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The shattered myth of Putin as an invincible ruler of the Russian Federation

The shattered myth of Putin as an invincible ruler of the Russian Federation
Russian servicemen block a street in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on 24 June 2023. Security and armoured vehicles were deployed after the Wagner Group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video that his troops had occupied the building of the headquarters of the Southern Military District, demanding a meeting with Russian defence chiefs. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Arkady Budnitsky)

The astonishing revolt by the Wagner Group mercenaries and their would-be march on Moscow has now shattered even further the myth of Vladimir Putin’s invincibility. This, in turn, poses some important questions for a South African government that has, so far, largely been willing to tug the forelock towards Russia.

On Saturday, it seemed as if the very fabric of Vladimir Putin’s Russian empire was coming apart on international television – live and in colour.

Russia’s occupation of around 20% of Ukraine had already been coming under pressure from Ukraine’s long-awaited, spring/summer counteroffensive and then, Ukraine’s army was supplied with advanced Western military hardware. Moreover, many of its units had also been drilled in those complex, combined arms tactics used by Western armies as well.

Until Saturday, the big question seemed to be whether Russia’s military would be able to withstand such an attack – or would it break under this pressure, forcing a broad retreat from territory it had occupied since February 2022.

In recent months, especially in the fierce fighting around the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the mercenary army of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group was Russia’s most effective fighting force, even as it continued with its various predatory, extractive activities in a swathe of countries across Central and Western Africa.

In the meantime, though, Prigozhin had grown increasingly scathing in his criticisms of Russia’s military. In Prigozhin’s view, the Russian military had failed to supply his fighters with sufficient weaponry and ammunition, and that, further, the regular army simply hadn’t been fighting hard enough, in contrast with his Wagner fighters.

But his harshest scorn was directed specifically towards the top leadership of the Russian military — the Defence Minister, General Sergei Shoigu, and General Valery Gerasimov — although not Russia’s president. (For years, Prigozhin and Putin had nurtured a mutually beneficial partnership, with the former rising from being an ex-con to a hotdog vendor, then to restaurateur and then a major catering contractor for Russian military and government institutions. From there he became the leader of the Wagner Group and thus was the gloved hand of many of Putin’s harder-edged policies and international military activities.)

Then, on Saturday, after prior hints connected to pulling his soldiers (largely made up of ex-convicts, convicts recruited while serving time, and former special forces soldiers) from the fighting in Ukraine, Prigozhin led his forces in seizing the city of Rostov-on-Don, replete with major military logistics and support bases, southeast of Ukraine.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wagner-in-Chief: Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s rebelling bulldog of war?

Surprisingly, there seemed to be virtually no opposition to this sudden move. By this time, Muscovites had been told to stay off the streets and stay home on Monday, in view of what might happen. Prigozhin then sent his forces northwards to Moscow, by way of the city of Voronezh – but then, suddenly, unexpectedly, he ordered a halt to this drive, around 200km south of Russia’s capital.

Agreement among thieves and thugs

In a day replete with some astonishing volte faces and abrupt twists, Prigozhin then ordered his troops to return the way they had come, back to Rostov – this coming after Putin had stopped calling them and their leader “individuals engaged in treasonous actions”. Instead, it was announced that a settlement had been reached through the good offices of Alexander Lukashenko, the very long-time president of Belarus, a man heretofore seen as something of a subservient lackey of Putin. 

In the announced settlement – or perhaps better described as an agreement among thieves and thugs – Prigozhin agreed to go to Belarus (rather like Caesar outside Rome, biding his time before crossing a certain river, perhaps), while the troops, who just hours before had been tagged as treasonous mutineers, could now join the Russian Federation’s military if they so wished. No harm, no foul, apparently.

Lest one day we forget: With Putin’s Russia, South Africa is committing a historic mistake

Was this whole thing a charade, a version of Southeast Asian shadow puppet theatre, and with an outcome planned in advance to bring some sort of balance back in play among Russian forces and military leaders? In this scenario, what had happened was yet one more version of Putin’s well-known propensity (like all successful authoritarians) to balance the jostling forces and personalities around him to ensure his continued control. 

Or, alternatively, was this a circumstance in which a real fissure had opened up, yielding the possibilities of actual, lethal civil insurrection brought on by the hard men at the top? In that version, its resolution was one that has been hastily papered over, making do with a hurried, awkward agreement, and presided over by Putin’s loyal satrapy, Belarus.

Roster of repercussions

Regardless of the version one chooses (and there are yet other variants), there will be a whole roster of repercussions, even if they remain murky at this time.

First, of course, is the impact this might-have-been-real insurrection may have on the still-ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Public knowledge – both internationally and within Russia itself – of this split among the country’s military moguls and a just-averted civil conflict should make it harder to convince ordinary Russian soldiers, most of whom are conscripts, that this Ukraine invasion is a cause worth dying for, rather than some kind of poorly carried out Ponzi scheme being played out with their lives. As a possible parallel to their situation now, they may increasingly feel like those American grunts in Vietnam around 1972 or 73, knowing the cause was beyond them, even as the real possibility of death remained. 

This author has another memory to offer that has a much closer connection to Russia and to yet another foolish war of choice. Back in 1904, the author’s paternal grandfather was conscripted into the tsarist army in one of those levies where the enlistment officers rode into a settlement in the shtetl and demanded a quota of young men for the army’s 20-year enlistment regimen.

