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Putin's system can't handle conflict
UPDATE: Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that his convoy has turned away from Moscow and is headed back to military bases. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, under an agreement brokered by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, Prigozhin will go to Belarus and the criminal case would be dropped against him. Below is the newsletter from earlier, analyzing one of the most dramatic days in Putin’s 23-year reign.
At the end of 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin elevated Vladimir Putin to the presidency. The following March, Putin won a presidential term in his own right against minimal opposition, and subsequently was anointed in similar elections that were neither free nor fair. (From 2008 to 2012, he was prime minister and had a handpicked president, Dmitry Medvedev.) The system that Putin created has been characterized by an absence of politics: different leaders or groups have not publicly vied for power. For many Russians, the absence of politics brought a perceived stability that had existed during the Soviet period and was missing during the Yeltsin years. For Putin, it was l’etat c’est moi.
On June 23, Priogzhin made a hostile challenge to the state, coming very close to challenging Putin himself. He released a 30-minute video on Telegram -- a social network which has been openly available in Russia -- where he declared that Putin's rationale for the full-scale invasion was bunk; an escalation from his prior criticisms about the way in which the war was conducted. The invasion was not about "denazifying" or "demilitarizing" Ukraine, he said. After Voldymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019, Prigozhin said that the Ukrainian leader could have struck a deal with Putin. "All that had to be done was to get down from Mount Olympus, go and negotiate with him," said Prigozhin. On the eve of the full-scale invasion, "The Armed Forces of Ukraine were not going to attack Russia with the NATO bloc,” he said.
Instead, Prigozhin cast the war against Ukraine as part of a long pattern of Russian kleptocracy. He said that from 2014 to 2022, various oligarchs, F.S.B., and members of the presidential administration plundered the occupied Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. By 2022, these groups wanted "more." He laid blame in two directions: Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu for launching the war for his own ambition and a group of oligarchs who wanted to plunder more assets from Ukraine and to appoint pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk as leader.
While Priogzhin tried to direct criticisms only at Shoigu and oligarchs, Prigozhin implicated Putin himself, who is the ultimate decision-maker and came up with the rationale for the war. "Right now, the MoD is trying to deceive the president and tell a story that there was insane aggression from the Ukrainian side," he said. Even taking his story at face value, which seems unlikely, the best reading is that Putin was being tricked by his own defense minister, who is not known for his intelligence.
Late on June 23, Prigozhin's paramilitary force began directly to challenge Putin's rule. Prigozhin released an audio message on Telegram accusing the Russian Ministry of Defense of killing a "huge amount" of his forces in a strike. (MoD promptly denied this; there's no independent corroboration of his claims.) The "evil brought by the military leadership of the country must be stopped," he vowed. "There’s 25,000 of us, and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country.” Russian security services promptly opened a criminal investigation into Prigozhin, accusing him of calling for "armed rebellion." Prigozhin clarified it was not a "military coup" but a "march for justice" to Moscow, some 600 miles away. However, Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev, deputy head of Russia’s military intelligence agency, said: "this is a coup."
On June 24, numerous videos on social media showed Wagner forces entering the Southern city of Rostov, blocking Defense Ministry buildings. Russian military vehicles were seen on the streets of Moscow. State television, which had until June 23 never mentioned Prigozhin, launched an emergency broadcast around 2 a.m. on June 24 repeating the Ministry of Defense's denials about the missile strike. Putin appeared on another emergency broadcast during the morning of June 24, denouncing Prigozhin's "stab in the back," saying the chief's forces would be crushed. Prigozhin responded with another video saying he wouldn’t surrender and Putin was in league with “scum.”
It's not clear what Prigozhin's endgame is. He doesn't have allies: the other major paramilitary figure, Ramzan Kadyrov, has sided with Putin. Putin has all the tools of the state at his disposal, and vowed to crush the rebellion -- but he hasn't so far given the order to fire on Wagner forces, so far, they have marched into Rostov without a shot. (Russian air forces later fired on Prigozhin’s forces near Voronezh, Reuters reported.)
In the June 23 video, Prigozhin said Russian lines are failing as Ukraine's counteroffensive goes on and commanders are forced to lie about their positions when reporting up the chain of command: "The general staff head, after a glass of vodka, screams like a woman, like a pig, demanding [troops] to return to the positions over the phone. What can the commander say? They can say they've returned, and draw a red line on the map a few kilometers to the north than in reality."
His comments about the battlefield are interesting, since Western officials have said to CNN that the counteroffensive is "not meeting expectations." Ukraine, which has been cunning in its military strategy, will likely take advantage of the chaos in some way on the battlefield. But whatever the outcome of this rebellion, Prigozhin has shown how fragile the system Putin has built is.
Autocracies appear strong and indivisible from the outside. But they are actually brittle: think of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's disastrous zero COVID policy or widespread protests in Iran against the misogynist treatment of women. But Russia's war in Ukraine is more straining than either of these events, and that's why the system appears to be breaking down.
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