June 26, 2023


'The People Are Silent': The Main Reason the Wagner Mutiny Bodes Ill for Putin (LEON ARON, 06/25/2023, Politico)

Like a powerful searchlight, the 48-hour rebellion illuminated the murky innards of the Putin regime including the military's divided allegiances, the seeming hollowness of the people's support for the regime and, by extension, the regime's shaky legitimacy. The images -- of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a famous night owl, addressing the nation in a dark suit and tie early on a Saturday morning; of mangled Russian helicopters felled by Wagner forces; and of residents of Rostov-on-Don jeering local police after the mutiny was ended -- do not bode well for the Kremlin.

Prigozhin had been pushing the envelope for months. Yet until very recently his obscenity-laden Telegram rants were directed at the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov. He hugely upped the ante this past Friday, when he dismissed as fabrications the reasons for invading Ukraine: a preemptive strike against NATO's alleged aggression and protecting the inhabitants of Russia-occupied Donbas from supposedly relentless Ukrainian shelling. Those were Putin's pretexts, so while Prigozhin blamed Shoigu for lying to Putin and didn't name Putin directly, everyone knew that the criticism was ultimately directed at the president.

And so Putin finally decided to end the long-running feud between Prigozhin and Shoigu and Gerasimov. After the Wagner chief refused to sign a "contract" subjugating his troops to the ministry of defense, Prigozhin was already guilty of insubordination and the military leaders' hands were untied. Whether or not they ordered missile strikes on the Wagner camp, as Prigozhin claimed, he apparently opted for dying like a soldier in a battle against Shoigu's and Gerasimov's regular troops to facing a firing squad for treason. (And when a third choice suddenly appeared, the offer of exile in Belarus in return for halting the advance on Moscow, Prigozhin apparently judged that there was enough of a guarantee in the Lukashenko deal keep him alive -- even though, a virtual Putin stooge, Lukashenko is hardly in a position to shield the rebel from Putin's retribution.)

Coups are a tricky thing for an authoritarian. Address the nation too quickly and you are deemed panicked. Wait longer and you come over as indecisive. Putin waited 24 hours. It is now clear why: Once you call it "treason" and threaten the mutineers with "tough" and "imminent" punishment, you'd better follow through. Putin likely hesitated because he doubted that his forces would follow those kinds of orders and he could look impotent as a result.

He was right. Regular troops appear to have melted away before the advancing Wagner forces. There was no resistance even in Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Apart from a few helicopter gunships, shot down by Wagner, no one attacked the "muzykanty," or "musicians," as the Wagnerites like to call themselves. Where were the bomber and jet fighter pilots, who could have pummeled the advancing columns from on high as they marched from the Ukrainian border to Rostov-on-Don?

Posted by at June 26, 2023 12:00 AM