Granddad knew something about the world and realised he was en route to become cannon fodder in Tsar Nicholas II’s war of choice against Japan and that his next stop would be as part of an army sent on an unsuccessful mission to relieve the Japanese siege of the unfortunate Russian garrison at Port Arthur in Manchuria. Grandfather fled this no-win situation and, instead, hotfooted it to the nearest German port, boarded the first ship available and ended up in Philadelphia instead of Manchuria. One must be wondering now, just how many Russian conscripts are starting to feel something of the same thing.

A collapse in the morale of the Russian army fighting in Ukraine may, in turn, give heart to the Ukrainians that their goal of liberating the occupied territory is well worth fighting for (if their strategy and tactics are effective and if their continuing access to top tier military materiel is sufficient) until they are successful – even as the Russians they are facing will be increasingly reluctant to die for Putin’s imaginary pan-Russian world.

That world would be a mythic place dreamt up by the romantic Russian historians Putin favours where Russians and Ukrainians – and presumably unwitting folks in Belarus as well – are all part of one happy chorus. This would be despite the reality that Russia has been pounding the bejeezus out of Ukraine’s cities, power grid and other infrastructure with their missiles, drone bombs and artillery for a year and a half.

Concurrently, in both Russia and the world more generally, the myth of Vladimir Putin’s total control as an invincible, supremely crafty, capable ruler of the Russian Federation has now been shattered as a result of Saturday’s antics. Yes, it is true the Wagner Group insurrection was halted before reaching Moscow, but only through some unexpected, outside assistance from Belarus. 

Moreover, the Putin regime apparently seems to have been caught unaware by Prigozhin’s decision to march on Moscow, despite weeks of increasingly bitter criticism from his corner about the Russian military’s strategic misconceptions and erratic supply chains.

If Putin is not yet being portrayed as an emperor sans clothes, he now can be viewed as one who is wearing hand-me-down running shorts and takkies, a faded, torn crop top and a funny hat bearing a label that reads, “I am still king of the infinite universe, so there! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”.

By the way, one might also somewhat discount the leaked word from the American intelligence community that it had known for some time that something was afoot with the Wagner Group. If that had been the case, top officials would have stayed much closer to home in the days leading up to this past Saturday.

The intelligence offices, nevertheless, needed to say, after the fact, “Aha! We knew something was coming”. That would be because they would have looked rather foolish if they didn’t know and hadn’t given the White House a real heads up.

Part of the larger problem – for the US and other Nato members – is that Russia remains very well-endowed with nuclear weapons, 7,000 thousand of them. Anything that might create uncertainty in the chain of command and who has control over such hardware becomes a real concern for countries that represent potential targets for such weapons – weapons that might conceivably be in the hands of other renegade military officers. Accordingly, events like those on Saturday cause alarm because they increase uncertainty and risk to the global security environment.

That, of course, should imply governments globally must begin thinking about and looking much more carefully at the likely successors to Putin emerging from the Kremlin, jostling to become primus inter pares and, eventually, the actual leader. Such a scenario might be something in the order of the pushing and shoving that began as Stalin was dying, or the moment Khrushchev was dismissed by his subordinates, or even the end game for Mikhail Gorbachev in public life. This weekend has probably emboldened some in the Kremlin’s inner circle to consider just how they might act upon such thoughts in future.

Wagner’s future role in Africa

Closer to South Africa, with Yevgeni Prigozhin now beyond the immediate reach of the Russian government and thus outside direct connections to the resources and personnel of the Russian state (including those convicts and ex-cons to serve as its hoplites), there will be some serious discussions about the leadership and fate of the Wagner Group’s “enterprises” across Africa – and their revenues from mineral extraction. (There will also be the matter of his media enterprises inside Russia and who ends up controlling those as well.)

Would Prigozhin still be able to manage his empire, or will it be carved up into smaller fiefdoms, or even wither away as a discrete entity? No one really knows the answers to such questions. However, the South African government should pay much more attention to this source of disequilibrium in various African nations than it has done, so far.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa gets bad vibes from Putin — but European leaders stream into SA

Concurrently, now may also be the time to begin a rethink about the way South Africa has become hitched to Russian strategic conceptions and actions. Is the now-evident instability in Russia (and a weakened Putin) something that should encourage South Africa to re-examine its commitment to an invitation to Vladimir Putin to attend a BRICS leaders meeting in the near future? This should be seen in tandem with the awkward requirement to arrest Putin pursuant to an International Criminal Court warrant.

In addition, there has been South Africa’s willingness, so far, to avert its eyes over Russian military actions that seek to destroy a neighbour state, to disrupt the global flow of food stocks (especially to food-insecure African nations) and to despoil several other African states and exploit their minerals. All these questions deserve to be thoroughly re-examined.

So at least at this point, observers and policymakers are left with a host of questions; and, so far at least, no easy answers about what must be done to deal with them. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    I would not drink tea with Prigozhin anytime soon.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    “Is the now-evident instability in Russia (and a weakened Putin) something that should encourage South Africa to re-examine its commitment to an invitation to Vladimir Putin to attend a BRICS leaders meeting in the near future? This should be seen in tandem with the awkward requirement to arrest Putin pursuant to an International Criminal Court warrant.”

    Is still an issue? Can anyone really see Putin leaving Russia anytime soon?

  • Kathryn Coulson Coulson says:

    Hmm could it not be a ruse to get Wagner much closer to Kiev and the perfect springboard to the capital?
    Mercenaries instead of Belarus getting it’s hands dirty

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