LONDON — The impact of the fiercest ever challenge to Vladimir Putin’s 23-year presidency was still reverberating among Moscow’s elites Monday as questions swirled over whether the Russian president had, for a moment at least, lost control of the country.
But the armed insurrection by the leader of the Wagner mercenary group has shattered the carefully crafted myth that was the cornerstone of Putin’s presidency — that he represented stability and strength — and many in the upper reaches of Russian politics and business wonder whether he can recover from it. Some even suggested that a search for Putin’s successor could be underway.
“Putin showed the entire world and the elite he is no one and not capable of doing anything,” said one influential Moscow businessman. “It is a total collapse of his reputation.”
“Games are being played that no one understands,” said a Russian official close to top diplomatic circles. “Control of the country has been partly lost.”
Members of the Moscow elite were grappling with how it had been possible for the renegade force of Wagner mercenaries to so easily seize control of the main command center for the Russian Army’s war in Ukraine in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don without facing resistance, and then progress hundreds of miles along the road to Moscow before Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, eventually decided to turn his troops back.
“How is it possible for them to drive tanks hundreds of kilometers north toward Moscow and not be stopped,” said an associate of a Moscow billionaire. “There was no resistance.”
“When you have columns of thousands of people marching and no one can stop it, the loss of control is evident,” said one Russian billionaire who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution.
Putin insisted in his address that all steps had been taken on his direct order to “avoid major bloodshed.” He explained that time had to be given to “those who made the mistake” to “recognize that their actions had been decisively rejected by society” and that what they were doing was leading to “tragic and destructive consequences for Russia.”
But questions persisted about how Putin could have allowed Prigozhin, a close associate since the 1990s, to escape charges for mounting an armed insurrection — in particular since his forces shot down helicopters and a military plane, and killed at least 13 Russian servicemen, according to Russian military bloggers. After halting his troops, Prighozin moved to Belarus from where, judging by an audio message he released on Monday, he intends to continue to operate his Wagner private mercenary group.
“This should be a terrorism case. These were very serious crimes,” said the first Moscow businessman. “But again, nothing has been done.”
Prigozhin insisted in the audio message posted on Telegram on Monday — his first statement since he agreed to halt his march on Moscow — that he was trying to ensure the survival of his Wagner Group and was not attempting to topple Putin. He said he feared his group would be subsumed by the Russian military and was trying to make sure those who committed “a huge number of mistakes” in the war in Ukraine would be punished. The Wagner leader’s verbal assaults on Russia’s military leadership, which he has been leveling for months, has exposed deep divisions within the Russian elite about the conduct of Putin’s war, as well as over the Russian president’s overall policies.
The events of the last few days “show the country is not heading in the right direction,” said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant. “If nothing is changed, this will happen again for sure.”
Two Moscow business executives suggested Prigozhin’s mercenaries would not have been able to progress so far unhindered on the road to Moscow if part of the Russian security services had not been backing them. Chechen fighters dispatched to Rostov-on-Don did not appear to do anything, one of the Moscow businessmen said, while other forces sent to counter the Wagner forces blew up only one fuel station in Rostov while leaving another, much bigger one in Voronezh, further along the route to Moscow, intact. Those regular Russian forces only blew up one bridge, in an attempt to slow the insurrection’s progress.
“It was as if they were only acting to show the president they were doing something, but actually they were doing nothing, and the Russian president didn’t control anything,” this businessman said. Prigozhin’s battle over the leadership of the Russian armed forces could represent a deeper struggle within the Russia security services over the future Russian presidency, he suggested.
Most fateful for the Russian president’s image was his decision to strike a deal with Prigozhin rather than risk a potentially bloody battle if the Wagner leader’s men reached Moscow’s outskirts, where special forces were preparing to defend the capital, analysts and business executives said.
“For the elite this is very problematic. Because from the point of view of optics, Putin looks weak and looks like a figure who got frightened and was forced to compromise,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik, a Russian political consultancy now based in Paris. “But from a subjective point of view, Putin came out of the situation successfully for himself. The alternative was a serious bloody battle on the outskirts of Moscow, which would have been worse.”
Questions remained over whether the deal reached with Prigozhin will hold, with temptations high on both sides to renege on promises made “under condition of shock,” Stanovaya said.
Prigozhin’s rebellion “exposed many vulnerabilities in the regime,” Stanovaya added. “Putin will take this very seriously and will try to cover the weak points.”
But others said the clock was already ticking on his rule. Some in the Kremlin are “looking now for a successor, and if they look for too long, then someone else will find one for them,” said the Russian official, close to top Russian diplomatic circles, noting that the Ukrainian armed forces were already taking advantage of the chaos in Moscow to make progress in their counteroffensive.
“Ukraine has been pressing forward toward Dnipro, Kherson and Bakhmut. In 1917, mutiny happened and Russia lost the First World War and the regime fell. In 1991 Russia lost the Afghan war and the regime fell. If we lose the Ukraine war, the regime will fall and we won’t be able to get it back.”