes,” leaves people confused and only deepens their bewilderment. Propaganda is most effective when it gradually implants specific ideas into people's minds, whereas sudden reversals in stance erode trust.

All the ongoing processes will undoubtedly contribute to the further erosion of power. It may not happen swiftly or all at once, but undermining Putin's authority and the trust placed in him represents yet another powerful blow to the foundations of the system, adding to the chain of other blows (military defeats, difficulties within the army, economic struggles, sanctions) that will inevitably lead to the collapse of the system, following basic laws of physics.

What has unsettled the minds of the Putinist elite? Until recently, they believed that despite making occasional mistakes and creating difficulties, Putin and his inner circle maintained overall stability within the system. Many saw it as a viable investment—conducting business, pursuing careers, seeking avenues for survival, and even striving for development independently of the Western world. They thought, “The economy is 'recovering,' we can 'weather' the sanctions, and we have India and China as alternative partners, albeit to a limited extent. Profit can be made from import substitution. We'll manage somehow!” However, a sudden signal emerged—the entire system, built on lawlessness and violence, could unexpectedly fall apart in unforeseen ways, causing the illusion of stability to crumble. What if Prigozhin had entrenched himself in Rostov and launched an assault on Moscow, sparking a full-fledged civil war? What if Chinese troops suddenly occupied certain eastern territories, taking advantage of the fact that Russian forces were concentrated in Ukraine? What if NATO, sensing Putin's vulnerability, decided to take a tougher stance against him? And what if other armed factions—whose numbers have proliferated due to Putin's militarism and aggression—decided to instigate similar conflicts, this time finding allies within the corridors of power?

This swarm of “what if” scenarios now buzzes incessantly in the minds of the Putinist elite, paralyzing their inclination to take any action to reinforce the system. If anyone harbored such intentions before June 23, they have now dramatically waned. Akela missed his kill. There is no longer any sense in toiling for the success of this system, as it is far weaker than it appeared. Undoubtedly, these circumstances will accelerate the erosion of the Putin regime.

The Potato Savior: What is the true role of Lukashenko?

Most likely, Alexander Lukashenko was needed by the Kremlin solely as a comfortable negotiator for both sides. Given the intensity of the situation, it would have been difficult for Putin and Prigozhin to communicate directly, so Putin immediately sought such a negotiator on the morning of June 24 (prior to contacting Lukashenko, he had called the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but they likely refused to play that role). As expected, Prigozhin and the Wagner group did not go to Belarus, and it seems they will not go there in the future. Lukashenko helped extinguish the instability in Russia (which directly threatened him as well), but he surely wouldn't want to host thousands of heavily armed, lawless mercenaries on his soil.

Putin, of course, will not forgive Prigozhin for his mutiny and his statement that “the president made a grave mistake, and no one intends to surrender at his command.” He will make attempts to eliminate him, but for now, he wants to avoid stirring up public opinion excessively and still lacks a full understanding of the remaining potential for resistance within the Wagner group. Therefore, he is likely to wait for the right moment. In the meantime, state-controlled media are conducting an extensive campaign to manipulate the minds of Russians, portraying Wagner as an extremely negative force. It can be speculated that Prigozhin will seek refuge in another dictatorial country, but even there, Putin will have no difficulty in locating him. Currently, the FSB is meticulously profiling all Wagner personnel, aiming to recruit individuals who are least loyal to Prigozhin's cause, and eliminating those deemed dangerous due to their uncontrollability and potential involvement in future uprisings.

Currently, the FSB is aiming to recruit individuals who are least loyal to Prigozhin's cause

It is highly likely that Prigozhin's days are numbered. It is unclear what he was hoping for by fueling conflicts with the Ministry of Defense and ultimately with Putin. It seems that his own PR opportunities truly got the best of him. Independent Russian and international media outlets played a significant role, eagerly commenting on his every move.

