Last Update: 25 JUN 2023
Russian President appearing before the cameras and talking about punishing "those behind the mutiny" effectively reminds political historians about how he had cemented his climb to power. In the 1990s Putin's strong-man approach to tackling the Chechnyan rebellion made him the ultimate heir apparent in the Kremlin when Boris Yeltsin--the first post-Soviet President--was in office. Putin had brutally crushed the rebellion in Chechnya to the admiration of all.
While Putin likens the current situation to the October Revolution during the First World War in the early 20th century, it does not appear that the rebellion had reached that magnitude. Wagner's Yevgeny Prigozhin was defiant and stated his determination to reach Moscow while he and his forces were in full control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
Rostov hosts the base of the Russian military's Southern Command and the closest major city to eastern Ukraine. With the mutiny, Russia's operations in Ukraine were effectively affected. Operationally, therefore, the mutiny did not help Russia. Reportedly Wagner withdrew its forces from the eastern front in Ukraine before the surprise mutiny. This effectively left only Russian regular forces in Ukraine. Wagner had been instrumental in recent battles in the Ukraine and such withdrawal was operationally consequential. In Bahkmut, Prigozhin and his men justified their inclusion in the war.
Politically, this move by Prigozhin has shaken the power base in Kremlin. It appears it is the most audacious and overt challenge to Putin and his associates since 2000. At a time Kremlin is whipping up public support to boost morale for a faltering war against Ukraine, this could not have emerged at a worse moment. While this may not lead to any revolutionary reaction from the opposition, it could boost their zeal to stand up to Putin. Currently, it is gagged with many activists behind bars. This could also lead to more crackdown against the opposition as the political leadership becomes preemptive to stop dissidents from taking advantage of the situation. It would be better to get out if your location is known as an opposition member against the Kremlin.
Furthermore, the development in southern Russia has ramifications for Eastern Europe and beyond. Close monitoring by European security forces would be necessary. Firstly, for someone whose power has gone almost unchecked for the past decades, the challenge could have made Putin become anything unexpected. Unusual situations could have unusual outcomes. Being in charge of one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, supervising a difficult war and having his power challenged in an unprecedented manner, nervousness and miscalculation could result. No, Putin was not likely to have lost it; however, human behavior is complex to predict.
Ukraine must be more meticulous during this time of unexpected turns in its conflict with Russia. Putin is well aware of the psychological gains the recent crisis within his borders will make for the Ukrainian forces. Consequently, he could have unleashed some chaos in Ukraine while he concentrated on quenching the fire lit by Prigozhin and his 25000 mercenary troops. The talk of Russian tactical nuclear armaments and the possibility of using them in Ukraine made the situation quite problematic.
On the flip side, the West has been quite clear about the consequences of using nuclear weapons in the conflagration. But then again, we may never know how the level with which the long-time ruler could have taken this threat. Already, his demeanor during the televised address gave clues about the magnitude of this threat.
At the individual level of analysis, Prigozhin, despite his assertion that Putin was not his target, had made an audacious move that depicted a lot about the entire Russian war in Ukraine. He claimed the Defence Ministry and military command were his targets. He disagreed with those calling his move a coup. However, some of his troops were moving towards Moscow at the time he made a U-turn.
On the surface, it looked like vociferous Prigozhin was doing what he knows best: talking and taking action. A deeper analysis could, however, suggest that the Wagner founder may know more than meets the eye. For someone close to Putin, he might have had valuable contacts and information about the actual strength of the Russian military and its war plans. It is more likely he knows the weaknesses and structural defects of the Russian military. His determination to reach Moscow means a lot to analysts and observers.
The decision by Prigozhin to stand down on the evening of Saturday does not cancel out the unprecedented challenge he posed to Putin's over two decades of "unquestioned" authority. There are both short-term and long-term ramifications to the day-long mutiny against the strong man in Russia.
In the short term, as has been seen on the ground, Ukraine has made tactical gains on the battlefield. While these do not give a certain determination of the outcome of the war, they cannot be ignored in the conflict that has become a war of attrition on some fronts. With mines and other fortifications on the frontlines, every incremental gain is consequential.
Also, there seems to be the removal of the veil of strength which has covered the Kremlin for the past decades. With the weakness of the regime laid bare, opposition elements within the country are likely to be emboldened in their activities albeit on the low. If Prigozhin could challenge Putin and the Defence Ministry from Rostov-on-Don and march towards Moscow--in fact--then any determination to challenge Putin could be effective.
On the global stage, western states supporting Ukraine with arms and economic aid would be emboldened by events on Saturday. They would be encouraged by the fact that Putin's perceived hold on power in Russia is not without cracks and potential challenges within his complex network of institutions. This could lead to these states increasing the supply of arms both in quantum and sophistication. Weapons that had been withheld from Ukraine could be handed to it sooner than later.
On the side of Putin and the Kremlin, there would be a frantic effort to do a lot to show the "continued" strength of the Russian state. Consequently, Putin could use the Ukraine theatre to prove a point. This could come in the form of escalation of the war by increasing missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and perhaps using more strategic armaments like hypersonic delivery systems.
Also, strategic allies of Russia could increase their military support for Moscow to boost its capacity in the Ukraine war. In the past year and over China, Iran and North Korea have been suspected of supplying arms at different times to Russia. Moscow looking weak after the mutiny will not make these states comfortable. Doing anything possible for their ally to regain its "strength" would be prioritized by these states.
Quite unlikely, this could lead to a situation where Russia finds a window to de-escalate hostilities in Ukraine and comprise some of the positions of Ukraine. This would not be an end in itself. Russia would ask for something in return. But most importantly Putin could take this course to concentrate on his vast territory with regards to keeping it under control. He would like to be known for what he knows best--creating order in Russia.
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