The Independent view

Putin is weakened – but the endgame could be a dangerous one

Editorial: It is remarkable that the Wagner mercenary chief is a free man – but the historical omens for Putin do not look good

Sunday 25 June 2023 20:35 BST
The president’s divide and rule strategy has come back to bite him
The president’s divide and rule strategy has come back to bite him (AP)

Although the immediate crisis and threat of civil war in Russia has passed, this is a dangerous moment – not just for Vladimir Putin but also for Ukraine and its allies in the West.

The Russian president may never recover his authority after the dramatic events on Saturday, which saw Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries march to within 125 miles of Moscow in protest at the handling of the war in Ukraine by Russia’s military leaders. While he called off his armed mutiny to prevent bloodshed and, according to the Kremlin, agreed to move to Belarus, there were no immediate winners in the extraordinary stand-off between Mr Putin and his one-time cook and fixer.

Although most Russians rely on the country’s state-controlled media for their news, some will surely wonder why Wagner fighters hailed as “heroes” for their role against Ukraine appeared to turn against the president, who accused them of treason. They may also realise that none of this chaos would be happening without Mr Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, however he dresses it up as necessary to defend Russia against malign forces in the West. Suddenly, the strong man looks weak, his iron grip on his country loosened.

While Mr Prigozhin’s targets were Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, his rebellion was also aimed at the supreme commander-in-chief – Mr Putin – and leaves him facing the biggest challenge in his 23 years in power.

The president’s divide and rule strategy – dismantling the state apparatus and allowing others like private armies to fill the vacuum – has come back to bite him. He likes to play the supreme leader who resolves disputes, but allowed the one between Mr Prigozhin and Mr Shoigu to spiral out of control.

It is remarkable that Mr Prigozhin appears to be a free man and that the mercenaries who joined his march on Moscow will also escape punishment. Leaders of previous coups in Russia were imprisoned, or worse. But history is ominous for Mr Putin: the failed coups of 1917 (which he invoked in his unusually nervous address to the nation) and 1991 were soon followed by dramatic change.

However, if this is the beginning of the end for the Putin regime (as it might well be), the endgame could still be a dangerous one.

In the short term, the drama in Russia could give Ukraine a timely boost as its long-awaited counteroffensive approaches a critical point. Progress to date has been slow, so this might be the moment when Ukraine deploys the forces it has held in reserve as it tries to punch a hole in Russia’s well-prepared defences. The rebellion at the weekend will hardly improve the morale of Russia’s already demoralised troops.

While the crisis facing Mr Putin is an opportunity for Volodymyr Zelensky, it could also pose a threat. The Russian leader will be even more desperate to halt the Ukrainian advance and might be tempted to lash out. Since the Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed, there have been fears in Ukraine that Russia could attack the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

The status and role of Mr Prigozhin in Belarus, Russia’s staunchest ally, is unclear. Ukraine will worry he might re-emerge as leader of an assault on Kyiv from the north, forcing Ukraine to fight on another front.

Like Ukraine, the West should be careful what it wishes for. Its leaders, including Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Rishi Sunak, who spoke on Saturday, should continue to keep their own counsel on what is an internal matter for Russia, rather than inflame the situation and help Mr Putin’s customary attempt to blame his self-made problems on the West.

The grim reality for the West is that Mr Putin’s eventual fall could usher in an even more hardline nationalist leader, who might be prepared to exploit the country’s possession of nuclear weapons to cause even greater instability and uncertainty for the whole world.

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