For 24 wild hours, Russians were forced to contemplate something they’ve rarely thought about over the previous two decades: Who or what will come after President Vladimir Putin leaves power?
For much of Saturday, an astonishing mutiny by mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin – who pulled his Wagner fighters out of Ukraine and sent them on a thunder run north along the M-4 highway toward Moscow – appeared on the verge of succeeding. Videos captured the Wagner column, which included heavy battle tanks mounted on flatbed trucks, speeding almost unimpeded toward the Russian capital, while the city’s police and National Guard units prepared what looked to be inadequate defences.
With a battle for the Kremlin looming as a real possibility, flight-tracking software suggested that planes used by Mr. Putin and his Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, had taken off from Moscow, heading north toward the Russian President’s hometown of St. Petersburg. Though the Kremlin denied that Mr. Putin had left the capital, there was a growing sense that Mr. Prigozhin – having caught Russia’s military and political elite completely off-guard – was about to shove the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal into the unknown.
The questions were crucial and numerous: What would Mr. Prigozhin do if his fighters captured the Kremlin? Did the man once known as “Putin’s chef” plan to take power himself after a coup d’état against his boss? Would Mr. Prigozhin – or whomever he helped bring to the presidency – continue the war against Ukraine? Could the mutineers control Russia’s vast territory, as well as its nuclear arsenal?
But the uprising ended as suddenly as it had begun. With his forces just 300 kilometres from Moscow, Mr. Prigozhin accepted a deal – brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – that will see Wagner’s forces return to their bases without punishment, with some joining the regular Russian army. Mr. Prigozhin himself will move to Belarus, with all charges against him dropped.
It was unclear what Mr. Prigozhin got out of the deal, though it’s hard to imagine Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – whom Mr. Prigozhin accused of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of starving his forces of ammunition – remaining in his post. Also unknown is what persuaded Mr. Prigozhin to abandon his move on Moscow just when it looked like it might succeed, or why he would feel safe in Belarus, which is closely allied with the Kremlin, after Mr. Putin accused him of treason on Saturday.
While Mr. Putin survived the challenge – the biggest of his 24 years as either president or prime minister of the Russian Federation – he has never looked weaker than he does now. After 16 months of humiliating military failures in Ukraine, a war of Mr. Putin’s choosing, it’s now clear that his regime is vulnerable on the home front as well.
But there aren’t any viable democrats able to take advantage of Mr. Putin’s moment of weakness. The most popular opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, is in jail on trumped-up charges that could keep him behind bars for decades. Most of the rest of the President’s critics fled the country years ago.
That leaves it up to the men with guns – the generals and the heads of Russia’s various security services – to decide whether they stand by Mr. Putin, or whether it’s time for the 70-year-old ex-KGB agent to finally leave the Kremlin.
The possibility of a sudden change of power in Moscow triggered emergency meetings in capitals around the world, as leaders tried to grapple with the implications. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday morning – though, reflecting the high stakes, no public statements were made afterward. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called other G7 foreign ministers, including Canada’s, as well as his counterparts in Ukraine and Turkey. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, meanwhile, flew to Beijing on Sunday to brief Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
One of Saturday’s most surprising moments was exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s call for his country’s democratic opposition to lend their support to Mr. Prigozhin. Here was one of the leading lights of the pro-democracy movement – someone who had spent a decade in jail for opposing Mr. Putin – throwing his shoulder behind a coup attempt led by a mercenary group that has been accused of multiple war crimes in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa.
Mr. Prigozhin himself has also been indicted by a U.S. grand jury for allegedly meddling in the 2016 election, when a “troll farm” under his control used social media to boost Donald Trump’s campaign and damage Hillary Clinton’s. And yet Mr. Khodorkovsky saw the violent mercenary as preferable to the long-ruling Mr. Putin.
“As strange as it may sound, I think anti-war Russians should support Prigozhin in this moment,” Mr. Khodorkovsky wrote on Twitter as the Wagner convoy approached Moscow. “He’s no ally of ours, and this support will be very temporary and conditional, but his march is a huge blow to Putin’s legitimacy, and anything that fractures the regime is good.”
Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said many Russian democrats were “quite disappointed” with Mr. Khodorkovsky’s willingness to back a lawless mercenary group. But Mr. Ashurkov – who, like Mr. Khodorkovsky, is living in exile in London – said the uprising had nonetheless produced several positives.
“While the exact details of what happened over the last two days are not entirely clear, one thing is certain: The outcome is good for Ukraine – as a significant part of Russian forces is distracted from the battlefield – and for positive change in Russia, as Putin’s position and image in Russia suffered,” Mr. Ashurkov told The Globe and Mail on Sunday.
Many in Ukraine also found themselves in the unfamiliar position of rooting for Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner, the same ruthless fighters who earlier this year led the destruction of the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Wagner mutiny had demonstrated “that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Zelensky called on Russians to bring an end to the war in Ukraine – and the spreading chaos in their own country – by removing Mr. Putin from office.
“What will you, Russians, do? The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person is in the Kremlin, the more disasters there will be.”
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, June 25, 2023