The uprising shook the Russian elite’s confidence in Putin’s strength

LONDON — The impact of the toughest-ever challenge to Vladimir Putin’s 23-year presidency reverberated among Moscow’s elite on Monday, raising questions over whether the Russian president had at least lost control of the country.

Addressing the nation on Monday for the first time since the chaos of this weekend’s armed uprising, Putin thanked people for showing “unity and patriotism”, which he said clearly proved that “any attempt to cause internal turmoil will fail”.

But the armed rebellion by the Wagner mercenary leader has shattered the carefully crafted myth that underpinned Putin’s presidency — that he represented stability and strength — and many at the top of Russian politics and business wonder whether he can recover from it. It is. Some have even suggested that a search for Putin’s successor may be underway.

“Putin showed the whole world and the elite that he is nobody and is not fit to do anything,” said an influential Moscow businessman. “It’s a total collapse of his reputation.”

“Games are being played that no one understands,” said a Russian official close to high-level diplomatic circles. “The control of the country has been partially lost.”

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner leader who sparked the crisis in Russia?

Members of the Moscow elite were grappling with how easily a treacherous force of Wagner mercenaries was able to seize control of the main command center for the Russian military’s war in Ukraine in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The resistance, then head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, advanced hundreds of miles on the road to Moscow before finally deciding to withdraw his forces.

“How is it possible that they are driving tanks hundreds of kilometers north towards Moscow,” said an associate of a Moscow billionaire. “No objection.”

“When you have thousands of people marching and nobody can stop it, it’s clearly out of control,” said one Russian billionaire, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Putin insisted in his speech that all measures had been taken on his direct orders to “avoid massive bloodshed”. He explained that the “perpetrators” should be given time to “recognize that their actions have been decisively rejected by society” and that what they are doing will lead to “tragic and destructive consequences for Russia”.

But questions remain about how Putin could have allowed Prigozhin, a close ally since the 1990s, to get away with charges of involvement in armed rebellion. Russian military bloggers. After deploying his troops, Prigozhin moved to Belarus, where he intends to continue operating his Wagner private mercenary group, judging by an audio message he released on Monday.

“This has to be a case of terrorism. These are very serious crimes,” said the first Moscow businessman. “But again, nothing was done.”

In an audio message posted on Telegram on Monday, Prigozhin insisted – his first statement since agreeing to halt his march in Moscow – that he was trying to ensure the survival of his Wagner group and not trying to bring down Putin. He said he feared his group would be crushed by the Russian military and was trying to make sure those who committed “a huge number of mistakes” in the war in Ukraine were punished. The Wagner chief’s verbal attacks on Russia’s military leadership for months have exposed deep divisions within the Russian elite over Putin’s conduct of the war and the Russian president’s overall policies.

In mid-June American spies learned that Prigozhin was planning an armed operation in Russia

The events of the past few days “show that the country is not moving in the right direction,” said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-linked political adviser. “If nothing changes, this will definitely happen again.”

Two Moscow business executives suggested that Prigozhin’s mercenaries could not advance unhindered on the road to Moscow unless part of the Russian security services supported them. Chechen fighters sent to Rostov-on-Don appeared to do nothing, a Moscow businessman said, while other forces sent to confront Wagner’s forces blew up only one fuel station in Rostov, leaving behind a much larger one in Voronezh. And on the way to Moscow, just like that. Those regular Russian forces only destroyed one bridge in an attempt to slow the progress of the insurgency.

“It was as if they were acting only to show the president that they were doing something, but in reality they were not doing anything, the Russian president was not controlling anything,” the businessman said. He suggested that Prigozhin’s battle for leadership of the Russian armed forces could represent a deeper struggle within Russia’s security services for the future Russian presidency.

More exceptional for the image of the Russian president, Wagner’s decision to strike a deal with Prigozhin rather than risk a bloody war should his men reach the outskirts of Moscow, analysts and business executives said.

“It’s very complicated for the elite, because optically, Putin looks weak and a person who is scared and forced to compromise,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, now founder of R.Politik, a Russian political consultancy in Paris. “But from a subjective point of view , Putin successfully got out of the situation for himself. The alternative was a serious bloody battle on the outskirts of Moscow, which would have been worse.

Questions remained about whether the agreement reached with Prigogine would last, Stanovaya said, adding that both sides were more tempted to break promises made “under shock.”

Prigozhin’s rebellion “exposed many vulnerabilities in the regime,” Stanovaya added. “Putin will take this very seriously and try to hide weak points.”

But others said the clock was already ticking on his reign. Some in the Kremlin are “looking for a successor now, and if they look for a long time, someone else will find one for them,” said a Russian official close to high-level Russian diplomatic circles, noting that the Ukrainian armed forces were already there. Taking advantage of the chaos in Moscow, they made progress on the counter-attack.

“Ukraine is advancing towards the Dnipro, Kherson and Baghmut. In 1917, there was a rebellion and Russia lost the First World War and the regime fell. In 1991 Russia lost the Afghan war and fell. If Ukraine loses the war, the regime falls and cannot be recovered.

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