The failure of the mutiny and Prigozhin's escape from the political scene have exposed the absurdity of arguments suggesting that Russian democrats should have “supported” his rebellion. Democratic opposition supposedly offers society an alternative way of life based on legality, the rule of law, and democratic institutions, as opposed to the lawlessness of armed thugs. And yet, supporting criminals to establish democracy? Then how are you any different from the Putin regime itself, which operates on the principles of organized crime and imposes the “law of the strong” on the world? And these same people had the audacity to criticize Yeltsin in connection with the events of 1993 and 1996. Even if, purely hypothetically, Prigozhin had emerged victorious, why would you support him? As Gandalf said about Sauron, “He does not share power.”

Candidate of the people: how many Russians supported Prigozhin's mutiny?

There is currently much speculation surrounding the extent of support for Prigozhin's rebellion, fueled by numerous videos showing warm greetings from residents of Rostov-on-Don towards Wagner group fighters. However, in reality, opinion polls do not demonstrate any significant sympathy for Prigozhin, and those who did support him were more likely influenced by propaganda, considering him a “well-meaning patriot” rather than endorsing rebellious actions. As for the footage of people welcoming Wagner fighters, the number of individuals present is incomparably smaller than the long queues of people leaving Rostov-on-Don on the morning of June 24th, or even the march in support of Alexei Navalny that took place in Rostov-on-Don in January 2021. Therefore, it is important not to exaggerate the scale of “popular support” for Prigozhin.

The number of people welcoming the Wagner fighters is significantly smaller than the queues of people leaving Rostov-on-Don on the morning of June 24th

A more intriguing aspect to consider is the lack of active support from administrative structures and the general population in defending Putin's regime against the encroachment of militants. However, the passive nature of support for the regime is not a surprise to anyone who analyzes the current situation in Russia. Delving deeper into the overall figures of “support” for Putin, one will find that the prevailing attitude towards him is largely neutral or mildly positive. Even among those who express fondness for him, there is little willingness to risk their lives on his behalf. This is evident, for example, in the lack of enthusiasm for volunteering in the war efforts, despite the financial incentives which are perceived as huge in most of the country's regions.

Eventually, a tipping point will be reached: Putin will face mounting crises on various fronts—in war, in economy, and within his own system—wherein the willingness of individuals to come to his defense will diminish significantly. It is crucial to expedite this moment by actively engaging on all necessary fronts, including the battlefield, intensifying sanctions, conducting effective information campaigns targeted at the Russian populace, and striving to shift public opinion within the country. Notably, according to data from the Levada Center, solid and unwavering support for the war (“definitely support”) reached its lowest point in June, dropping to 40% from its peak of 53% in March 2022.

This process will continue. You can contribute to it by continuing your informational work with the deceived and propaganda-influenced Russian population. Public opinion is crucial for Putin. Realizing the significant blow to his authority, he abandoned his usual leadership style and rushed to embrace the people, trying to salvage his image. Putin understands the importance of public support, which is why he has not declared a second wave of mobilization (although he desperately needs it), nor has he closed the borders or blocked YouTube. It is important to understand that among anti-Putin and anti-war Russians, feelings of despair and disbelief in the possibility of change in people's minds are overly prevalent. But change is possible. We must work for it.

The situation is rapidly deteriorating for Putin as he finds himself unable to launch further offensives on the front lines and is faced with the ongoing loss of occupied territories. Meanwhile, the economy presents a daunting prospect for the authorities, with the potential for increased taxes, higher central bank rates, rising inflation, depletion of reserves, or the need to implement budget cuts. Adding to this, there is a striking realization for all Russians that Putin's rule is culminating in the presence of armed criminals on the streets of our cities, posing a threat to anyone. The only viable alternative to this state of armed lawlessness is a return to democratic governance, with accountable and responsible leadership. Putin used to instill fear in Russians by warning of chaos and lawlessness, but ironically, his rule has resulted in the most unprecedented levels of disorder. It is crucial to communicate this to the people, and at present there exists an excellent opportunity to do so.

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